Johnny Clegg OBE
Johnny Clegg was a South African musician, also known as the “white Zulu” as he was a vocal critic of the apartheid government which ruled until 1994. Johnny was a torchbearer and one of few white artists to bravely and openly confront the apartheid government in the late 1970s and 1980s.
At a young age Johnny was introduced to Zulu language, music and dance by Zulu migrant workers. He was inspired by the way they kept their traditions alive through music and dance and could relate to their feeling of marginality in the city. He studied anthropology at Wits University focusing on Zulu music and dance where upon graduating, he stayed on as a lecturer. He was bold in challenging apartheid laws that prohibited mixed-race performances in public venues, by forming a mixed-race band with a self-taught street musician and migrant worker, Sipho Mchunu.
Johnny Clegg made an indelible mark in the music industry, especially with the 1987 hit song Asimbonanga. The song, part of a South African music trend following the 1976 Soweto uprising, combined politically conscious lyrics with jive and dance rhythms. It was a tribute to Nelson Mandela written at the time he was imprisoned on Robben Island, and became an anthem for South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He and his hybrid music were a powerful rebuke to the white-minority government, and a reminder that apartheid was a political choice.
It is felt among South Africans that Johnny powerfully showed what it was to assimilate and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. Johnny passed away in July 2019.