When did love and theft become love and debt? In 2002, Bono visited the Oprah Winfrey Show to promote DATA, the NGO that worked to eradicate the debt of African countries, as well as end the crisis of AIDS on the continent. Four years later, he returned to Harpo Studios to launch Product RED in the US. This time, he came not to ask for money on behalf of African nations, but to promote products, in the name of love for Africans. While DATA lobbied for direct aid from governmental authorities and conscientious citizens, Product RED convinced corporations to brand some of their products as RED, and give up to 50 percent of the profits on brand sales to programs and services in Africa. On the day of the launch, Oprah and Bono showed the audience how RED works. In the middle of the show, they left the studio and headed to Michigan Avenue in Chicago for a shopping spree at the downtown GAP. There, the two perused the Red apparel: RED GAP jeans, RED GAP t-shirts, RED Converse shoes. Oprah declared: “I want the whole world to go RED.”

Product RED is but one example of a consumer religion that infuses brand products with moral value and transforms product purchase into spiritual practice. Its moralism is revivalist, as it confronts the consumer with the salvific consequences of personal choice. This brand of consumer religion demonstrates the religious difference that defines millennial capitalism, the difference between mere personal consumption and salvific social purchase. Millennial capitalism is, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff argue, “a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation; a capitalism that, if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe of the marginalized and disempowered.” To get a sense of how this works, take, for example, the last lines of the RED Manifesto:

(RED) is not a charity. It is simply a business model. You buy (RED) stuff. We get the money. Buy the pills and distribute them…. If they don’t get the pills. They die. We don’t want them to die. We want to give them the pills. And we can. And you can. And it’s easy. All you have to do is upgrade your choice.

When Product RED first launched, marketers made it easy to calculate the moral value of brand purchases by including on the website an “Impact Calculator,” with which consumers measured how much their personal purchases would impact lives in Africa. One Armani watch, for example, saves seven African lives. RED no longer lets the consumer use the actual calculator, but it still offers a calculated moral value for its products. If you are considering RED Beats by Dre for a holiday gift, then you should know that not only are the headphones “more comfortable than ever,” but that for $199.95, you also provide seventeen days of life-saving pills.

Here, I am interested in the moral sincerity Bono promotes in Product RED and its link to his prophetic desire for musical authenticity in U2. Bono’s sincere mode is, I argue, revealed as a singular expression of religious heart: a spiritual call for redemptive love through his musical performances and political advocacy for Africa. And that love for Africa Bono discovers in the cultural traditions of American minstrelsy, which Eric Lott described in the terms of white love for black bodies and white theft of black soul. It is that religious sincerity that creates the possibility of a reformed American pop-culture game in which the minstrel rules feel different, almost reversed, as the admirer finds in the object of affection an opportunity not to steal, but to give, out of a sense of obligation, to resolve a moral debt. But as the giver gives to the one they see in need, that very gift they give on credit, and thus they take upon themselves as Christ did for the sinner, the debt they forgive. The spiritual practice Product RED offers the consumer class is to be like Jesus and help your economic neighbor. This is the defining feature of millennial capitalism. For it is the missionary obligation—to spend to give, in order to save someone else, from neglect, poverty, illness, or death—that transforms the individual consumer into a religious actor. To be a Good Samaritan. But not just a Good Samaritan. Remember the class distinction. Be a Good-looking Samaritan.


When did love and theft become love and debt? In 1988, Bono, writing under his given name Paul Hewson, published a reflective piece on the Irishness of the group’s music. He began with a childhood recollection, a memory of a placeless youth. Hewson then connected this with what he used to think of U2’s origins—that “U2 came out of a void, a black hole; we seemed completely rootless.” To make the point he recounted a meeting with Bob Dylan, now well documented by U2 biographers, critics, commentators, and theologians—cyclically cited in the collective print of U2 studies (yes, there is now such a thing as U2 studies). Back in ’85 at Slane Castle, Hewson remembers Dylan:

[Sitting] there talking about the McPeeke Family…this Irish group I’d never even heard of…and how he used to hang around backstage at Makem & Clancy concerts—yeah, I said, I remember they used to be on the Late Late Show!…and then I began to listen more carefully to the bold and bald sound of Irish Folk singers… I told Dylan and Van Morrison who was there at the time, that I felt we didn’t belong to any tradition, it was like we were lost in space, floating over many traditions but not belonging to any one of them. It then struck us that there was a journey to be undertaken. There was something to be discovered.

