There was a moment at Oppikoppi in 2015 when time stood still.
The heat of the day had begun to rise and disappear as the cold set into our bones and suddenly, the 24 000-strong crowd lifted their voices into the night.
Mandela’s death was still too near and Johnny Clegg, under a lone spotlight, led the crowd into a celebration of a great man’s life with Asimbonanga, as the farm let out a sigh in collective mourning and joy.
Today, we mourn Johnny Clegg after he succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. It’s as if South Africa’s song has been silenced, as the man who gave us a united voice rests after a life of unrest. From secretly going to townships, contravening the provisions of the Group Areas Act, being arrested many times, and his performances with Juluka being raided, among many other things. Clegg’s 66 years of life was a life of struggle in song, dance, and spirit.
Pushing the legal limits, Clegg snuck into townships, visiting hostels of migrant workers to practice his guitar and learn how to dance in his early teens. Truly anti-establishment from the start. At 17, he met Sipho Mchunu, with whom he started his first band, Juluka. He was enchanted and liberated by how guitar was used to communicate the spirit of the township.
“I stumbled on Zulu street guitar music being performed by Zulu migrant workers, traditional tribesmen from the rural areas,” he told NPR in a 2017 interview. “They had taken a Western instrument that had been developed over six, seven hundred years, and reconceptualised the tuning. They changed the strings around, they developed new styles of picking, they only use the first five frets of the guitar – they developed a totally unique genre of guitar music, indigenous to South Africa. I found it quite emancipating.”
In 1979, Juluka released their first album, Universal Men. Their music was a mixture of Zulu and pop music and thus could not receive airplay because of censorship. Apartheid laws forbade public performances with people of different racial groups and Juluka had to gain audiences through private performances, which were usually raided by security police. They would often push the boundaries and perform publicly in universities and hosting live shows but were boycotted by those with true buying power. Undeterred, Juluka carried on and by word of mouth and private performances, the band’s popularity rose internationally.
The lyrics often contained coded political messages and references to the battle against apartheid, although Clegg 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 explicitly political songs.
Clegg’s fluid ability to dance the Zulu dance and to speak the language saw him dubbed the ‘white Zulu’. Universal Men highlighted the lives of Zulu migrant workers living and traversing two worlds – the rural and the urban. Juluka went on to release more critically-acclaimed albums, including Work for All that was picked up by South African trade union slogans in the mid-1980s.
Together with 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. A Grammy nomination and worldwide acclaim later, along his solo career and brief reunion with Juluka, Clegg cemented himself as a voice of the country’s joy and pain.
In front of a crowd, he was powerful, enigmatic, and had a contagious joy about him that infected his audiences into a celebration of music and dance. He often looked to the sky when he performed, a kind of searching for something that he could never grasp, but when he sang it was as if he had absorbed all that energy and put it forth into the world in song.
His voice surging forward to this country he loved so much with an energy that told us all that we could be safe with his music guiding us. Each stomp of his feet driving that same energy into the soil for our ancestors to see what we have created and to plant roots for future generations to grow. The tenderness of his fingers on the guitar strings like a father pushing his child’s hair behind their ear, telling them it will be okay.
As a person off-stage, he was timorous, always searching for the right words. When he found them, his voice was like a soft cocoon, where anyone could find a home. Friends of his sons, Jesse and Jaron, describe him as warm, kind, and welcoming like they were part of the family. To the country, he was the man who articulated the raging fire we all had within us from the bad old days until now.
A country is heartbroken today. A country with its children all over the world have come together in mourning for a man who knitted us with love in a country torn apart by hatred. Johnny Clegg, we are your scatterlings of Africa. We are all a product of his music. And now we bid you rest. It was a cruel, crazy, beautiful world for you. And we were lucky to have you in ours.
Hamba kahle, Comrade. Rest in power.
Photos courtesy of Henry Engelbrecht.