Johnny Clegg, South African Songwriter and Activist, Dead at 66

Music News Johnny Clegg
Johnny Clegg, South African Songwriter and Activist, Dead at 66

Johnny Clegg, the British-born South African singer-songwriter known for his outspoken resistance to apartheid authorities, died on Tuesday following a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 66 years old.

Clegg formed the bands Juluka and Savuka. Juluka was South Africa’s first multiracial band, and its formation was an illegal act under apartheid law. His songs tackled South Africa’s policies of racial separation, championing progressive politics and discussing Nelson Mandela’s unjust imprisonment with songs like “Asimbonaga” (Zulu for “We have not seen him”). Following his release from prison, Mandela joined Clegg onstage for a performance of the song in 1999.

Clegg and his band were often detained and harassed by the white authoritarian rule that plagued South Africa in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The bands’ music was banned on state-run radio shows and denounced by the Musicians’ Union of Britain. Still, Clegg toured extensively worldwide. His music was often heralded for bringing a greater international awareness to the realities of life under apartheid authoritarianism.

Clegg earned the nickname “the White Zulu” for his onstage performances of Zulu war dances. The singer reportedly disliked the nickname, asserting that it was not his place to hold the title, despite the good intentions.

Born in 1953, Clegg was first exposed to segregated townships when his stepfather, journalist Dan Pienaar, took him to segregated black townships, rarely accessible to white people, in his youth. In his adolescence, he lived in Israel and Zambia, where he met Zulu migrant workers. In an interview with The Mail & Guardian in 2010, Clegg said that “there was something about them that I intuitively connected with, because they were also establishing these tenuous connections with different places.”

One of those migrants was Charlie Mzila, who taught Clegg new ways to play guitar from his traditional Western teachings. He was introduced to Sipho Mchunu, and together they formed Juluka, a band known for blending traditional Zulu music with influences like Jackson Browne and The Chieftains. Juluka disbanded in 1985.

Clegg then went on to form Savuka in 1986 with drummer Dudu Ndlovu. Ndlovu was shot to death in 1993 while trying to defuse a conflict between rival cabdrivers. Shortly thereafter, Savuka disbanded.

In the early 2000s, Clegg continued to tour. His last onstage appearances were in 2017, billed as the “Final Journey Tour.”

In a statement, the South African government said that Clegg’s music “had the ability to unite people across races.” Clegg is survived by his wife Jenny and sons Jesse and Jaron. His family has asked that supporters make donations to the Click Foundation, an organization promoting literacy education in South Africa, in lieu of sending flowers.

You can revisit our list of 10 essential Clegg songs here.

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