Johnny Clegg

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Johnny Clegg
Johnny-clegg-valenciennes-davidata-14 07 2009.jpg
Clegg performing live in 2009
Background information
Birth nameJonathan Paul Clegg
Also known asLe Zoulou Blanc
Born(1953-06-07)7 June 1953
Bacup, Lancashire, England
Died16 July 2019(2019-07-16) (aged 66)
Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Musician
  • singer-songwriter
  • dancer
  • anthropologist
  • anti-apartheid activist
Instrument(s)Vocals, guitar, concertina
Years active1969–2018
Labels Capitol Records [2]

Jonathan Paul Clegg, OBE OIS (7 June 1953 16 July 2019) was a South African musician, singer-songwriter, dancer, anthropologist and anti-apartheid activist, some of whose work was in musicology focused on the music of indigenous South African peoples. [3] His band Juluka began as a duo with Sipho Mchunu, and was the first group in the South African apartheid-era with a white man and a black man. The pair performed and recorded, later with an expanded lineup.


In 1986 Clegg founded the band Savuka, and also recorded as a solo act, occasionally reuniting with his earlier band partners. Sometimes called Le Zoulou Blanc (French:  [lə zulu blɑ̃] , for "The White Zulu"), he was an important figure in South African popular music and a prominent white figure in the resistance to apartheid, [4] becoming for a period the subject of investigation by the security branch of the South African Police. [5] His songs mixed English with Zulu lyrics, and also combined idioms of traditional African music with those of modern Western styles. [6]

Early life and career

Clegg was born on 7 June 1953 in Bacup, Lancashire, [7] to an English father of Scottish descent, Dennis Clegg, and a Rhodesian mother, Muriel (Braudo). [8] [9] Clegg's mother's family were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, and Clegg had a secular Jewish upbringing, learning about the Ten Commandments but refusing to have a bar mitzvah or even associate with other Jewish children at school. [10] His parents divorced when he was still an infant, and he moved with his mother to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then, at the age of six, to South Africa, [11] also spending part of a year in Israel during his childhood. [10]

As an adolescent in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, he encountered the demi-monde of the city's Zulu migrant workers' music and dance. Under the tutelage of Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, Clegg mastered both the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar and the isishameni dance styles of the migrants. [12] Clegg's involvement with black musicians often led to arrests for trespassing on government property and for contravening the Group Areas Act. He was first arrested at the age of 15 for violating apartheid-era laws in South Africa banning people of different races from congregating together after curfew hours. [13]

At the age of 16, he met Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker with whom he began performing music. [11] The partnership, which they named Juluka, began in 1969, [14] and was profiled in the 1970s television documentary Beats of the Heart: Rhythm of Resistance. [15]

After graduating with a BA(Hons) in Social Anthropology from the University of Witwatersrand, Clegg pursued an academic career for four years where he lectured and wrote several seminal scholarly papers on Zulu music and dance. [12] In the early stages of his musical career, Clegg combined his music with the study of anthropology [15] at Wits, where he was influenced by the work of David Webster, a social anthropologist who was later assassinated in 1989. [13] [16] [17]

He preceded each song with snippets of Zulu culture, information, commentary, humor and personal anecdotes relevant and unique to that song, [12] occasionally also incorporating aspects of his Jewish roots in songs such as "Jericho", "Jarusalema" and "Warsaw 1943". [10]


Juluka was an unusual musical partnership for the time in South Africa, with a white man (Clegg) and a black man (Mchunu) performing together. The band, which grew to a six-member group (with three white musicians and three black musicians) by the time it released its first album Universal Men in 1979, faced harassment and censorship, with Clegg later remarking that it was "impossible" to perform in public in South Africa. [18] The group tested the apartheid-era laws, touring and performing in private venues, including universities, churches, hostels, and even private homes in order to attract an audience, as national broadcasters would not play their music. [7]