The journey for Hewson, up to that point in ‘88, had taken Bono and U2 to America to discover black music, and through black music, find their Irishness: “We started looking back into American music, Gospel, Blues, the likes of Robert Johnson…John Lee Hooker. Old songs of fear and faith…[and] we found the ‘Irish Thing’ through the American: Gospel, Blues, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, these became passports home.”

But what exactly was the “Irish Thing” that Hewson discovered through American songs of fear and faith? For Hewson, it was the emotion, the passion, the antithesis of UK “cool” that the Irish had in common with African Americans. “Though this passion to me is an Irish characteristic,” he wrote, “in American blacks it’s called soul.”


To invoke the King of rock ‘n’ roll in order to mime his musical mimicry politically, and shout love sincere in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., to make you see the racial connection and experience the messianic moment.


U2 was not the first European band to find its identity in the racialized tropes of American popular music. A long list of British Blues bands, with the Stones on the top, did much the same thing. But Hewson as Bono was attempting something different than Mick Jagger as minstrel. His persona was a sincere sexual being, a born-again self, with an evangelical soul. The Irish Thing was not the Little Red Rooster, even if both Bono and Jagger committed the same transgression: of love for black bodies and theft of black soul. For Hewson, the implied difference between U2 and the British bands was that against the backdrop of the English scene, “The Irish, like the blacks, feel like outsiders.” To Hewson, this outsider status was both musical and political for U2: the two were inseparable. To sing was a political act. And to sing from below looking up, on your knees and like you mean it, signified the class difference between the oppressed and the oppressor, the activist and the aggressor. For implied in Hewson’s narrative, the Irish were to England what blacks were to America: beating hearts of colonial empire, musical souls trapped in colonized bodies.[1]

The journey to America for Bono and U2, the musical voyage of Irish discovery, took a cultural route similar to their migrant forebears, who claimed whiteness in America through blackface minstrel performances. This pop-culture route traversed the narrative arc that Eric Lott described in the terms of the blackface minstrel show, as a “simultaneous drawing up and crossing of racial boundaries” and a “mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation.” For Lott, blackface signified white working class desire for transracial union, but because this desire was expressed solely in racial terms, without dissolving class distinctions, the love remained distant. Sobered by class ambition, whites stole what they considered the soul of blackness, while maintaining racial boundaries that marked communal distance, appropriating stage enchantments of intoxicating enthusiasm and pisser charisma for psychological privilege and economic gain.

Nowhere in the U2 catalog are the cultural workings of minstrel love and theft as self-obvious as in the Rattle and Hum documentary film and album, released in 1988, the same year Hewson wrote about his American journey from black to Irishness. Rattle and Hum was U2’s coming to Elvis moment, with visits to Graceland and Sun Records. It was their attempt to place themselves within American gospel and blues musical traditions. To invoke the King of rock ‘n’ roll in order to mime his musical mimicry politically, and shout love sincere in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., to make you see the racial connection and experience the messianic moment. When Bono would later speak about forgiving African debts, he would demand that we “feel like we’re making history.”

Rattle and Hum was musically saturated with that engineered feeling. Shot in timeless black and white, the documentary shows the band arriving on the American music scene as a private plane on a public runway—distant enough to be self-important, but visible enough to be audience accessible. The viewer gets the feeling. The band has made it. They are at the gate. And now that they have your attention, they would like to let you know that the band members, particularly Bono, though Irish, possess the emotional musical quality that marks the black essence of American music. Rattle and Hum self-consciously captures Bono performing several transracial musical unions, with a level of nauseating sincerity that erodes ironic conceit. Because he offers no attempt to hide it. You better believe he believes it. Between the documentary and the record, Bono soul sweats with B. B. King, performs with the Harlem Gospel Choir, and gives a political speech about South African apartheid, with references to Little Steven, Desmond Tutu, and a man in a shantytown just outside of Johannesburg.


They do all this on credit, taking on consumer debt in the image of debt relief. To practice the very thing you seek to reform in others is the secular irony of modern religion.


