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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

The inspiration of Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg and Juluka's "Scatterlings of Africa"

Johnny Clegg’s life was truly inspirational. Sometimes called "The White Zulu," the white South African musician, who died July 16 at 66, had immersed himself in the indigenous music of his country, absorbing the Zulu language, folk music and dance styles as a teenager, then leading the racially integrated rock bands Juluka (with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu) and Savuka, and later performing as a solo artist.

He was first arrested for violating apartheid laws at 15, and was frequently arrested thereafter; his music, while avoided by broadcasters, was nevertheless hugely impactful, as evidenced by the response to his passing.

A tweet from the South African government stated, “He has left deep footprints in our hearts. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity.”

Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s minister of sport, arts and culture, likewise tweeted, “A towering giant has fallen with the passing of legendary singer-songwriter and anthropologist Johnny Clegg. Our hearts are sore and as he famously sang in [Savuka’s anti-apartheid song] ‘Asimbonanga,’ ‘Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey’ as we contend with the loss of a torchbearer of our struggle for freedom.”

Nelson Mandela joined Johnny Clegg in a performance of his anti-apartheid song "Asimbonanga" at a 1999 concert.

In the U.S., Steven Van Zandt, himself an activist musician who in 1985 formed the star-studded Artists United Against Apartheid group to oppose concerts in South Africa’s Sun City resort, hailed Clegg (also via Twitter) as “one of the greatest artists of South Africa and the world. Musa Ukungilandela by his band Juluka is one of the great albums of all time. He was a great friend when I needed one during my Sun City research. His use of Zulu influenced me to use it in Pretoria.”

At this week’s NY NOW home/lifestyle/handmade/gift market trade show at New York’s Javits Center, exhibitor Morongwe “Mo” Mokone, whose Pretoria-based Mo’s Crib company makes handcrafted homeware design and crafts items out of recycled materials, reflected on Clegg’s influence.

“As a black person, I can say this: His music spokle to every race,” she said. “It was a huge inspiration in South Africa, and was played everywhere. It spoke to all of us, and was very inclusive.”

Growing up, Mokone “always listened” to Clegg’s music, she continued.

“He sang inclusive music—not segregated. So we felt included in his music, which meant so much to us. People didn’t see his vision at the time, but he really led the music industry, and really put us on the map.”

Clegg, concluded Mokone, was “the symbol of the rainbow nation we are today.”

“We’re already missing him,” she said.



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