Johnny Clegg, a true South African legend who has made an indelible mark on music history, may have passed on but his legacy will live on forever!
Johannesburg, South Africa – Johnny Clegg (7 June 1953 – 16 July 2019) was a South African musician and anthropologist who recorded and performed with his bands Juluka and Savuka, and as a solo act, occasionally reuniting with his earlier band partners. Sometimes called Le Zoulou Blanc “The White Zulu”, he is an important figure in South African popular music history, with songs that mix Zulu with English lyrics and African with various Western music styles.
Clegg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. He died in his Johannesburg home on 16 July 2019, aged 66.
Clegg was born in Bacup, Lancashire, to an English father and a Rhodesian mother. Clegg’s mother’s family were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and Clegg had a secular Jewish upbringing, learning about the Ten Commandments but refusing to have a bar mitzvah or even associate with other Jewish children at school. His parents divorced when he was still an infant, and he moved with his mother to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then, at the age of 6, to South Africa, also spending part of a year in Israel during his childhood.
As an adolescent in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, he encountered the demi-monde of the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance.
Under the tutelage of Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, Clegg mastered both the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar and the isishameni dance styles of the migrants. Clegg’s involvement with black musicians often led to arrests for trespassing on government property and for contravening the Group Areas Act.
He was first arrested at the age of 15 for violating apartheid-era laws in South Africa banning people of different races from congregating together after curfew hours.
At the age of 17, he met Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker with whom he began performing music. The partnership, which they named Juluka, was profiled in the 1970s television documentary Beats of the Heart: Rhythm of Resistance.
As a young man, Clegg pursued an academic career for four years, lecturing at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of Natal, and writing several seminal scholarly papers on Zulu music and dance. In the early stages of his musical career, Clegg combined his music with the study of anthropology at Wits, where he was influenced, among others, by the work of David Webster, a social anthropologist who was later assassinated in 1989. He preceded each song with snippets of Zulu culture, information, commentary, humour and personal anecdotes relevant and unique to that song. An engaged social anthropologist, he not only mastered the theories but delved into the culture and disseminated it.
Juluka was an unusual musical partnership for the time in South Africa, with a white man (Clegg) and a black man (Mchunu) performing together. The band, which grew to a six-member group (with three white musicians and three black musicians) by the time it released its first album Universal Men in 1979, faced harassment and censorship, with Clegg later remarking that it was “impossible” to perform in public in South Africa.
The group tested the apartheid-era laws, touring and performing in private venues, including universities, churches, hostels, and even private homes in order to attract an audience, as national broadcasters would not play their music. Just as unusually, the band’s music combined Zulu, Celtic, and rock elements, with both English and Zulu lyrics. Those lyrics often contained coded political messages and references to the battle against apartheid, although Clegg has maintained that Juluka was not originally intended to be a political band.
“Politics found us,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1996.
In a 1989 interview with the Sunday Times, Clegg denied the label of “political activist.” “For me a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.”
Juluka’s music was both implicitly and explicitly political; not only was the fact of the success of the band (which openly celebrated African culture in a bi-racial band) a thorn in the flesh of a political system based on racial separation, the band also produced some explicitly political songs. For example, the album Work for All (which includes a song with the same title) picked up on South African trade union slogans in the mid-1980s.
As a result of their political messages and racial integration, Clegg and other band members were arrested several times and concerts routinely broken up.
Despite being ignored and often harassed by the South African government at home, Juluka were able to tour internationally, playing in Europe, Canada, and the United States, and had two platinum and five gold albums, becoming an international success. The group was disbanded in 1985, when Mchunu returned to his rural home to care for his family.
Together with the black musician and dancer Dudu Zulu, Clegg went on to form his second inter-racial band, Savuka, in 1986, continuing to blend African music with European influences. The group’s first album, Third World Child, broke international sales records in several European countries, including France. The band went on to record several more albums, including Heat, Dust and Dreams, which received a Grammy Award nomination. Johnny Clegg and Savuka played both at home and abroad, even though Clegg’s refusal to stop performing in apartheid-era South Africa created tensions with the international anti-apartheid movement and led to his expulsion from the British Musicians’ Union.
In one instance, the band drew such a large crowd in Lyon, France that Michael Jackson cancelled a concert there, complaining that Clegg and his group had “stolen all his fans”.
In 1993, the band dissolved after Dudu Zulu was shot and killed while attempting to mediate a taxi war.
Briefly reunited in the mid-1990s, Clegg and Mchunu reformed Juluka, released a new album and toured throughout the world in 1996 with King Sunny Ade. Since then, Clegg has recorded several solo albums.
His touring schedule was abbreviated in 2017 after undergoing surgery for pancreatic cancer, and Clegg performed his last scheduled tour date in Mauritius in October of 2018.
During one concert in 1999, he was joined on stage by South African President Nelson Mandela, who danced as he sang the protest song Savuka had dedicated to him, “Asimbonanga”. Asimbonanga became something of an anthem for the Mass Democratic Movement’s umbrella organisation, the United Democratic Front.
During Mandela’s illness and death in 2013, the video of the concert attracted considerable media attention outside South Africa.
His song “Scatterlings of Africa” gave him his only entries in the UK Singles Chart to date, reaching No. 44 in February 1983 with Juluka and 75 in May 1987 as Johnny Clegg and Savuka. The following year the song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man.
His song “Life is a Magic Thing” was featured in FernGully: The Last Rainforest.
Savuka’s song “Dela” was featured on the soundtrack of the 1997 film George of the Jungle and its 2003 sequel, while “Great Heart” was the title song for the 1986 film Jock of the Bushveld. “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World” was featured in the 1990 film Opportunity Knocks and 1991 film Career Opportunities. “Great Heart” was also the end credits song for the 2000 Disney movie Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale. In 2002 Clegg provided several songs and incidental background music for Jane Goodall’s “Wild Chimpanzees” DVD. Included in the extras on the disc are rare scenes of Clegg in the recording studio.
Clegg died on Tuesday at the age of 66. Family spokesperson Roddy Quinn shared the news in a statement on Tuesday night.
“It is with immense sadness that we confirm that Johnny Clegg, OBE OIS, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66 on the afternoon of 16 July 2019 at his family home in Johannesburg, South Africa.”
Fans continue to flood his social media with posts of well wishes and thanks for the gift of music he gave the world.