I wish I could say that Julian Lennon’s first visit to Manila was part of a monumental symbolic reconciliation tour, but it was not—not to him at least. The son of John Lennon was here as his own man, for entirely non-Beatles related reasons. Julian Lennon, believe it or not, wasn’t acquainted with the complete sordid details of the 1966 incident,* and so harbored no preconceptions about the Philippines. Prior to becoming an environmentalist, he just never had the time nor opportunity to explore the country that enamored George Harrison so much that he once said, “They should drop an H bomb on Manila.”
Julian began his career as a musician, releasing six albums with more than a few Beatlesque songs (it can’t be helped, he sounds uncannily like his father). As the son of John and his first wife Cynthia and the reason behind the song “Hey Jude,” his family trauma has been a public affair ever since he was a young boy. Judging from the comments I read online, people have an incredible amount of goodwill toward him. Older women dote on him. As he matured and explored other avenues of expression like photography and writing, he continued to garner support and admiration, and when he entered into the world of humanitarianism, his fans unequivocally concluded that he was a much better human being than his dad ever was.
In an interview with Rolling Stone four years after his father’s murder, the 21-year-old Julian already mentioned the white feather that was to figure as a prominent motif in his life: “Dad had said to me that when he died, if he could get in touch, he’d float a white feather across the room—not down, just straight across. So I’ve been looking for that, or something strange. Basically, in that song [“Well I Don’t Know” from his first album Valotte], I’m questioning myself: Am I seeing things? It’s me asking my friends whether I’m going mad or not.”
Fourteen years later in 1998, he got the sign that he was searching for. While in Australia promoting his fifth album Photograph Smile, Julian was visited by members of the Mirning tribe, an indigenous group from the coastal regions of the Great Australian Bight. A tribal elder presented him with a white feather, asking Julian to use his voice to help them with their plight.
He spent the next several years producing Whale Dreamers, a documentary that shows how the Mirning were dispossessed of both their lands and their spiritual connection to the whales when their waters were opened to whaling. The film was part of the Cannes festival in 2007; the same year, Julian decided to further his mission and founded The White Feather Foundation, an organization that raises funds for environmental, humanitarian, and clean water projects. The WFF has already helped build pipelines in Cameroon, wells in Ethiopia, latrines in Burkina Faso, and funded film fellowships for indigenous voices in New Zealand, among many other projects.
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The WFF has yet to be involved in the South East Asian region, and this is where we find ourselves today, at the Shangri-la Fort, getting Julian up to speed on the love-shame relationship the Philippines has with the Beatles, and, unavoidably, Esquire’s failed attempt to get Ringo Starr’s attention with a crazy and confusing Sgt. Pepper homage. Julian’s only comment: “It’s a shame they haven’t fixed the bridges. It’s a little silly they haven’t done that. I think enough time has passed.”
However, this visit isn’t about that. Julian was in Shanghai when he was introduced to David Guerrero of BBDO by their mutual friend Nick Wood, a songwriter and CEO of Syn, a music agency based in Tokyo.
“We were talking about sustainability and tourism. We’re always looking at interesting ways to help and bring awareness to issues on education, clean water, protection of cultures and land,” he says. They kept the conversation going until the opportunity came up for him to help highlight the sustainability programs of the Department of Tourism, which are aligned with the advocacies of his White Feather Foundation. “I heard about how Boracay was rehabilitated and thought it was an interesting approach that could be utilized in other places. I was in the neighborhood, why not have a look?”
Tourism isn’t an area that Julian has tackled before, but he’s open to learning, he says. “We’re only now realizing the damage from what we’ve been doing to the oceans. Promoting Boracay and sustainable tourism, we’ll see how that goes. This is just the start of developing more ideas and campaigns. I’m just happy to be out here.”
Nick Wood shares that after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he wrote a charity song for the children who lost their parents, inspired by the lone pine tree that stood standing after the entire forest was wiped out. “Julian didn’t hesitate to get involved. A lot of people talk the talk. Julian’s heart is always in the right place.”
At the dinner David would host for Julian later that evening, where we would dine in partial darkness thanks to the Guerreros’ observance of Earth Hour, one of the surprise guests happened to be Aimee Marcos, who turned out to be a friend of Nick’s. The two scions hugging it out made quite the Instagram post. “After all these years: A Lennon and a Marcos meet in Manila,” captioned David. “The kids did good,” Aimee re-grammed. All you need is love, I say.
As of this writing, Jules and the gang are in Boracay, soaking up the sunsets and also learning about the particular ecological threats facing the island and its people. He spent the first of April in a reflective mode, remembering his mother Cynthia, who passed away four years earlier. Commenters often credit Cynthia for raising such a good man. Julian created the Cynthia Lennon Scholarship for Girls in her memory, a project that has funded the schooling of secondary school girls in Kenya.
I ask whether Julian considers himself more of a musician, an artist, or a humanitarian. He says, “I’m a bit of everything. I’m just a human who gives a damn.”
*As a nation that gets easily embarrassed, the Beatles incident is one that we don’t really like to think about yet can’t let go. To quickly recap, the Beatles came to Manila in 1966 and performed to 80,000 screaming fans at the Rizal Stadium. Before they even sang their first song, however, they had spent a grueling 24 hours in the city, from the moment they arrived at the airport where their luggage was seized, whisked to a tortuous press conference, sent to a party on a yacht in the Manila Bay with the city’s socialites before finally being deposited at the Manila Hotel. The next morning, they were summoned by armed guards who were supposed to take the band to Malacanang for a special reception. The Fab Four refused. They were exhausted and pissy, and they still had two shows to play. Of course, the snub did not go over well at the Palace and the acrimony trickled down to its defenders and loyalists. When it was time for the band to leave the country, they were met by an unruly mob at the airport and roughed up by goons. In a final act of pettiness, the escalators were turned off, forcing the band to struggle with all their gear. George Harrison later said that an H Bomb should be dropped on Manila. Ringo Starr hated the Philippines because “everyone had guns and it was really like that hot/Catholic/gun/Spanish Inquisition attitude."
Photographs by Tammy David