The voice of Nelson Mandela is no more. Johnny Clegg has marked the contemporary history of south africa through his songs-a marriage of african sounds and rhythms of pop. An Ardent advocate of african culture, he was nicknamed “the white Zulu”, he died Tuesday of suites of his cancer at the age of 66 years. Born in the Uk, a mother a singer in nightclubs and a father who will leave quickly home, he arrives to the age of 6 years in South Africa. Accompanying his father-in-law who had to do a report in Zambia, the young Johnny discovers a world of harmonious coexistence between Whites and Blacks that would mark him permanently. Income in Johannesburg, the teenager walks the streets of the suburbs where the workers live the zulu. Eventually they introduce him to their language, isishameni – the traditional dance – and guitar-zulu.
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In parallel with his musical training, he followed his studies on the culture of zulu at the university. A people that has been for him “a home, he said later. There was a period of my life where I’ve regretted not being black. I desperately wanted to”.
Universal Men , Johnny Clegg and his band Juluka
“We needed to be in a thousand and one tricks to work around the myriad of laws that prevented any approximation interracial”
At the age of 17 his meeting with the musician Sipho Mchunu is crucial. Their collaboration breaks all the principles of apartheid: a White playing with a Black exceeds that which is tolerable. They are censored in the country. “We needed to be in a thousand and one tricks to work around the myriad of laws that prevented any approximation interracial”, will remember with a little bitterness Johnny Clegg. Now composed of six musicians, their band Juluka written Universal Men in 1979, an album that makes access to the celebrity.
Their songs want to take the opposite of the values professed by the apartheid regime. “I was not motivated politically, but culturally”, provided, however Johnny Clegg about his fight against racial segregation. Johnny Clegg denied any affiliation to a particular ideology.
It will have rather placed his work under the sign of fraternity between human beings. “Succeed to bring people together through songs, especially at a time when it seemed completely impossible”, welcomed it in 2017.
The international success
The music of Johnny Clegg, censored in South Africa, has an immense success in Europe and in North America. In 1982, he became, with his new group, Savuka, the status of the world star with the release of his album, Scatterlings of Africa , “The vagrants of africa”, which catapulted him into the top of the hit-parades of britain and france. “Nobody knew exactly what were talking about our songs, just that there was a question of Africa”, told it later with a hint of irony.
The first title of the album is chosen to be the soundtrack to the film Rain Man released in 1983 by Barry Levinson, with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. The success of the singer is such that in 1988, Michael Jackson is forced to cancel a concert planned in Lyon on the same night as that of Johnny Clegg.
Scatterlings of Africa , Johnny Clegg and his band Savuka, 1982
Marriage of african sounds and rhythms of pop, in the style of Johnny Clegg is easily recognizable. On stage, the choreography of traditional dances of zulu, and the bare feet lifted very high, which beat it into the ground quickly become the trademark of the man who considered himself to be a “white Zulu”.
Johnny Clegg in march 1989, on the occasion of the traditional ceremony for his wedding with Jennifer Bartlett. TREVOR SAMSON/AFP
It becomes a global symbol of the struggle against apartheid in 1987 by writing and composing Asimbonanga (“We have not seen”). The title pays tribute to Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for more than twenty years. The words refer directly to the leader of the ANC. “Look at the other side of the island in the Bay”, urges the singer. Nelson Mandela was then imprisoned off the coast of Cape town, on the island of Robben Island. Asimbonanga is a stance all the more brave that the simple evocation of the name of the prisoner was strictly prohibited by the regime of Pretoria.
A decade later, in Frankfurt, and Nelson Mandela will rise by surprise on the scene of a concert of Johnny Clegg. The image of Madiba, who became president of South Africa, dancing on Asimbonanga, makes the happiness of the singer and tour the world.
Johnny Clegg sings Asimbonanga in the presence of Nelson Mandela in Frankfurt in 1997
In 1993, her album Heat, dust and dreams , was nominated for the Billboard Music Awards and the Grammy Awards is dedicated to Dudu Zulu, one of the dancers of the group Savuka, murdered by unknown assailants in 1992. Even after the end of apartheid, Johnny Clegg remains a symbol of the anti-racism and freedom of expression in the world. In South Africa, it will not cease to support democracy, made precarious by corruption and the stigma of racial segregation.
His fight will have a special resonance in France. After a long silence of the south-african singer, he wrote in 2006 the album One Life , produced by Renaud – who had already dedicated his song Jonathan in 1988. Its appearances are increasingly rare. By 2017, Johnny Clegg knowing yourself sick puts an end to a career throughout which he has sold more than 5 million albums. The singer is then, with great courage, to make a great last world tour to say goodbye to his audience: “The journey that I started when I was 14 years old now comes to an end,” he concluded with ease.
Johnny Clegg disappears a year, almost to the day, after the death of the photographer David Goldblatt, the other great opponent of apartheid and figure, as the singer, of South Africa was in revolt against itself for years.