Death of Johnny Clegg, the “White Zulu”

A committed musician, Johnny Clegg played with his songs, a unique blend of Zulu rhythms and Western pop, resistance to apartheid, and reconciliation. The South African “Zulu White” died Tuesday at the age of 66.
A long time victim of censorship in South Africa, he enjoyed success abroad before gaining star status in his country.

During the worst hours of the racist regime, his songs were banned. To get around censorship, he was forced to perform – with his group Juluka, formed with Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu – in universities, churches, migrant homes and homes.

ALSO READ: His last interview at the Sun, in October 2017

“We had to do a thousand and one tricks to get around the myriad laws that prevented any interracial rapprochement,” he told AFP in 2017.

Nevertheless, the intractable apartheid police banned some of his concerts and the singer was repeatedly arrested, accused of violating the laws on racial segregation.

The white racist government could not tolerate that one of its people draws its inspiration from Zulu history and culture with revolutionary music where wild Zulu rhythms coexist with guitar, electric keyboard and accordion.

Abroad, however, especially in Quebec, Johnny Clegg quickly found an audience. “People were very intrigued by our music,” explained the singer and dancer, adept of very physical concerts. He had visited the capital several times, notably at the 2007 Summer Festival and Palais Montcalm in 2017 for his last lap.

Johnny Clegg at the Quebec City Summer Festival in July 2007

In 1982, the release of his Scatterlings of Africa album propelled him to the top of the charts in Great Britain and France.

Five years later, he asserts himself as a “political” artist with the title Asimbonanga (“We did not see him” in Zulu), a worldwide success dedicated to Nelson Mandela, the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle then imprisoned. at Robben Island (South Africa).

The only mention of the head of the African National Congress (ANC) is then strictly prohibited. The Pretoria regime banned the title.

A few years after the end of apartheid, the author and the hero of this song, now free, had found themselves on stage in Frankfurt for a concert as magical as unexpected.

While Johnny Clegg was singing Asimbonanga , the audience had risen as one man.

“I caught a glimpse of someone behind me who was going up on the stage, dancing […]. It was Mandela! It was a shock. I did not even know he was there, “Johnny Clegg told the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

At the end of the song, Mandela spoke in a low voice: “It’s music and dance that puts me at peace with the world.”

Johnny Clegg will have given his last show in Quebec City in 2017.

Born in 1953 in the United Kingdom of a British father and a Zimbabwean mother, a cabaret jazz singer, Johnny Clegg arrives at the age of seven in a South Africa where the white minority reigns supreme black majority.

Initiated to local cultures by his father-in-law journalist, Johnny Clegg asserts that his rejection of apartheid is not political.

“I was not motivated politically, but culturally. I like music and dance, “he explained simply.

Eyes open in a one-eyed country, he slips to 15 years in the homes of black workers, in defiance of the prohibitions. There, he discovers the Zulu dances and melodies and secretly invites himself to dance with the traditional troops.

When apartheid finally falls in 1994, “it’s like we were all born a second time,” he says.

A few years later, enthusiasm will give way to doubts. “The fight was simpler once. We lived here in a tunnel, cut off from the rest of the world, we defined ourselves “against”, leading a battle that masked all the others.

“Today […] we are dealing with a whole series of issues and conflicts related to poverty, nation-building, AIDS, globalization,” the musician added.

After another remission of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in 2015, he launched two years later on a farewell world tour which he will succeed in honoring all dates, the last in 2018.

“I had a rewarding career in many ways […] by getting people together through songs, especially at a time when it seemed completely impossible,” said the musician who sold more than 5 million albums.

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