Singing Out for Racial Equality
Johnny Clegg - the first white South African to perform with blacks - heartens US audiences. MUSIC: INTERVIEW
NEW YORK — TWO men - one black, one white - move, shoulder-to-shoulder across the stage in a rhythmic Zulu dance. The black man is Dudu Zulu, a South African dancer and percussionist, the white man Johnny Clegg - a towering figure in South African popular music and the first white to work with black musicians in that country, some 20 years ago.
They were performing last week at the Beacon Theater here with Clegg's band, Savuka. Clegg has referred to the group as ``a revolution with a smile,'' and its Zulu name translates as ``we have risen.'' The concert was the opening-act part of Tracy Chapman's United States tour.
The American response to Clegg and Savuka has been phenomenal, with the New York audience, typically, rising to its feet at the close of Clegg's too-short set. It would seem the time has come for this singer, guitarist, songwriter, and dancer, who has been playing music since the age of 12. It was then that Clegg got his early training by sneaking off to study guitar with a Zulu master - an act forbidden in South Africa, where he grew up.
Now, with a new album on the Capitol label - ``Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World'' - Clegg's musical messages of love and social, racial, and political equality are at last making a mark on audiences outside his adopted country.
Clegg's music is a vibrant mix of pop, rock, South African mbaqanga, and traditional Zulu rhythms. It sounds like no one else's - inside or outside South Africa. His stage show is colorful, exciting, even uplifting - a musical acknowledgement of Clegg's strong belief in a global oneness that will inevitably cut across all racial and social barriers.
The new album is his 12th, but so far only two others have been released in the United States, ``Third World Child'' and ``Shadow Man.'' Two songs from ``Third World Child,'' and one (``One (Hu)Man, One Vote'') from the new release have been banned in South Africa.
Reached by phone in Chicago prior to his arrival in New York, Clegg told me he is elated at the response his music is getting in this country. But he is eager to return his family in South Africa - to ``get back to my network, be a part of things on a day-to-day basis back home.''
Clegg has certainly been at the heart of change in South Africa. It's hard for outsiders to understand what he has dealt with on a daily basis just to play music with his black countrymen.
``When you grow up in a totalitarian society,'' he says, ``that makes decisions for you at every level - where you should live, what theater you should go to, what bus you should travel in, what restroom you can use, what school you go to, what syllabus you are taught. There's such a powerful intervention by the state in the individual's life!''
Although Clegg was born in England, his family moved to Africa when Johnny was an infant - first to Zimbabwe, later to Zambia, and finally to South Africa, where he did most of his growing up.
``Had I known how things were outside of South Africa, I probably would have given up,'' he says. ``I wouldn't have had the resilience to continue.
``But because I didn't know, I was trying to find my own way and have fun as a youngster of 13 or 14 in music - trying to find a way through the apartheid system and find a few holes, expanding those holes, getting street-smart, learning how to recognize a government official even if he's in plain clothes, learning to recognize a prowling, unmarked government car - all those things.''
Clegg was arrested on numerous occasions as he increased his contact with black migrant workers and learned Zulu dances, language, and culture. Today Clegg is an honorary member of three Zulu tribes and vice-president of the mixed-race South African Musicians Alliance.
``I had this crazy romantic vision about the Zulu people,'' he recalls. ``There were so many clues and so many messages coming to me from the culture about these people - it was like a big puzzle, a big mystery.
``Somehow, at that innocent age,'' continues Clegg, ``my attitude was: Let things unfold; let me see how people do things in this place, because I wasn't born to this.
``I've always felt `in between,' There were migrant laborers in Johannesburg who felt the same thing. We felt estranged; we felt like foreigners. That was something I didn't have with my white friends - the sense of being an alien.''
He hastens to add that the migrant workers ``had it 10 times worse than I had, but they had a really strong `warrior' value system, which was basically: `Don't cry. You deal with it.' I admired that so much, and so I didn't cry, and I dealt with it.''
So Clegg continued to bend the system's rules, never really knowing what went on outside until he visited England at age 21.
``For the first time I left South Africa, and I was shocked. That was a very important part of my political development ... because I had a real, live situation to compare my country to. And when I came back, I became quite involved in student politics and union work and other activities.''
All those influences are present in his music, including the new album. Clegg says he is pleased about the reception in this country for both the album and the tour, which will end July 4 in Portland, Maine.
``I feel pretty good. We seem to be breaking through on a worldwide scale to a thinking audience, which is enjoying what we're doing. And I'm building a really intimate audience around the world - which is wonderful. It's been a long time coming; I've worked really hard for it.''