After ’88, the transracial tropes of Rattle and Hum would prove standard fare for U2. U2 would reach artistically with Achtung Baby and attempt self-satire with Pop, but always return in concerts, videos, and later albums to what got them there: their love for black bodies and theft of black soul. Bono’s mantra: “The goal is soul.” His political vision: an “African dream.” What began as U2’s journey to America to discover black soul in the late 20th century would continue into the 21st century with Bono bridging “Dr. King’s America to Nelson Mandela’s Africa.” In American gospel and blues, U2 found its musical authenticity. And from his journey to America, Bono found his love for Africa: the source of his prophetic charisma and religious power. One love. Musical theft.


But when did love and theft become love and debt? The antebellum rules of blackface minstrelsy persisted in American popular culture through the twentieth century to the present. What was once a colonial attempt to control black bodies (see Birth of a Nation) has more recently been used ironically, as critical commentary on the colonizers (see Tropic Thunder. Why else would Robert Downey Jr. agree to do that?) Bono, though, is misfit for irony. It is not his thing. See the lemon that was PopMart. And his evangelical audience doesn’t understand irony, anyway. It is always and only good news. So Bono’s spiritual love of black bodies has to be just that, good news, even as he confesses to the crime of musical theft with the obvious fact that class difference is never dissolved—nothing wrong with making money, gotta be a good looking Samaritan—and the economic axioms remain unchallenged, of intellectual property, legal contracts and record deals. Critics of U2, Bono, and his promotions of Product RED, often cite this irony. He, the band, the corporations, they all make money on a white consumer class by selling them the feeling of social justice and political aid to blacks in America and Africa. But then again, as I noted at the outset, how is that all that different in musical terms than how the Stones, or Zeppelin, or Elvis, imagined black gospel and blues, appropriated it, and made money and a career with it?

The difference, the religious difference of millennial capitalism, the interesting difference, is, I think, that by virtue of the political seriousness of his religious sincerity, Bono appears to reverse the pop-culture game of minstrelsy at a historical moment when first world nation-states, the colonizers, are trying to reintegrate former colonial territories, now independent nation-states, into the global economy, in order to expand consumer markets. To convert the colonized subject to a neoliberal consumer requires priestly power. Bono provides the political services of the religious broker, and brings to the table spiritual capital. Lobbying European and American leaders for debt relief for African nations, Bono helps integrate those nations into global free markets. Bono has worked with Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia economist, to reimagine the place of Africa in the World Polity. He has converted numerous politicians from Bill Clinton to Jesse Helms to his African cause. And he famously moved Helms to tears, due in no small part to what observer Eunice Shriver remembered as Bono’s ability to connect to Helms “in a spiritual way” and persuade him through his “sincerity and evident knowledge.” This is the good news. The appearance of a reversal: of love replacing theft, of forgiveness replacing debt.


So when did love and theft become love and debt? In 1988, the year of Rattle and Hum, the United States national debt stood at 2.6 trillion dollars. By comparison, in the late 1980s, the collective debt of African nations was roughly 270 billion, or one tenth of the U.S. debt. The African debt, though, was deemed a crisis because its debt to GDP ratio was vastly higher than the US or European nations. In terms of actual debt—forgetting for a minute the economic rules of the game, that is, about class distinctions, resource extraction, and mortgage rating agencies—the US obviously has the higher sheer amount of debt. And consider that while debt relief to sub-Saharan African nations since 2000 helped decrease overall debt to official lenders like governments, the World Bank, and IMF, the region’s debt to private lenders has steadily increased, such that it now surpasses debt to official lenders. In 2015, that private debt stood just above the roughly 150 billion owed to official lenders. Consider also that in 2000, US national debt stood at 6 trillion and is now over 18 trillion (or 60 times greater than sub-Saharan African official and private debt combined). Since 2000, US household debt has remained higher than household disposable income. From Africa to America, rising debt is a common trend, but to see one and not the other as a crisis requires a certain economic perspective on religious difference. It is to classify one in need and the other obligated to meet that need. And it is to believe that the financial obligation to give is a moral duty in the missionary terms of evangelical Christianity, as prophetic intervention in the spiritual balance of life and death.


Sincerity is that which removes the Hallmark quotation marks from “I love you,” and gives the consumer the ability to judge between this card and that one, and buy the one with real religious value, not as love for sale, but love for real.


