"We really related to what was going on in South Africa," Bono says of the Irish band, which first performed music protesting Apartheid back in the late 1970s, when he, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. were still in their teens.
It will come as a surprise to many that the four members of U2 -- Bono (vocals and guitar), The Edge (guitar, keyboards and vocals), Adam Clayton (bass guitar) and Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums and percussion), who are nominated for the best original song Oscar for "Ordinary Love" in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom -- have been writing and performing music about South Africa since the late 1970s, when they were still in their teens.
"At a very early stage, we realized that there was more to music than just rocking out and that we could actually -- maybe -- make a small difference," Mullen said. Therefore, when the quartet -- which The Edge describes as "the essential high school band that just kept going" -- learned about Nelson Mandela and Apartheid, they decided to take action, playing a gig to protest the institutional segregation and discrimination taking place half a world away.
Why did they care? "We really related to what was going on in South Africa," Bono said. "Irish people are very aware of how the currents of politics -- indeed, global politics -- can affect their own life. For example, it's well known that our interest in developing economies around the world is because not long ago we were one. And we're interested in the fight against extreme poverty because we were on the other side of that. And we also understand famine -- it cost our country half its population."
After studying and traveling to Africa throughout the 1980s -- on fact-finding missions, to raise funds and awareness through music (see "The Sun City" album) and, in some cases (like Bono's), even to go on personal honeymoons -- the members of the band rejoiced when Mandela was freed from prison in 1990 and were delighted that he wished to meet and work with them in post-Apartheid South Africa.
The band, which was honored to know Mandela, soon became good friends with the South African leader, who saw how they could help him spread his call for peace and understanding. "He was a very sensitive fellow and, clearly, that sensitivity was what he used to dismantle Apartheid. It wasn't just the strength; it was the sensitivity," says Bono. The Edge adds: "We actually went with Mr. Mandela to see Robben Island when we were there, and just to see the cell that he lived in for so many years was really sobering, to realize that when he went in there he thought that he would never come out."
Last summer, Harvey Weinstein, another entertainment industry acquaintance of Mandela's and a friend of U2's since his days as a concert promoter in the early 1980s, approached the band and asked, on behalf of producer Anant Singh and director Justin Chadwick, if they would write an original song for inclusion in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a big screen version of Mandela's own autobiography. They had not released original music in years -- from 2009 to 2011 they had been traveling the world for U2 360, the highest-grossing tour in history, and were finally making headway when Weinstein called with his offer, which they couldn't refuse. As The Edge puts it, "We had to take a deep breath because we realized it was actually gonna cause havoc in other areas of our work," but, he says, "It was one of those things [we] just had to do, you know, because of our connection there."
Singh sent Bono copies of love letters that Mandela had written to his wife Winnie when he was imprisoned. "To read his love letters is a real treat," the singer says. "You realize that this was a kind of extraordinary love, but actually, though extraordinary love is the subject of movies and books and novels and songs, perhaps the more important is ordinary love -- the simple things that people do... and that's what they couldn't do. They had this passion the size of their country, the size of their continent, but actually, when he left prison, they couldn't figure it out on just the ordinary, domestic front."
Consequently, the song that Bono wrote, which "was always to be at the end [of the film], after the scene where [Mandela] stands up and he walks out and the people who had been his enemy are saluting him" -- which the singer describes as "one of the greatest moments in the last century" -- was not the uplifting number that had originally been solicited, but rather an honest imagination of what Mandela might have been thinking in that moment, entitled "Ordinary Love." Bono explains, "He said he'd won most of his struggles -- [even] if it cost him 27 years of his life -- but he lost in love, he lost his wife, and it was of profound sadness to him. That's what we wanted in that moment, that, as he was walking out, there was still that ache of love lost."
The band emphasizes that Mandela's death on Dec. 5, 2013, less than a week after U2's single was first released to the public, does not bring an end to their relationship with South Africa. "We've had wonderful times in the country," says The Edge. "It is an absolutely beautiful country. I think this is a turning point, and, in his passing, Mr. Mandela has left it up to those who have some kind of stake in his legacy to step up and really insure that all of the great work that he's done doesn't go to waste. And we're certainly willing to do whatever we can."
Scott Feinberg for The Hollywood Reporter