Dublin rock supergroup U2 has been awarded one of America’s most prestigious cultural awards, a Kennedy Center Honor.
Every year since 1978, the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts – a large cultural centre in Washington DC dedicated to President John F. Kennedy as a “living memorial” – honours five people who have made an outstanding contribution to US culture over their lifetime.
Alongside U2, this year’s other recipients are actor George Clooney, singer-songwriter Amy Grant, singer Gladys Knight and composer Tania León.
Dave Evans, also known as The Edge, spoke for the group at a formal presentation of the awards at the US State department on Saturday night.
“We are incredibly grateful and proud to receive this honour named after a great American, John F. Kennedy, who also happens to be of Irish descent and this I have to say means so much to us.”
He noted that the band played its very first gig in the US 42 years ago on 6 December, in the Ritz in New York.
“We had big dreams and like so many people in Ireland, America was the focus of those dreams. There is such a close bond between U2 and this country, and we can’t fully explain it but since that very first gig, we’ve always felt warmth and love, but this tonight goes way above and beyond.”
On the way into the Kennedy Center gala concert, lead singer Bono was asked by RTÉ News how it felt to be honoured as an Irish band for its contribution to American culture.
“As an Irish person – as an Irish band – that was amazing,” he said.
“But you know to have the red carpet rolled out for you in the White House sounds a little bit mad for a band like us, but in a certain sense if our band’s about any single word.. it’s freedom. And that house, you know, that place. That’s where freedom lives. And especially in this time you know, you never thought freedom would be on under such threat.”
US President Joe Biden attended both the formal awards in the state department and the gala concert in the Kennedy Center. He also hosted a reception for the honourees at the White House.
Mr Biden said that U2’s music is a bridge between Ireland and America and described the countries as two friends, linked in memory and imagination.
He added that the four members of U2 were inheritors of the Irish tradition of poetry and protest and had a belief in the dignity of all people.
He quoted Bono saying “music can change the world because it can change people” and said U2 has changed the world and continued to do so.
“From this Irish-American President in a White House designed by Irish hands I want to thank U2 for all you have done, you really make a difference.”
Numerous Senators and members of the House of Representatives were also at the concert, along with others from Hollywood, the music industry, the wider arts community and the business world.
The Kennedy Center Honors are awarded to artists who “over a long and distinguished career have made a significant contribution to American culture”.
The honourees are chosen by a committee of previous honourees, and people associated with the Kennedy Center, like its President Deborah F. Rutter.
Asked why it was honouring an Irish band she said “the Kennedy Center Honors is about recognising the lifetime achievement and the impact of artists on American culture. So it’s very easy to be honouring U2 and those four gentlemen, because they have had such an enormous impact on who we are as Americans. And many generations of Americans and certainly, all of us who are alive and on this planet today.
“They have had such an extraordinary, powerful platform, not just for making great music, with great poetry, but really giving so much more of themselves to try and make a positive impact in the world.
“This is something I believe fervently in which is the role of the artist as citizen and a global citizen, using the art form to make the world a better place. And if that doesn’t speak to who U2 are, I don’t know what does”.
Actor Sean Penn read the citation for the band saying it was “entirely fitting that America bestows its highest honour in the creative realm on these four scrappy Dublin punks”.
U2 are only the fourth rock or pop group to be honoured.
The others are Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Earth Wind and Fire. The trio behind the hit musical “Hamilton” were also honoured as a collective.
The Kennedy Center awards will be broadcast in the US on CBS television on 28 December.
RTE – Sean Whelan, with additional reporting by Sinéad Crowley.
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