Musician Johnny Clegg performs on stage during his own farewell concert in Johannesburg. Picture: AP
Musician Johnny Clegg performs on stage during his own farewell concert in Johannesburg. Picture: AP

#JohnnyClegg: How one man sought to change the face of SA music

By Buhle Mbonambi Time of article published Jul 17, 2019

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South African music has lost a pioneer who worked tirelessly to change the industry. Johnny Clegg, beloved son of South Africa, succumbed to pancreatic cancer, which he had been battling since 2015, at his family home in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

The legendary musician, who broke racial boundaries with his unique brand of music and was called South Africa’s Bruce Springsteen by the New York Times, launched a series of farewell concerts last year where he shared the stage with his musician son, Jesse.

In December last year, musicians banded together to recreate his iconic The Crossing.

Clegg’s role in breaking racial boundaries in apartheid South Africa endeared him to many. He blended rock and mbaqanga music and that made him a crossover artist, together with his band, Juluka.

In a New York Times profile in 1990, he was vocal about what was happening in South Africa and the role that the arts could play in making the situation, better.

“We have a mission, which is to bring a whole collection of songs that are about the South African experience to the world,’’ Clegg said.

‘’I’m a cultural activist. I believe that it’s through culture and experience that you change people.’’

Clegg was born in 1953 in Lancashire, England, and moved to Johannesburg with his Zimbabwean mother when he was 6.

His exposure to Zulu migrant workers during adolescence introduced him to the culture and music. His involvement with black musicians often saw him arrested during apartheid.

At the age of 17, Sipho Mchunu and Clegg formed their first band, Juluka.

At the age of 33 in 1986, during the height of apartheid, he partnered with Dudu Zulu to form his second interracial band, Savuka. Clegg also recorded several solo albums and enjoyed international success, selling out concerts wherever he performed.

He studied anthropology and combined his studies with music, later on lecturing at the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Natal.

In 2012 he received the Order of Ikhamanga from the government.

He was awarded a number of Honorary doctorates by the Universities of the Witwatersrand, KwaZulu-Natal, Dartmouth College in the US and the City University of New York.

He was awarded by a number of local and international bodies for his contribution to music and society, notably by the French government in 1991 with a Knight of Arts and Letters, and in 2015 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

His manager, Roddy Quin, said: “There will be a service for public to pay their respects and the details hereof will be announced in due course.

“His passing has left us numb and we request that the family’s privacy be respected during this trying time. The family will be holding a private funeral service and we ask you to please respect the families wishes.”

Clegg is survived by his wife of 31 years, Jenny, and sons Jesse and Jaron.

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