Yoko Ono's persistent 'imagining': fewer hungry people in the world

Yoko Ono – artist, musician, and now dancer – rarely permits groups to use John Lennon's songs to promote causes. But hunger and the iconic 'Imagine' have a connection for her, she says.

Tsutomu Fujita/Invision for Hard Rock International/AP
Yoko Ono Lennon appears at Hard Rock Cafe Tokyo on Dec. 5 to support Hard Rock’s sixth annual 'Imagine There's No Hunger' campaign benefiting WhyHunger and grass-roots partners combating childhood hunger and poverty worldwide.

Yoko Ono remembers the year she was hungry: 1945, the most shattering year in World War II for a young girl. To escape nightly bombing raids, she, her mother, and two siblings fled to the countryside outside Tokyo, where they lived among farmers and subsisted for months on rations.

“Kids have a lot of pride. I remember very well when I was so hungry and everyone was eating food from lunchboxes and they asked, ‘Didn’t you bring one?’ and I said, ‘I’m not hungry, that’s why,' which was the totally opposite of how I was feeling,” she says in a phone interview Friday with the Monitor. “That’s just one memory. It made me think, all these years later, I really have to do something for children of the world.”

The artist and peace activist is speaking out this year on behalf of WhyHunger, an international organization cofounded in 1976 by the late singer Harry Chapin, who was also a friend of John Lennon, Ms. Ono's late husband and forever Beatle. The organization operates a national hot line in the United States that refers those in need to emergency food assistance, and provides assistance to more than 8,000 local community groups around the world that provide nutritious meals and teach food sustainability for the poverty-stricken.

As she has in years past, Ono is allowing the organization to use “Imagine,” the iconic Lennon song, for a new campaign: “Imagine There’s No Hunger.” The campaign sells merchandise featuring Lennon’s artwork and signature, the proceeds of which will be directed to the charity. To date, the Imagine campaign has raised more than $5.6 million for communities in 22 countries.

“Imagine” the song is often sought by philanthropy groups for their projects, but Ono says she always says no because she wants “to make sure it’s not used by everybody and then is not as effective.” WhyHunger appealed to her because of the personal connection she felt to the cause. Her decision solidified when she traveled to different areas the organization serves and heard children singing her late husband’s song. “It was great, they all know the song, so that’s good because it connects,” she says.

Ono’s father was a banker and spent much of his time working in his company’s branch offices in San Francisco and New York. She remembers escaping to underground bunkers while American bombs razed Tokyo. To escape the burning city, she, her mother, and two siblings fled to the countryside where they encountered starving farmers who chased them away out of fear that a wave of city dwellers would steal their food.

“It was really getting bad by then. Rice was so scarce, you just didn’t get it,” she says. “Today people talk about nutrition and a balanced diet, but when you don’t have anything, you see a stick of butter and say, ‘Thank you, thank you.' ”

Eventually, her family joined with their father in Scarsdale, N.Y. It was a time in the US when anti-Japanese sentiments were high, and Ono remembers that it was not uncommon to be the target of stones thrown by other kids.

“When we would go to the theater and watch the film, always the baddie is an Asian,” she said. “And when the lights go up, it’s like, ‘Uh-oh, what do I look like?’ It was scary.”

Eventually Ono attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and ended up in the underground art scene that was flourishing in New York City in the 1950s. After becoming a star of an international movement of artists later known as Fluxus, which combined humor, minimalism, and rebellion through sculpture, performance art, film, music, and installation, Ono met Lennon and began a romance that captured world attention.

Since his death from an assassin’s gun in 1980, she has remained a steadfast guardian of his legacy, which includes reissues of his artwork and music, but also incorporating his words and music into activism for peace. In 2007, for example, she commissioned the “Imagine Peace Tower,” an outdoor installation in Viðey Island in Reykjavik, Iceland, that is made up of a tower of light beamed skyward from a base that has the phrase "Imagine Peace" in 24 languages. She returned to Iceland in October to relight the tower on what would have been Lennon’s 73rd birthday.

These days, Ono is emerging as a dance music artist, and has even assembled a band, including her son, Sean Lennon, the surviving members of the Beastie Boys, and guitarist Lenny Kravitz, that released a debut album earlier this month. She also found peace with Paul McCartney, who stressed in several interviews this year that Ono is not responsible for the breakup of the Beatles.

“Sometimes [the accusations] hurt me … but it really didn’t shake me up to the point that it would destroy me,” she said. “I was lucky to have John close to me and with me, and he was a great protector in the sense that he always encouraged me and loved me,” she told this writer in 2008.

Another way Ono is provoking mindfulness is social media. She is a prodigious Twitter user, sending out tweets much like the “instructional poems” of her Fluxus days that would read, simply, “breathe” or “paint until you drop dead.”

Twitter has allowed her to do the same: “Ask a friend to send you a diagram of his footsteps for a day, follow his footsteps and recreate his day,” she tweeted Thursday. Her message on Wednesday: “Send a paper moon to your friend. Ask him to burn it.”

She says the pressure from curating her late husband’s legacy the right way, as well as pursuing her own activism and art, is present, but she “doesn’t think of it as pressure.”

“I think of it all as a message that I have to work from. The thing is, we’re all getting messages about what we have to do. There’s so much we have to do. You just stick to one or two messages and go with it, instead of trying to take care of 10 or 20,” she says.

If we simplify, she says, “all together we can make this world a great place.”

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