South African singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, one of the few white artists to openly confront the apartheid government in the late 1970s and 1980s, died on Tuesday, July 16th. He was 66 and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. Two years ago, he embarked on The Final Journey, his last world tour. He was accompanied by his two sons, one of whom is a talented video artist and the other of whom is a wonderful singer/songwriter.
I corralled my son David and the two of us made a pilgrimage to San Diego on October 30, 2017 to see Johnny Clegg one last time. Clegg was, as always, passionate about his music and fully committed to social justice. He and his collaborators fused Western and African cultural influences and defied racial separation at a time and place where this could cost you your life.
I first encountered Johnny Clegg and Savuka when they opened for Steve Winwood at a concert at the Universal Ampitheater in 1988. Winwood was terrific and Johnny Clegg and Savuka were utterly mind-blowing. I was already familiar with Paul Simon’s Graceland and appreciated what he had been doing to shine a light on the important role that African music has played globally. But seeing Johnny Clegg and Savuka was magical.
After the concert, you could see dozens of people try (and mostly fail but with smiles on their faces ) to perform the Zulu dances that are such an integral part of all Johnny Clegg concerts. I saw Johnny Clegg numerous times after that (though I’m sad to say I never saw him live in concert with his first band, Juluka).
My son, David, saw Johnny Clegg for the first time with me in May 1990 (David was about to turn 7 years old) at the Greek Theater where Clegg and Savuka opened for Tracy Chapman. Here are David’s thoughts as we mourn the loss of this consummate musician and path-breaking artist-activist.
“Music is really important to me and is a big part of what brings me to the work of progressive advocacy and social justice. Thanks to my mom, I grew up deeply inspired by anthemic political rock music of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. One of my musical heroes, Johnny Clegg, died last week. Ireland has U2. England has The Clash. Australia has Midnight Oil. The US has Springsteen (and many more).
Johnny Clegg and his bands – first Juluka, then Savuka – were the first bands to break the apartheid laws by playing together (he was white, his bands were largely black or mixed race). They fueled and gave voice to the struggles and hopes of the Mandela era. They defined the sound that inspired (and pre-dated) Paul Simon on Graceland. At their height in the late 80s, they were outselling Michael Jackson in Europe.
Johnny Clegg and Savuka was the first rock concert I ever saw. It took place at the Greek Theater in LA (they were touring with Tracy Chapman). It was a defining musical experience for me. Here’s to the art and the activist-artists that inspire us to do this work.
A link to his NY Times obit by Alan Cowell here:
The New York Times | By ALAN COWELL
Johnny Clegg, South African Singer Who Battled Apartheid With Music, Is Dead at 66
With the bands Juluka and Savuka and as a solo artist, Mr. Clegg fused Western and African cultural influences and defied racial separation.
And a link one of his many great songs, Scatterlings of Africa.
And here’s another link to one of my favorite songs by Johnny Clegg and
Savuka, Berlin Wall. Released in 1987, its lyrics (also below) couldn’t be more timely.
Welcome to my island
But please don’t you stay too long
I wouldn’t want anyone to think
That something’s going on
Toe the line
And you’ll be fine
You’ll see another day
Just fetch your weekly pay
Oh sister don’t you feel
What I know inside my bones
I’ll meet you on the underground
And we’ll make a call on the telephone
Can you hear this call
For one world, one nation
Who can it be banging at my door
I can’t trust anyone anymore
I drink my beer in a state of fear
Is tyher no salvation
Wire on the gate,
Barbs of hate
To separate one nation
Around your heart
A ring of steel
I can’t get out
And I can’t get in.
One for all, and all for one
Is the way it should be
Every river I know
Is dreaming of the sea
My body feels like a prison to me
I’d like to fly and touch you
With a sacred dream
Come on, mama, don’t delay
I know you think I’m far away
I’m only looking for a sign —
Are you ready to cross the line?