Simple Things: Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)

Johnny Clegg died of pancreatic cancer today at the age of 66. He was an accomplished and inspirational musician, social anthropologist, songwriter and activist. His multi-racial bands Juluka (founded with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu in the early 1970s) and Savuka (formed in the mid-1980s after Mchunu retired and returned to his family’s farm) provided a pointed, potent cultural spearhead through the final years of South Africa’s apartheid era and beyond.

The vast majority of his musical output touched on the sociopolitical and personal realities of life in South Africa, with two songs in particular capturing the world’s fancy: “Scatterlings of Africa” (Juluka, 1982) was a global pop hit, telling the story of the dispossessed and dislocated people of his home continent; and “Asimbonanga” (Savuka, 1987) was an open cry for the release of Nelson Mandela from his prison cell at Robben Island. A 1999 video of Clegg performing “Asimbonanga” with his band, joined by a very special guest dancer — no longer a prisoner, but instead the duly elected President of his people — is one of the most joyful things on the Internet to these ears and eyes:

I can’t write an obituary that would do Johnny Clegg the honor and justice he’s due. NPR has a nice one here and France 24’s obituary provides a more European perspective on his life. It’s also worth reading Clegg’s Wikipedia page, if you are unfamiliar with his life and career, and the numerous honors and awards that have been bestowed upon him over the years. I can, however, share some stories about how special he was to me in my own musical, cultural, and personal development, by way of explaining why his death touches me so.

While at the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, I made a decision to focus my political science major on African politics. My motivations were not entirely altruistic: I found that it was easier to wait until the last minute to work on papers and projects because so few books about Africa ever got checked out of the Academy’s library, while the Soviet or European or Chinese shelves would be picked clean most of the time. Score one for the lazy man with a keen eye for an angle.

Initial motivations notwithstanding, I actually really got into my African studies, and in parallel, I got deeply interested in African music, and spent much of my paper-writing, reading and studying time listening to it. In those pre-Internet (and pre-“World Music” CDs at the Starbucks check-out counter) days, records from Africa were still relatively hard to find, and information about all but the most high-profile artists (e.g. Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, etc.) was scarce. I had an odd hodge-podge of tapes and albums from all over the continent that I played to death for a couple of years, but the popularity of “Scatterlings of Africa” (the album it came from was even reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin) opened up new interest in African music, politics and culture that made it easier to access some true gems of the era and beyond, on and on for me up to this day. (Case in point: the brand new album from Kinshasa’s KOKOKO!, which you should hear!)

While UK artists like The Specials (“Free Nelson Mandela,” 1984), or Peter Gabriel (“Biko,” 1980) helped raise awareness of the cultural price of Apartheid, and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) brought Township music a wider global audience than it had ever had, Clegg’s work always seemed to me to be somehow less manipulative, and more honest, than its European and American counterparts. It was a whole lot easier for the Westerners to bring African musical concepts into their (safe) European homes than it was for Clegg to learn Zulu language and dance, gain the trust of KwaZulu’s musicians and activists, and then merge his own Celtic and folk musical influences with native South African styles and themes, in an environment that was decidedly not safe for such cultural cross-pollination.

There was nothing of the debutante about Johnny Clegg from where I sat as a fan and follower, whereas the appropriated cross-cultural works by the likes of Simon and David Byrne always left me feeling vaguely icky after I listened to them.  (Heck, when you get right down to it, Neil Diamond beat both of those guys to the punch by more than a decade with his “African Suite” from 1970, but he’s not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, now, is he? He deserves it, though, and I commend Tap Root Manuscript to you as well).

Anyway: Juluka and later Savuka were regular, nearly constant, spins on my stereo for years, and you’d likely be amazed at how much isiZulu I can sing phonetically, having those sounds and words deeply burned into my brain through repetition, repetition, repetition. Fast forward to 1987, when Marcia and I are both working at Naval Reactors, hanging out with the same group of friends, but not dating, not quite yet. We did a lot of stuff with various permutations of our social group, but things just did not work out so that it was only the two of us doing something together, no matter how hard I worked to make that happen. After some months and many missed opportunities, a Savuka concert at the legendary 930 Club (the original one, at the deeply scuzzy 930 F Street, not the shiny new, big, trendy, popular, safe one that came later) finally became the thing that got us out on the town together, just she and I, doing and seeing something really, really cool, together. Wow! Fireworks! Wow! That one night made it easier to do other things together, just the two of us, and a few months later, we were couple, inseparable for over three decades since.