As religious studies scholars well know, in the nineteenth century, European and American colonists and missionaries in Africa were haunted by the very practices they discovered in their primitive subjects, whether fetishism or animism or possession. Then, as now, religion provided a system to distinguish good from bad. It hid the irony that in the colonial taxonomy of good religion and bad superstition (now, good debt and debt crisis) the modern had, to rephrase Lott, simultaneous drawn up and crossed categorical boundaries. The gift of debt relief to Africa in DATA is in the Red Campaign the obligation of credit card debt to the American consumer. Americans purchase RED products, from Converse to Starbucks, kicks to caffeine, on credit. In 2006, one of the first Red Campaign products was a RED American Express Credit Card. What RED sells is love, love for Africa, love for black bodies. But that love is recast not as a theft, but rather as a gift, bought on credit. There is, of course, still theft in the system, but it is hidden within it, as market derivative. But for the pop-culture consumer, the minstrel game that Bono plays is now about debt, as gift on credit, and not about theft, just as its racial logics are no longer expressed as colonial racism but are instead recast as neoliberal multiculturalism.

Bono reverses the minstrel game of American popular culture, replacing the racial irony of love and theft with the religious sincerity of love and debt. He does this through U2 and his political advocacy for economic and health reform in Africa, including his work with the Drop the Debt and product Red campaigns. These campaigns economically function to expand credit markets in the US through the moral consumption of African debt and health reform. In Ritual and Its Consequences, Adam Seligman and his co-authors argue that, “Reform is the key link between the pervasiveness of the sincere trope and modern consciousness and politics. Modern civilizations are, to a great extent, civilizations of permanent reform.” Connecting the sincere trope to modern consciousness and politics in turn makes it possible for consumers not only to buy love in the symbolic terms of material gifts, of flowers and chocolates, but to buy love in order to gift it as an economic commodity with life-saving potential. They do all this on credit, taking on consumer debt in the image of debt relief. To practice the very thing you seek to reform in others is the secular irony of modern religion.

When does love and theft become love and debt? When, as Webb Keane argues, the “concept of sincerity” [Hear Bono: “For Dr. King—Sing!”] is connected to the “language of moral questions,” [Hear the marketers: ‘How many lives saved for a Starbuck RED Stainless Steel Tumbler?’], and when we “take the concept of sincerity to be inseparable from some kind of judgment.” For in being sincere, Keane writes, “I am not only producing words that reveal my interior state but am producing them for you; I am making myself (as an inner self) available for you in the form of external publicly available expressions.” Sincerity is about transparency. [Hear Bono speak about U2 on stage. Hear Bono speak on free markets.] Sincerity clarifies the connection between the seen and unseen, between speech and silence. For Keane, sincerity is “a kind of public accountability to others for one’s words with reference to one’s self.” Sincerity is that which removes the Hallmark quotation marks from “I love you,” and gives the consumer the ability to judge between this card and that one, and buy the one with real religious value, not as love for sale, but love for real.

Bono, through U2 and the RED campaign, sells an ability to remove the quotation marks, to make it real. This is how he has trucked in the currencies of love, connecting his own spoken desire for “one love” to those who speak in “the name of love,” from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Desmond Tutu to Nelson Mandela. In an attempt to create critical distance, to gain musical authenticity, to speak with spiritual sincerity on behalf of the authentically religious, Bono has imagined modern America in the terms of an African dream. He has performed that vision on stage, in various forms, throwing love from his heart to his fans. His musical performance is his prophetic vision, an artistic neoliberalism of spirit for sale. His moral self is his corporate gift, a love that returns to sender with profit. And his evangelical earnestness, for others in need, is the religious sincerity of millennial capitalism.

Chad Seales is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town (Oxford University Press, 2013), and has published articles and book chapters on industrial religion, corporate chaplaincy, the Coen Brothers, and the religious politics of U2’s Bono.


[1] That comparison was not without historical context, though Hewson offered none then. During the U.S. civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, boarding houses in British cities across the Atlantic displayed signs, “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs.” And well before that, when Irish immigrants arrived to the U.S. in the nineteenth century, the English natives, as they called themselves, considered the newly arrived Irish not white, on the level of freed slaves.

Image from Flickr via Number 10


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