Johnny Clegg, who fought apartheid with music, is dead

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South African musician Johnny Clegg championed human rights in music that blended African tradition and Western rock for more than 40 years.

The musician who formed one of the first rock bands with black and white musicians that performed together when apartheid was still the law of the land, died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. at his home in Johannesburg, his manager, Roddy Quin, confirmed in a statement.

Clegg was part of a community that brought Afro-pop music to a global audience in the 1980s, along with Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade, Tabu Ley Rochereau from Congo as well as Western musicians such as Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel.

Through recordings with his first band, Juluka (the Zulu word for “sweat”), which he and black musician Sipho Mchunu formed in the late 1970s, and its successor, Savuka (meaning “awakening” or “we have arisen”), Clegg wedded Zulu rhythms and lyrics to Celtic folk and Western rock and pop music in a string of albums, the most successful of which helped him build a solid following in the U.S. He made stateside tours in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Jonathan Paul Clegg was born June 7, 1953, in Bacup, Lancashire, England, but moved as a child to Africa with his mother, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland.

They moved first to Rhodesia (which became Zimbabwe), and then South Africa when Clegg was 6. Like many white youths in the U.S. and England who later became musicians, Clegg was captivated as a boy by the sounds he overheard whenever he was in proximity to black communities. He was initially introduced to those communities by his mother, who was a cabaret and jazz singer, and his stepfather, a journalist.

Despite the nation’s institutional segregation, Clegg often sneaked into music and dance events, running afoul of the laws and occasionally landing in jail, the first time when he was 15.

“To me, they were fun things,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “things I wanted to be a part of: dancing with Africans at a migrant workers’ hostel, playing with them at night on the roofs where they live, and things I wasn’t allowed, because of the apartheid laws, to do.”

Those experiences not only later informed the music he created with Mchunu and other black musicians, but fed his companion career as a cultural anthropologist, which earned him teaching posts at the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Natal.

An eloquent and educated speaker, Clegg would often combine the two careers during his concerts, enlightening audiences as to the different traditions from which the choreography and musical elements he incorporated originated.

He formed Savuka in 1985 after Juluka disbanded when Mchunu decided to stop performing to focus on his family. His key foils in the new band became percussionist and dancer Dudu Zulu and singers Mandisa Dlanga, who remained with him through the end of his performing career, and Solly Letwaba.

The political and social revolution that saw Mandela transformed from political prisoner to South Africa’s president was tumultuous. Even as there was much to celebrate, Clegg experienced ongoing tensions personally when Dudu Zulu was killed in 1992 while attempting to mediate a dispute between feuding clans. Clegg disbanded Savuka shortly thereafter, later resuming touring and recording as a solo act.

Clegg took a philosophical view strongly influenced by his associations with indigenous people into his journey with cancer in the last few years, and continued to look to his role as an artist to help guide him.


  1. Scatterlings of Africa

2. Dela

3. Great Heart

4. I call you by name

5. The crossing

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