So Johnny Clegg was a part of our own story that night, as was Dudu Zulu, Clegg’s dancing partner onstage with Savuka, their traditional jumps and thrusts and leaps and kicks taking the music up to a whole ‘nother level of mind-blowing and ass-kicking. After that tour, and after a few more tours and records beyond that, Dudu Zulu was gunned down near his home in KwaZuluNatal in 1992. That was the end of the line for Savuka, with yet another tragic loss added to the list that Clegg had written and sang about for so many years.

Clegg played on after that as a solo act, and on, and on, and on, and he kept the memories of Zulu and Biko and Aggett and Mxenge and Mandela and the causes they fought for in front of his audiences, lest we forget their importance and their lessons. I learned a lot about the real issues facing South Africa through Johnny Clegg’s music, beyond what the textbooks could tell me. And I learned a lot about how to speak truth to power, and how to use simple language to express complex sentiments, and how to build bigger, better, more innovative things by working with diverse communities, rather than sulking in a silo of social homogeneity.

Fast forward yet again, lots of years, to our first summer in Chicago, 2015. After four years in relatively sleepy Des Moines, it was huge for Marcia and I to have so many options to see so many cool things, right within walking distance of our new condo. As fate would have it, one of the first gigs we spotted and scored tickets for was Johnny Clegg playing at City Winery, with his son, Jesse, opening the show. It was an awe-inspiring evening, and an amazing way to mark the opening of a new phase of our life, just as that Savuka show in 1987 had been a milestone for us all those years before. We loved it! We sang along! We danced! We talked about it and marveled at how wonderful he remained, and how powerfully his songs still spoke to us! Yay, him! Yay, us!

And then soon after that, we learned that Johnny Clegg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and then after 2017, there were no more tours and no more records to follow. Clegg fought that awful disease, but it got him in the end, as it almost always does. He was too young to leave us, but golly, what he life he lived, what a legacy he left behind, and how important he was to me, in so many ways, over so many years.

As we are subjected to racist hate-speak emerging from the maw-hole of our nation’s malefic President this week, it’s shocking, but important, to consider and focus on just how important Johnny Clegg’s messages remain, everywhere, all the time, whenever we are faced with institutional or individual racism and discrimination. No, the Republic of South Africa may not be ruled by a racist oligarchy anymore, more power to it and its people, but us? I’m not so sure . . . if we aren’t there already, we’re in danger of getting there soon, and we need to stand up and join hands and sing songs and tell stories and act in ways that cast light on and denigrate the shrill, shallow, petty evil of racism and its proponents and apologists. Johnny Clegg showed us how to do that. May others emulate him, right here, right now, and tomorrow, and in all the years that follow even after that.

As many people do, when they learn that a beloved artist has passed, we tend to fill up the listening spaces in our lives with the departed one’s music, a phenomenon that Marcia has dubbed “I Hear Dead People,” given how often I do it hereabouts, as the stars of our youth age out and pass on to some great reward. I will note, somewhat sadly, that because I knew Johnny Clegg has been deeply ill, I actually got a head-start on that process over the past year or so, and we’ve been spinning him regularly for a long time, loving his songs, loving his language, loving his stories.

I’m glad we were thinking about him while he was still fighting his final battle, and not just after he flew away from us. That listening will be continuing in the weeks and months ahead, likely with a larger playlist, since I’ve got plenty of his stuff. I close this post with the song I chose to title it, probably my personal favorite from Clegg’s canon. This one was co-written by Sipho Mchunu from the 1982 Scatterlings album. Its bottom line message — “Simple things are all we have left to trust” — resonates with me, in a tumultuous personal and political world, where the little, dear, personal things are really the ones that sustain me, the constant anchors in the noisy rushing flow of life around all of us.

Bless you, Johnny Clegg, for the gifts you gave to so many. You truly made a difference.

4 thoughts on “Simple Things: Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)

  1. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, July 20 2019 – Chuck The Writer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s