Johnny Clegg, a groundbreaking South African musician, human rights champion and cultural anthropologist known for his high-energy performing style, died yesterday, July 16, of pancreatic cancer. He was 66.
A Grammy Award-nominated artist nicknamed the “White Zulu,” Clegg — who in 1996 headlined Baltimore’s Artscape festival — died peacefully at home in the South African city of Johannesburg with his family by his side, according to Roddy Quin, Clegg’s manager.
“Condolences to Family and Friends of Johnny Clegg — one of South Africa’s most celebrated sons,” the South African government tweeted. “He was a singer, a songwriter, a dancer, anthropologist whose infectious crossover music exploded onto the international scene and contributed towards social cohesion #RIPJohnnyClegg.”
The son of an English father and a Jewish mother whose parents were immigrants from Poland, Clegg was a seminal figure in the anti-apartheid and world music movements.
With such African superstars as Congo’s Tabu Ley Rochereau and Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade, Clegg was highly instrumental in bringing Afro pop music to a global audience in the 1980s, attracting the likes of such Western musicians as Peter Gabriel, Sting and Paul Simon. (The latter’s seminal album “Graceland” was greatly influenced by the earlier works of Clegg, among others, and Simon thanked Clegg in the record’s liner notes.)
A native of the English town of Bacup, Lancashire, Clegg moved with his divorced mother to her native Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then to South Africa when he was 6. He also spent part of a year in Israel during his childhood.
Clegg received a secular Jewish upbringing but did not become a bar mitzvah, and he learned about Zulu music, dancing and culture as a teenager.
“I stumbled on Zulu street guitar music being performed by Zulu migrant workers, traditional tribesmen from the rural areas,” Clegg recalled in an interview. “They had taken a Western instrument that had been developed over six, seven hundred years, and re-conceptualized the tuning. They changed the strings around, they developed new styles of picking, they only use the first five frets of the guitar — they developed a totally unique genre of guitar music, indigenous to South Africa. I found it quite emancipating.”
Later in his career, Clegg, a multi-instrumentalist, explored “crossover” music with such multi-racial bands Juluka and Savuka while South Africa was under white minority rule. He later became a solo artist.
Clegg was known for his wild, high-kicking performing style and his frequently controversial lyrics that criticized the policies of the South African government. In the 1970s and 1980s, Clegg performed and recorded in defiance of racial barriers imposed under the nation’s apartheid system, but eventually celebrated its new democracy under President Nelson Mandela.
During the apartheid era, Clegg was heavily restricted by South African censors from performing and arrested for some of his anti-apartheid songs, but he “never gave into the pressure of the apartheid rules,” said Quin.
“[Clegg] impacted millions of people around the world,” Quin said. “He played a major role in South Africa getting people to learn about other people’s cultures and bringing people together.”
He called Clegg an “anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person.”
One of Clegg’s most famous songs was “Scatterlings of Africa,” which he released with Juluka in 1982. The song appeared on the soundtrack of the 1988 Academy Award-winning movie, “Rain Man,” directed by Baltimore-born filmmaker Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman.
In 2015, Clegg was diagnosed with cancer, which required two six-month sessions of chemotherapy and an operation.
“I don’t have a duodenum and half my stomach,” he told the media two years ago. “I don’t have a bile duct. I don’t have a gall bladder and half my pancreas. It’s all been reconfigured.”
Clegg performed as late as 2017 during a tour called “The Final Journey” while his cancer was in remission. At a Johannesburg concert, Clegg said that “all of these entries into traditional culture gave me a way of understanding myself, helping me to shape a kind of African identity for myself, and freed me up to examine another way of looking at the world.”
In a recent interview, Clegg said the highlight of his career came while performing one of his best-known songs, “Asimbonanga,” in Germany in 1997 and having Mandela surprise him by coming onstage and dancing. (The Zulu phrase asimbonanga means, “We’ve never seen him,” and the song alluded to Mandela’s lengthy imprisonment by South African authorities before his release in 1990.)
At the conclusion of the song, Clegg and Mandela walked offstage, holding hands.
“That was the pinnacle moment for me,” Clegg said. “It was just a complete and amazing gift from the universe.”
Clegg is survived by his wife of 31 years, Jenny, and their two sons, Jesse and Jaron. Quin said a private funeral will be held for Clegg’s family and close friends, and a public memorial is being planned.