The legendary South African singer Johnny Clegg, who mixed Zulu rhythms with Western styles and defied the segregation of apartheid, died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer, said his manager.
Born in England, he grew up in Kwa Zulu Natal, speaking and singing in Zulu. He played in the multiracial groups Juluka and Savuka in the 1970s and 1980s before performing solo.
Johnny Clegg was loved for his music. But it was much more than that for South Africa. It was a white man who had broken the law to play with black musicians in the era of racial apartheid when this mixture was forbidden.
A white man, who learned to speak and sing in Zulu. He was a unifier. An African. A bridge between cultures in a country that is still struggling to overcome its differences. His music played a role in the unification of South Africa at a time when the apartheid government imposed the separation of the population according to race.
Clegg – and his hybrid music – was a powerful reproach to the white minority government. A reminder that apartheid was a political choice. A barrier that could be swept away. Fascinated by the struggle against apartheid, it is no wonder that Clegg – a tireless interpreter – has become a symbol of democratic South Africa – chosen to sing at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013.
“Johnny died peacefully today, surrounded by his family in Johannesburg (…), after a four-and-a-half-year battle with cancer,” Roddy Quin told the SABC public television channel.
“He played a major role in South Africa by introducing people to different cultures and bringing them together,” he said in a statement.
“He showed us what it means to embrace other cultures without losing one’s identity.” Johnny Clegg has drawn inspiration from Zulu culture to conceive revolutionary music where African rhythms coexist with guitar, electric keyboard and accordion.
His album “Scatterlings of Africa” in 1982 had propelled him to the top charts in Britain and France. One of his greatest planetary hits, “Asimbonanga” (“We have not seen” in the Zulu language), is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The singer and dancer, who was suffering from pancreatic cancer, had recently made a farewell world tour.