We pay tribute to a true South African icon, a legendary Zulu scholar and singer who tore down so many walls for our generation.
South African singer Johnny Clegg died on Tuesday at the age of 66. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015 and launched a series of farewell tours in 2018, appearing on stage with a variety of artists, including his son Jessie Clegg.
Family spokesperson Roddy Quinn shared the news in a statement on Tuesday night. “It is with immense sadness that we confirm that Jonathan (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.” Clegg was survived by his wife of 31 years, Jenny, and their sons Jesse and Jaron.
“His passing has left us numb and we request that the family’s privacy be respected during this trying time. The family will be holding a private funeral service and we ask you to please respect the families wishes. There will be a service for the public to pay their respects and the details hereof will be announced in due course,” Quinn said.
A Grammy nominee and Billboard music award winner, British-born Clegg was known by many South Africans as “umlungu omnyama,” or “the black white person.” He spoke fluent Zulu and mixed it into his traditional folk music, or “mbaqanga.”
HIS EARLY LIFE AND CAREER
Clegg was born on June 7, 1953 in Bacup, Lancashire in England. He moved around a lot, as a white child born to an English man and a female jazz singer from Zimbabwe (then known as Southern Rhodesia). His parents divorced while he was still a baby; Clegg’s mother took him to Zimbabwe before she married again, this time to a South African, when he was 7. The family moved north to Zambia for a couple of years, and then settled in Johannesburg.
He discovered South Africa’s music when he was a young teenager in Johannesburg. He had been studying classical guitar, but chafed under its strictness and formality. When he started hearing Zulu-style guitar, he was enchanted — and liberated.
His exposure to Zulu migrant workers introduced him to the culture and music. Because Clegg was so young, he was accepted in their communities, and in those neighborhoods, he discovered his other great passion: Zulu dance, which he described as a kind of “warrior theater” with its martial-style movements of high kicks, ground stamps and pretend blows.
His involvement with black musicians often saw him arrested during apartheid. He was arrested multiple times for breaking the segregation laws. At the age of 17, together with Sipho Mchunu, he formed a band called Juluka. At the age of 33 in 1986, during the height of apartheid, he partnered with Dudu Zulu to form his second inter-racial band called Savuka.
He was one of the few white artists to openly confront the apartheid government in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Clegg’s politically charged recordings and multicultural outlook put him in direct conflict with the apartheid government, with much of his music banned from the airwaves and his public performances limited. Apartheid ended in 1994.
His 1987 hit “Asimbonanga,” a tribute to Nelson Mandela, who at the time had been imprisoned on Robben Island for over two decades, was one of the high points of a glittering career. He went on to perform the song for Mandela onstage in South Africa at the popular Aids awareness concerts that Mandela organized.
He authored and published the book UkuBuyisa Isidumbu and presented papers on The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers in Johannesburg in 1981 at the Grahamstown International Library of African Music and Towards an understanding of African Dance: The Zulu Isishameni Style in 1982 at Rhodes University.
Apart from lecturing at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Natal, Clegg studied anthropology and combined his studies with music.
He was awarded by a number of local and international bodies for his contribution to music and society notably by the French Government in 1991 with a Knight of Arts and Letters, and in 2015 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. In 2012 he received the Order of Ikhamanga from the South African government. He was also awarded a number of honorary doctorates.
Clegg recorded several solo albums and enjoyed international success, selling out concerts wherever he performed.
“His music had the ability to unite people across the races and bring them together as a community.”
Clegg never shied away from being described as a crossover artist. Instead, he embraced the concept.
“I love it,” he said. “I love the hybridization of culture, language, music, dance, choreography. If we look at the history of art, generally speaking, it is through the interaction of different communities, cultures, worldviews, ideas and concepts that invigorates styles and genres and gives them life and gives people a different angle on stuff that was really, just, you know, being passed down blindly from generation to generation.”
Johnny Clegg didn’t do anything blindly. Instead, he held a mirror up to his nation — and urged South Africa to redefine itself.
In 2018 a group of well-known musicians came together to celebrate the life and work of Johnny Clegg and recorded a special version of his song – THE CROSSING. All proceeds will go to the ‘Friends of Johnny Clegg Fund’ for primary education. The fund is all about changing lives of young learners all across South Africa, through literacy programmes and using technology in education to pursue outcomes-based interventions. The Fund is managed by The Click Foundation who will distribute funds to their various centers across South Africa. Visit the FriendsOfJohnnyClegg website for more information on the singers, or how to contribute to the Fund.