Johnny Clegg looks like your dad. He is an unassuming white guy who wears reading glasses, and speaks with the considered eloquence of a thinker, a man of letters. Then he will do something to turn that perception upside down. He’ll jump up and dance – not the way your dad does – like a Zulu warrior.
Or he’ll start to sing. His is a voice that does more than resonate. It’s loud, deep, and full of soul. It’s a voice that carries, inspires, and has been heard all over the world. When he sings he is sincere in a way that lacks any self-consciousness, but it’s not an earnestness that can be easily mocked. He’s too relaxed, too confident on stage – just too good at what he does.
He’s not someone who can be reduced to any singular definition. Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that the initial impression of Clegg as a bookish intellectual is not inaccurate. He’s an anthropologist by training, and once taught at Wits University in Johannesburg. He’s published research papers on Zulu dance and music, and has visited and lectured at Dartmouth College in the USA.
Clegg was born in Lancashire, England, and moved to South Africa with his parents. His interest in anthropology, as well as his musical style, can be traced back to when, as a child, Clegg was taken by his father, who was a crime reporter, into the townships of Johannesburg on assignment.
The future musician saw the brutality and injustice of the life that black South Africans were forced to live, but he also saw the richness and vibrancy of Zulu culture. He identified with the openness of township people, and from a very early age was made aware of the lie that was apartheid.
On one occasion, Clegg’s father was covering a conflict between two factions of a church group that split when a young preacher broke away from the fold. The atmosphere was dangerous: suit-wearing churchgoers turned rock-bearing antagonists.
Clegg watched from a police van, peering through the window. The policeman thought that Clegg’s old man was delusional for putting his son in such a potentially volatile situation. His father’s attitude was that if the policeman did his job, his son – who knew how to handle himself in the situation – would grow up knowing exactly what apartheid South Africa was.
It was an unconventional approach to parenthood, and it worked. Clegg visited the townships with increasing frequency, and learnt Zulu stick-fighting and war dancing. “I wanted to be a Zulu street musician when I was about 16, but it was complicated because I also wanted to be a game ranger,” he says of his emerging identity as a teenager.
He completed his schooling while taking Zulu as an extra subject in matric, teaching himself the written language from a handbook. By the time he had finished school he had an established network of friends in the migrant mining community, and had learnt to make Zulu music.
That same community – along with students – were the first people who were drawn to his music. The mixtures of culture and language that Clegg created echoed the eclectic community that had grown around the mines. Students thought that the music was odd, and liked it for that. For Clegg what the music did made sense.
“Music cuts through everything: politics, economics, value systems, religion. Music is that language; it’s that universal moment.”
Clegg’s first band, Juluka, came together while he was a student at Wits. Formed by Clegg with Sipho Mchunu, Juluka was the first racially mixed group to achieve prominence in South Africa.
The group relied on word of mouth to promote itself, as the SABC refused to play any of its tracks on the radio. They would drive hundreds of kilometres to play at their next venue, and shows were often disrupted by the police. Frequently they would only make it three songs into a set before they were forced to shut down the show, with the political content of the songs, as well as the multiracial composition of the group, a threat to the apartheid government’s noose of control.
Clegg left anthropology for good when the track Scatterlings of Africa made it into the top 50 on the British charts.
“I walked into my prof’s office and I said: ‘Prof, I want to take a sabbatical. For a year I want to follow my musical career, otherwise I’ll be a very dissatisfied and disgruntled human being,’” Clegg says of his decision. His professor’s response –“Jonathan, when you walk out the door, we’ll never see you again” – was denied by Clegg, who fully anticipated returning to teaching.
His professor was right, and Juluka went on to achieve international success. They were able to tour in Europe, and saw two of their albums go platinum. Another five went gold, as they became one of the most recognisable world music groups.
In 1986 Juluka was disbanded. Mchunu’s father called his son home, to look after the family cattle. Clegg formed a new group, Savuka, and continued to tour and record. Savuka was a more openly political group: their 1987 album Third World Child featured a track called ‘Asimbonanga (Bring Him Back Home)’.
It was the first South African recording to use Nelson Mandela’s name, and called for the ANC leader’s release from prison. It was banned immediately, but the statement had been made: along with Mandela, Clegg sang out the names of other struggle heroes. Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett, activists whose lives were ended by the apartheid state, were named in the song.
Many years later, after the end of apartheid, Clegg performed ‘Asimbonanga’ to open a concert in France. Towards the end of the song, Nelson Mandela emerged from backstage, and danced with the band.
“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world, and at peace with myself,” Mandela said once the band had finished. It was an evocation of everything post-apartheid South Africa is at its best. Mandela exhorted the crowd to dance, and requested an encore from the band.
Clegg’s voice was soft the second time the song was performed. Nearly whispering, the power and depth of his song was concentrated into a gentle croon, the stuff of goose bumps. Mandela – dancing exactly like your dad – beamed that special smile.
It was a perfect moment, and showcased everything that makes Johnny Clegg one of South Africa’s most important sons. He is a musician, a dancer, a performer, and he is extraordinary at all of those things. Most importantly, he is a person who makes you realise how restrictive the barriers that society creates can be. The effortlessness with which Clegg climbs over those hurdles is the reason he is celebrated, and shows a simple truth: if you open your arms to the world, it will embrace you.