Remembering Johnny Clegg, the voice of South Africa

Why We Wrote This

Music is often the language that connects people. In the case of South African pop singer Johnny Clegg, who died this week, it brought together races at a time of oppression.

Denis Farrell/AP/File
Musician Johnny Clegg performs onstage during a farewell concert in Johannesburg on Nov. 11, 2017.

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Growing up in South Africa, I witnessed firsthand how musician Johnny Clegg, who died this week, helped change his fellow countrymen’s minds about Nelson Mandela and apartheid.

It was often an uphill battle. Radio stations wouldn’t play the music of an early duo he was in, and due to apartheid restrictions they couldn’t book venues because Mr. Clegg’s musical partner was black. They earned a fan base the old-fashioned way, playing churches and universities. They also found an audience overseas. In 1983, the Juluka song “Scatterlings of Africa” became a minor chart hit in the United Kingdom. 

By the time I was given my first portable transistor radio in the mid-1980s, restrictions had loosened. Mr. Clegg’s new multiracial band, Savuka, was receiving regular airplay. At a time when white South Africans were largely disinterested in domestic music, hits such as “Great Heart” and “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World” introduced us to the riches of African pop.

Mr. Clegg once told an interviewer that the long struggle to end apartheid taught him a lesson in patience. “People waited for 30, 40 years,” he said. “It bore fruit.” 

In 1999, South African pop star Johnny Clegg was performing in Frankfurt, Germany, when statesman Nelson Mandela sneaked onstage. Mr. Clegg was singing “Asimbonanga,” his 1987 hit about Mr. Mandela’s imprisonment. Unbeknownst to the band, Mr. Mandela started dancing behind them.

“The audience erupted and I thought, ‘Wow! They know my song,’ but it was Mandela, walking behind me onstage,’” Mr. Clegg later recalled.

Growing up in South Africa, I witnessed firsthand how Mr. Clegg, who died this week, helped change his fellow countrymen’s minds about Mr. Mandela and apartheid. The first concert I ever saw was Mr. Clegg’s sold-out arena show in Johannesburg in 1989. The songwriter had a multiracial band and his lyrics switched between English and Zulu. The frontman also performed traditional Inhlangwini dances with high kicks that would put a karate master to shame. In describing that show, Rolling Stone noted that “the capacity crowd shrieked with an abandon that bordered on Beatlemania.” 

As a young teenager, Mr. Clegg was on a shopping errand for his mother when he came across a man playing Zulu guitar. He was enchanted. He asked the man, Charlie Mzila, to teach him how to play in that style. Mr. Mzila became a mentor, later teaching him the art of stick fighting (a sort of dance that involves hopscotching with a knob-ended club). Mr. Clegg, who later lived in a hostel among black migrant workers, even wore ceremonial loincloths and armbands. He became known as the “white Zulu.” 

When Mr. Clegg formed the duo Juluka with fellow guitarist and singer Sipho Mchunu, he wrote about the experiences of those migrant workers. One of Juluka’s best songs, “Woza Friday,” was about a worker lamenting that Friday – payday – couldn’t arrive soon enough. It was an early example of the universality of Mr. Clegg’s lyrics.

But Juluka was prohibited from playing in regular venues due to apartheid restrictions, because Mr. Mchunu is black. State radio stations wouldn’t play their music, either. Juluka earned a fan base the old-fashioned way. They gigged in homes, churches, universities, and other nontraditional venues. They also found an audience overseas. In 1983, the Juluka song “Scatterlings of Africa” became a minor chart hit in the United Kingdom. 

By the time I was given my first portable transistor radio as a Christmas present in the mid-1980s, restrictions had loosened. Mr. Clegg’s new multiracial band, Savuka, was receiving regular airplay on the state-owned Radio 5. At a time when white South Africans were largely disinterested in domestic music, hits such as “Great Heart” and “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World” introduced us to the riches of African pop.

Yet it wasn’t just Mr. Clegg’s protest lyrics that spoke loudest. It was how he lived by example. I’ll never forget the exuberant camaraderie of black and white musicians on that stage. Up through his Final Journey Tour, he exuded a grace that reflected his love of people and faith in humanity.

Mr. Clegg once told an interviewer that the long struggle to end apartheid taught him a lesson in patience. Change, as he noted, can take time. 

“People waited for 30, 40 years,” he said. “It bore fruit. It taught me that the new South Africa can’t be perfect. The new South Africa is going to take another 40 years to be truly flourishing and truly democratic, and truly offer its citizenship a flowering future.”

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