Just as unusually, the band's music combined Zulu, Celtic, and rock elements, with both English and Zulu lyrics. [18] Those lyrics often contained coded political messages and references to the battle against apartheid, [19] although Clegg maintained that Juluka was not originally intended to be a political band. "Politics found us," he told The Baltimore Sun in 1996. [18] 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." [20]

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 some explicitly political songs. For example, the album Work for All (which includes a song with the same title) picked up on South African trade union slogans in the mid-1980s. [21] As a result of their political messages and racial integration, Clegg and other band members were arrested several times and concerts routinely broken up. [22]

Despite being ignored and often harassed by the South African government at home, Juluka were able to tour internationally, playing in Europe, Canada, and the United States, [7] and had two platinum and five gold albums, [18] becoming an international success. The group was disbanded in 1985, when Mchunu retired from music and went back to his family farm to return to his people's traditional life of raising cattle. [14] It was briefly reconstituted when Mchunu and Clegg reunited in the mid-1990s, releasing one final album in 1997 before breaking up for good. [4]


Clegg in 1992 Johnny Clegg (cropped).jpg
Clegg in 1992

Together with the black 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. [11] [13] [18] The group's first album, Third World Child , broke international sales records in several European countries, including France. [23] The band went on to record several more albums, including Heat, Dust and Dreams , which received a Grammy Award nomination. [24] Johnny Clegg and Savuka played both at home and abroad, even though Clegg's refusal to stop performing in apartheid-era South Africa created tensions with the international anti-apartheid movement. Despite his high-profile (and personally hazardous) opposition to the South African regime, this led to Clegg's expulsion from the British Musicians' Union, [11] in what one writer has since called "a fit of pique". [6] In one instance, the band drew such a large crowd in Lyon that Michael Jackson cancelled a concert there, complaining that Clegg and his group had "stole[n] all his fans". [25] In 1993, the band dissolved after Dudu Zulu was shot and killed while attempting to mediate a taxi war. [13] [16] [18]

Juluka reunion and solo career

Johnny Clegg at la fete de l'Humanite, France, 2007 JohnnyClegg Huma.jpg
Johnny Clegg at la fête de l'Humanité, France, 2007

Briefly reunited in the mid-1990s, Clegg and Mchunu reformed Juluka, released a new album, [24] and toured throughout the world in 1996 with King Sunny Adé. [26] In the following years, Clegg recorded several solo albums.

During one concert in 1999, he was joined onstage by South African President Nelson Mandela, who danced as Johnny Clegg sang the protest song "Asimbonanga" that Savuka had dedicated to Mandela. Asimbonanga became an anthem of protest for the Mass Democratic Movement's umbrella organisation, the United Democratic Front. During Mandela's illness and death in 2013, the video of the concert attracted considerable media attention outside South Africa. [16] [27]

His touring schedule was abbreviated in 2017 after he underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer, and Clegg performed his last concert in Harare, Zimbabwe in November 2018. [7] [16]

Clegg on stage in 2013 Johnny Clegg .jpg
Clegg on stage in 2013

Clegg's song "Scatterlings of Africa" gave him his only entries in the UK Singles Chart, reaching No. 44 in February 1983 with Juluka and No. 75 in May 1987 as Johnny Clegg and Savuka. The following year the song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man . [28]

His song "Life is a Magic Thing" was featured in FernGully: The Last Rainforest . [29]

Savuka's song "Dela" was featured on the soundtrack of the 1997 film George of the Jungle and its 2003 sequel, [29] while "Great Heart" was the title song for the 1986 film Jock of the Bushveld and the end credits song for the 2000 film Whispers: An Elephant's Tale . "Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World" was featured in the 1990 film Opportunity Knocks and 1991 film Career Opportunities . [29]

Jimmy Buffett recorded "Great Heart" for his 1988 album, Hot Water . [3]


Illness and death

Johnny Clegg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, [41] which ultimately led to his death on 16 July 2019. He died in his Johannesburg home surrounded by loved ones and was laid to rest the following day in Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg. [42] [43] Clegg was survived by his wife, Jenny, and his two sons, Jesse (also a musician) [44] and Jaron.


Academic publications

Autobiographical novels








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