This anthropology teacher (1953-2019) was a unique artist who created a musical style mixing Western and Zulu sounds. With the desire to abolish racism and prejudice. This Friday at 10:40 pm, Arte paints his portrait in “Johnny Clegg – The White Zulu”.
Revolted, rebellious, the singer-songwriter stood up all his life against apartheid (South African policy that tried to separate the races between 1948 and 1991). When pancreatic cancer prevails, at age 66, on July 16, 2019, his musical director, Roddy Quinn, pays him an eloquent tribute: “Johnny showed us how to assimilate and embrace other cultures without losing his identity” . A singular aptitude for an extraordinary destiny.
A “good dirty kid”
Born in England, to a British father and a Polish Jewish mother who grew up in Zimbabwe, Jonathan Paul Clegg followed the latter to South Africa and spent his youth there. Fascinated by music and crazy about the guitar, the pre-teen is marked by the way of playing of a street artist. “This Zulu had Africanized the instrument!”, He later said to Pan Africa Music, a medium devoted to African cultures. “I wanted to learn! I did not enter black culture through politics, it was music that opened the door for me. ”
At the time, a white man could unfortunately not associate with blacks. And even less sing or dance with them. Arrested many times, the kid does not care: “Apartheid was just a fence, I was just trying to get around it.” And to add in the French weekly Jeune Afrique: “Each time, the cops called my mother, she paid a fine, made me promise not to start over. But nothing could have stopped me from going back to listen to this music that we played in the streets and on the roofs! ”
Sing your revolt
Revolted by segregation, the young man becomes an activist by teaching anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. “I saw things differently, I politicized myself. Why these barriers? Why was it immoral for a black person and a white person to marry and have children? What was that ?” Clegg comes into resistance through music, forms the group Juluka (“sweat”), then Savuka.
His avowed aim at Pan Africa Music is clear: “A lot of committed singers have made themselves known but did not have a large audience because people do not like being told what is right or wrong. So the authorities were not afraid of them. I also wanted to write political songs, but finding a way for the public to appropriate them! ”
The magic operates, Johnny Clegg leaves in concert with his hits: “Scatterlings of Africa”, “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World” and above all, “Asimbonanga”, tribute to Nelson Mandela (the African statesman imprisoned for 27 years ) as well as three other anti-apartheid figures: Victoria Mxenge, lawyer killed by South African police, Steve Biko and Neil Agget, who died in suspicious conditions in prison.
Dance with Mandela
Times change in the 1990s. On stage in Germany in 1997, the singer has the shock of his life: “Mandela joined me, beaming and dancing! It was just a complete and incredible gift of existence ”. At the end of his life, the multi-awarded artist did not say he was fooled: “Between 1994 and 1999, we opened a dam. Then it closed slowly. Anti-apartheid taught me that it’s easy to be against something, but harder to be for something. The struggle continues.”
And to conclude on his career: “It was so rewarding! Being able to unite people through song, especially at a time when it seemed impossible, was unexpected ”. The White Zulu has achieved this through talent. And tenacity.
This article appeared in Télépro magazine on 21/1/2021