Born October 31, 1953, in Rochdale, England; immigrated to South Africa, 1959; mother, Muriel Pienaar, was a cabaret singer, father was a journalist; children: Jesse (son). Education: University of the Witwatersrand, degree in anthropology, c. 1965. Addresses: Music publisher-- H.R. Music, Inc., 5430 Van Nuys Blvd., Ste. 305, Van Nuys, CA 91401.

Thanks to the success of American pop star Paul Simon's Grammy-winning album Graceland, Western listening audiences have some notion of what South African popular music sounds like. But there were Westerners involved in making and producing African music long before Simon. White South African Johnny Clegg--known equally for his opposition to the racist apartheid government that has long blighted his adopted homeland--is one of these.

Born in England, Clegg moved with his family to South Africa when he was six. His mother was a cabaret singer and his father was a staunchly anti-apartheid journalist with an abiding interest in black culture. Clegg's own early interest in black culture was musical, but he did not begin his career as a musician. Clegg's interest in Zulu music and other aspects of Zulu culture led him to a junior lectureship in social anthropology at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa's leading institution of higher education.

Clegg left the university in the 1970s to pursue a career in music. He explained in Rolling Stone: "There's always been a hidden, invisible middle ground in South Africa of connections between people and cultures. That was being incinerated. Music was the most effective way I could work out my feelings." To learn how to play traditional Zulu music, he first approached Sipho Mchunu, a migrant worker employed as a gardener in Johannesburg who was also a street musician. Sipho has said that he was initially puzzled by the white man's interest in him, but that Clegg eventually won him over. In fact, some black South Africans refer to Clegg as the "white Zulu." Sipho taught Clegg traditional Zulu music and instruments, and they eventually formed a duo called Johnny and Sipho, later renamed Juluka--the Zulu word for "sweat." Along the way Clegg learned the Zulu language and an athletic style of Zulu traditional dance called Indlamu, which he performs as part of his act.

Clegg spoke about the early days of Juluka in Jeremy Marre's film Rhythm of Resistance: "Originally, it was very difficult to play together in public, the laws being as they are: a black and a white not being allowed to play on a stage, or to a mixed audience. Things are starting to ease up slowly.... We've got a few sort of little hidden venues where everybody can come together and enjoy each others' music." In an interview with Chris Stapleton that appeared in African All-Stars: The Pop Music of a Continent, Clegg reflected on the group's success. "Juluka appeared at a time when black people were buying up records by the [American pop-soul group the] O'Jays in the hundreds and thousands.... We went back to our roots. A cult fashion began, with people playing roots music. You had something similar in 1970, and again in 1976 with the black-consciousness movement, an attempt to recapture and to stress African roots and origins."

Juluka went from playing in small clubs and markets to become a top attraction, popular with both blacks and whites. Clegg and Sipho started out playing fairly traditional Zulu music with a political edge, but as they became more prolific and as other musicians joined them, their compositions began to display a more Western pop orientation. By the 1983 release of Scatterlings, several other musicians had permanently joined the band. Most of Juluka's albums, nonetheless, remained closely tied to mbaqanga --the black South African township music that became popular in the 1950s. Clegg told Stapleton that his music, widely referred to as "township pop," is "a new genre," elaborating, "It's a genre where reggae and mbaqanga meet, where soul and mbaqanga meet, where funk and mbaqanga meet."

Sipho left Juluka in 1985 to return to his family farm in Zululand. Clegg went on to form a new band, Savuka--Zulu for "awakening"--comprised of three blacks and three whites. Savuka's music was more electronic than that of Juluka, but Clegg has remarked that he does not feel authentic traditional styles should be preserved as museum pieces; he believes that musicians should feel free to experiment with styles and come up with new types of music. Clegg explained to African All-Stars author Stapleton that Savuka's "approach is that there should be a democracy of music: The new forms should get as much support as the old. There should be a balance. There is a growing resistance to people saying, 'This isn't groaners [male vocalists who sing the low parts in mbaqanga songs]; this isn't mbaqanga.' This isn't South Africa in 1950 ... and many African musicians have spent a lot of time and energy trying to find a place for themselves in the new musical world." But even in this new musical world, whites who are involved in the music of black South Africans are often criticized from a variety of standpoints. Despite his political good intentions, Clegg's music has received all kinds of negative reviews. Melody Maker attacked Clegg for plundering African music, calling him a "cultural transvestite"; Rolling Stone criticized him for not being original enough.

The government of South Africa, uncomfortably aware of Clegg's untempered denunciation of apartheid and increasingly high profile, according to Beats of the Heart authors Jeremy Marre and Hannah Charlton, succeeded in banning a record that contained a song it construed as "an incitement against work" and questionable for its use of slang words like "sweetie" and "heavy." "Africa Kukhala Ambangcwele," from Universal Men, was a Number One hit before it was banned, and "Asimnonanga," Savuka's tribute to chief apartheid opponent Nelson Mandela, was proscribed as well. In When the Music's Over, Robin Denselow reported that Clegg and Savuka have regularly found themselves at the mercy of South African police; the band's van has been routinely searched and conflict over concert licenses has became the norm. Furthermore, according to Rolling Stone, Clegg has been arrested and spied upon by government authorities.

Clegg has never hesitated to speak out on his music and politics. He told Rolling Stone that he and Sipho were "not revolutionaries, we're not a protest group," continuing, "We have certain general principles that are fundamental human values. It's basically, 'I want to be able to play to everybody.' That's all.... It's a simple thing. But in South Africa, it's a political issue."

Ironically, Clegg was expelled from the British Musicians Union in 1988 for performing in South Africa. The singer had experienced harassment from the union before, as well as the wrath of civil rights organizations outside South Africa. His explanation is that people outside South Africa view the country's racial issues simplistically. "The exile community," he told Rolling Stone, "has done the struggle [against apartheid] a disservice by trying to present the issue simply in terms of black and white." But Clegg is committed to beating apartheid and admits to being an idealist. "We're creating symbols of tomorrow, a nonracial future. We have to give people something that everybody can claim is his."

by Tim Taylor

Johnny Clegg's Career

Singer, songwriter, recording and performing artist. Junior lecturer in anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, mid-1960s to late 1970s. Performed with Juluka, 1979-85; performed with Savuka, mid-1980s--.

Johnny Clegg's Awards

Gold record (South Africa), for African Litany; gold or platinum records (South Africa and Europe), for Third World Child and Shadow Man.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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