Johnny Clegg: Rebel, intellectual, musician



In death, the artist begins the process of becoming a collective ancestor for South Africans and others around the world whose lives have been touched by his music and deep empathy with the oppressed.

Johnny Clegg died at his home in Johannesburg on Tuesday 16 July, in the care of his family.

Most of us are carried on the tides of history, like flotsam. In art, as in politics, the great figures confront the weight of history, the limits of the situations into which they are thrust, and make their own choices.

Clegg, a man of rare and sparkling intelligence, was, in the most fundamental sense of the term, a rebel. As a teenager he made an existential choice to confront history and to refuse the situation in which he found himself.

As an intellectual, a poet, a musician, a dancer and a politically committed person, he harnessed a masculine strength to an aspiration for justice, grounded in a profound empathy for some of the most oppressed people in society, rather than dogmatic abstraction. 

From jazz to maskandi

The son of a jazz singer, his encounters with street musicians in Yeoville, the Johannesburg suburb in which he lived, enabled him to begin to forge his own artistic trajectory.

At 14, he met Charlie Mzila, who was working as a cleaner in a block of flats. Mzila began to teach Clegg to play maskandi guitar. At 16, he met Sipho Mchunu, a maskandi musician who was working as a gardener. In the following year, 1970, the two started performing as a duo.

From the beginning, the strictures of apartheid meant that their collaboration could only find audiences in liminal spaces like migrant worker hostels or the unstable infrastructure of Johannesburg’s middle-class left.

Their first single, Woza Friday, was released in 1976. It is an infectious pop song that became a hit the following year after receiving radio play in what was then the Transkei and Swaziland. It has an undeniable place in the history of great South African pop songs.

Clegg and Mchunu’s first album, Universal Men, was released in 1979 under the name of their new band, Juluka. It included musicians of the stature of Sipho Gumede and Robbie Jansen, and although it initially sold poorly it is now widely recognised as a classic in the history of South African music.

The album is a sustained, and often lyrical, engagement with migrant labour. Clegg was reading John Berger’s A Seventh Man, which examines migrant labour in Europe, while the album was being composed and it carries echoes of Pablo Neruda, and a deeply humanistic Marxism.

Speaking in an interview in 2000, 21 years after the album’s release, Clegg explained that:

Universal Men is about bridging two worlds. Going and coming. While the worker is en route, on a bus or a train, he is given the time to look over the distances, geographic and otherwise, in his life. Migrant labourers, in Africa, Europe, everywhere, are like universal joints. They are this incredible human resource who are just sucked up by the capitalist system and used anywhere. The system makes no concessions and so the workers have to create a whole new universe of meaning.”

Timeless music, rooted in politics

Brilliant debut albums are notoriously difficult for artists to follow but Clegg, working in partnership with Mchunu, would go on to release another five albums, each of them extraordinary, in the next four years. The work produced with Juluka is an astonishing sequence of creativity. Each of the six Juluka albums released between 1979 and 1984 stands up today as work of enduring appeal and consequence.

With songs about everything from work to war, love, political violence, football, horse racing, rural and city life, Juluka was a project shaped by an intense and restless curiosity about society.

The band’s second hit came with Impi, in 1981. The following year Scatterlings of Africa did even better, and charted in the United Kingdom.

Over time, the political commitments animating Juluka moved from an initially largely allegorical form of expression into increasingly direct, but never crude or sloganeering, statements. Songs such as African Sky Blueand Work for All continued the exploration of the African working-class experience, while Mdantsane explored the lived experience of gathering repression. Siyayilanda spoke to growing resistance, and a sense that popular will could bend the arc of history.

This body of work has produced a set of classic South African songs, including Umfazi Omdala, December African Rain, and Ibhola Lethu, but it still contains largely unrecognised gems. Inkunzi Ayihlabi Ngokumisa, off the Universal Men album, is a sublime engagement with the mouth bow. Thandiwe, from the African Litany album, is as funky as fuck. Umbaqanga Music, released in 1984 on a compilation of tracks recorded for a growing international audience, is a fabulous pop song.

A shift in direction and the birth of Savuka

In 1985, Mchunu moved back to his rural homestead. Clegg’s first solo album, Third World Child, released in the first year of the state of emergency, was a bold shift in musical direction. Marked sonically and visually by an arcade-game futurism, it captured, although largely via allusion, a strong sense of political commitment in a time of repression.

The Juluka albums all have a timeless feel. They are a collection of music for the ages. But as with all the attempts at the time to create electronically driven music with a sense of a hi-tech future to come, Third World Child now sounds marked by the moment in which it was created.

In 1986, as the political crisis deepened, Clegg released a single in the name of a new band, Savuka. The new song, Asimbonanga, was transcendent, searing, powerful and beautiful – another record for the ages. At the time Nelson Mandela’s name meant something very different to what it later came to mean and this record, which also namechecked Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett, offered a profoundly dissident cultural experience. It was a defiant and explicit identification with the popular movement against apartheid and rapidly became one of its anthems.

Savuka released an album a year between 1987 and 1989. The first album, also titled Third World Child, was a collection of songs put together to introduce the band to an international audience rather than a thematic statement. It sustained an explicit political commitment with songs like Missing, which opens with an all too contemporary image of burning tyres on a road blockade. In commercial terms, the album was a storming success and Clegg became a global icon.

The next two albums, Shadow Man and Cruel Crazy Beautiful World, don’t have the artistic power of the extraordinary decade of work that runs from 1976 to 1986. But Cruel Crazy Beautiful World is notable for Clegg’s movement into an international vision in the moving anti-fascist song Warsaw 1943, and the never adequately recognised One (Hu)’Man One Vote. Released in 1989, it is a powerful political statement that effectively captures a dramatic sense of the popular uprising of the time and sounds entirely credible today as a piece of music.

The great Savuka album, Heat, Dust and Dreams, came in 1993. Best known for The Crossing, the song Clegg wrote after the assassination of his dancing partner, Dudu Zulu, it’s a consistently powerful artistic statement of the times that remains compelling today. Musically, it drew on everything from French Celtic sounds to influences from classical Indian music. It carries a powerful sense of a people in movement through difficult times, and an astute sense of how the personal and political are entwined.

The reformation of Juluka in 1997 produced the unremarkable Ya Vuka Inkunzi. It was followed by four solo albums between 2002 and 2017: New World Survivor, One Life, Human and King of Time. None of this work reached the artistic heights of the albums produced under apartheid but Clegg, a dissident figure during that time, became a respected mainstream figure after apartheid.

Becoming a collective ancestor

Not entirely unlike Mandela, with whom he became closely associated through Asimbonanga, Clegg was incorporated into the anodyne multiculturalism that became an official discourse after apartheid and is now derisorily referred to as “rainbowism”. But make no mistake, he was a dissident, a courageous man who confronted history and left an enduring mark on the world in which he found himself, and an extraordinarily gifted and accomplished artist.

Clegg inspired millions and offered a deeply humanistic social and political vision. Today, as he begins the process of becoming a collective ancestor, and people across South Africa, and in many other parts of the world, return to his music, and memories of his always extraordinary performances, we return, in a time of rot and a pitiful lack of political vision, to our highest aspirations for ourselves and our future.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University, where he lectures on contemporary political theory and urban studies. He writes regularly for journals and newspapers, both print and online, and his commentary is widely read.

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