South African Music Legend Johnny Clegg
On Apartheid, Nelson Mandela & His Nation’s Future
Born in England, but raised in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Johnny Clegg emerged as a revolutionary musical force in the ‘70s and ‘80s by combining African and European lyrics and musical influences that spoke out against government oppression at the height of Apartheid.
Known as “The White Zulu,” Clegg started his first racially mixed band, Juluka, in 1969 after falling in love with Zulu culture and musical traditions. The mere act of playing with Zulu musicians such as Sipho Mchunu was illegal at the time, and explicitly political songs inspired by South African trade union slogans didn’t earn the band any fans in the Apartheid regime. Clegg and his bandmates were arrested repeatedly.
When Mchunu left Juluka in 1986 to tend his family’s cattle, Clegg formed Savuka, whose Zulu name means “we have awakened.” Clegg, who by this point was teaching Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, became increasingly political on 1987’s Third World Child. The song “Asimbonanga” became a rallying cry for the anti-Apartheid movement, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and canonizing 3 martyrs of the liberation struggle– Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett.
By the late ‘80s, Clegg was as popular in Europe as Michael Jackson. In 2012, he received the South African Presidential Ikhamanga Award, the highest honor a citizen can receive there. And when Nelson Mandela passed away earlier this year, “Asimbonanga” was the emotional anthem sang in the late leader’s honor.
Clegg is currently in the midst of his largest North American tour to date in support of his new album, Best, Live & Unplugged. A visit to South Africa back in 2000 changed my life, so I was truly honored to get a chance to speak with the musical legend about life during Apartheid, his fascination with Zulu culture, what made Nelson Mandela so beloved, and his hopes for the future of his homeland.