Yoko Ono is doing more than just imagining a better world—she’s creating it. The boundary-breaking cultural icon is on the front lines campaigning for a host of causes ranging from international peace, responsible emissions, gender equality and fracking limitations. Decades after first appearing on the world stage alongside late husband John Lennon, Ono’s revolutionary flame shines on and her rebellious spirit makes her an unrivaled force for positive change.
Last week she took time to honor a fellow philanthropic crusader, Hard Rock International CEO Hamish Dodds, by presenting him with the Spirit of Excellence Award on behalf of the T.J. Martell Foundation. Since 2008, the pair have teamed up annually with WhyHunger for “IMAGINE THERE’S NO HUNGER,” an initiative that has brought 9.7 million farm-fresh meals to starving children in over 20 countries and taught over 8,800 family and community members techniques for sustained food production.
Before taking the podium, Ono sat down with VH1 to reflect on the work she’s done not only with Dodds, but also throughout her extraordinary lifetime. In the midst of troubling times for our planet, she offers advice for how to stay hopeful in the face of negativity, outraged in the face of apathy, and fearless in the face of overwhelming opposition.
For Ono, art and activism are two sides of the same coin. Having begun her career in downtown New York City’s conceptual art scene of the early 1960s under mentors like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, some of her most affecting pieces have plain instructive titles like Cut Piece, Hammer A Nail, Painting To Be Stepped On. At her recent retrospective in Bilbao’s Guggenheim, signs reading “Participate” hung next to many of the installations. The simple declarative is a recurring theme, even when it comes to her (oft-misunderstood) musical legacy. How else do you explain her astonishing 12 number one entries on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart? Clearly her art moves people to stand up and express themselves in a myriad of ways.
Conversely, look to Ono’s large scale public demonstrations undertaken with Lennon. 1969’s worldwide “War Is Over (If You Want It)” billboard campaign sells peace in the same manner as Coca-Cola in a Warholian commentary on advertising and consumer culture. That same year, Ono and Lennon invited the world press into their honeymoon suite for the Bed-In for Peace, showing off a humorous theatricality that invokes the spirit of performance art.
Participate! Art or activism, it can be impossible to distinguish the two. Regardless of what you label it, all of Ono’s work engages viewers by demanding involvement and challenging the way we think. As her art has evolved, so has her strategy for moving towards a better world. She was quick to adopt the internet, which she says has completely revolutionized her ability to organize and spread information. “You know, when John and I started doing things like the Bed-In and all that, nobody was really around us. So we thought, ’Oh, are we the only ones who are doing it!?'” However, it’s rare that she feels that way today. “The more the better, in a way. We really need every one of us in the world to do something. Otherwise, you know, there’s a doomsday waiting!”
As the global crisis grew more dire, Ono sought bigger allies, utilizing the resources and outreach of like-minded charitable companies. Enter Hard Rock and Dodds, who support an enormous number of causes including Amnesty International, the American Red Cross, and their own Pinktober Breast Cancer drive.
“Hard Rock offers ideal machinery to do something to better the world,” she says of her current partnership. “I’m very happy that I’m working together with people like Hamish, because he really knows exactly what’s happening in the world and that we have to do something about it.” She also credits Hard Rock with helping create a new generation of earth-conscious citizens. “Kids love it. It’s Hard Rock, you know— rock and roll! So there are many many children who ordinarily would not particularly like activism, but [now] they love to be part of it. I think in that sense it’s very, very powerful.”
Partnering with a major corporation may seem like a surprising move for a renegade like Ono, but it’s just one of the many ways she’s successfully updated her peaceful mission to help overcome 21st century challenges. Whether harnessing the power of advertising or taking advantage of celebrity tabloid culture with “happenings” like the Bed-In, the crux of Ono’s brilliance has always been her ability to identify and utilize the most potent tools of our society to produce change. Today, power lies with a handful of corporate conglomerates that make decisions which often do not benefit the greater good. By calling on the aid of compassionate and forward-thinking businesses like Hard Rock, Ono is fighting fire with fire, changing the system from within.
But you don’t need to be a celebrity luminary with corporate backing to make a difference in the new millennium. Ono has always been a proponent of the individual, insisting that the revolution starts inside the body you inhabit—even if that body is not wealthy or powerful. “Oh, people always say that. ’Well, I’m not famous, I’m not rich, what can I do?’ Sometimes it’s very difficult even for people who are famous to do something, because there’s so much red tape and everything. So the thing is: we’re all the same. Each one of us will have to do what we can do, that’s all.”
Even so, it’s easy for a person to feel hopeless and small when confronted with seemingly insurmountable problems facing the world. Few people understand that better than Ono, a peace activist whose husband was taken by senseless violence on December 8th, 1980. The promise of the “War Is Over (If You Want It)” message remains unfulfilled as armed conflict rages on, 45 years after the billboards first blanketed international cities. But despite setbacks, Ono is not discouraged.
“I think that I learned to be patient,” she says with a laugh. “When we did the Bed-In we’d say, ’Oh well, tomorrow is going to be better.’ Well, it didn’t get better. But I think we have to learn to go into something good step by step. And I think we are doing that. When you think about it, there are so many activists now. I think most people are activists really, and that never happened before. So let’s see what happens. Let’s see what we can do.”
A half century ago, Ono penned a deceptively simple thought which has provided the blueprint for her life’s work: A dream that you dream is just a fantasy, but a dream that we all dream is reality. This mantra will forever unify Ono’s art and activism. Creativity is an abstract fiction until it reaches the minds and hands of others, when it is rewritten as truth. Yoko Ono and John Lennon shared a dream of all people living life in peace. Lennon may be gone, but more and more are dreaming along with her—and it is indeed becoming a reality. “I think it’s really happening. You know, some people think that we’re just rushing to doomsday or something, and I don’t think so. I really think that a lot of incredible things are happening now. Scientists are making things so incredible now. So one day very soon we’re going to do it. We’re going to have world peace.”