Jonathan ‘Johnny’ Clegg was born in Bacup, near Rochdale in England on 7 June 1953. His father was from England but his mother was from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He left England for Southern Rhodesia where he lived until the age of seven, before he and his mother emigrated to South Africa after her marriage to a South African journalist who worked as a crime reporter. His mother was a cabaret and jazz singer. The family went to Zambia where Clegg spent two years before returning to South Africa. Owing to his step father’s job as a crime reporter, Clegg became exposed to township life when his step father would take him along on his work assignments. Thus, he was exposed to a broader cultural perspective than that available to his peers at the time.

Between the age of 13 and 14 Clegg began playing the guitar, and by chance he came across a guitarist playing in street. After listening he developed a liking for Zulu music. He began secretly going to townships visiting hostels of migrant workers to practice his guitar and learn how to dance. As his visits contravened the provisions of the Group Areas Act (1950) he was arrested. It was at this stage that Clegg met Sipho Mchunu, the man who would later become his music partner.

While teaching Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Clegg began experimenting with mixing English lyrics and western melodies with Zulu musical structures. This blend got the attention of music producer Hilton Rosenthal. He signed up Clegg and his dance partner Mchunu and they and formed the band Juluka, meaning ‘sweat’ in Zulu. In 1979, they released their first album named ‘Universal men’. Their music was a mixture of Zulu and pop music and thus could not receive airplay because of censorship. Apartheid laws forbade public performances with people of their different designated 'racial groups'.

They would often push the boundaries and perform publicly in universities and having live shows, they became so popular that their shows were often sold out. Juluka had to do with private performances and their performances were usually raided by security police. This had a major impact on income and as a consequence the band suffered. Undeterred, Juluka carried on and by word of mouth and private performances, the Band’s popularity rose. Clegg’s ability to dance the Zulu dance and to speak the language saw him dubbed the ‘white Zulu’ (‘Le Zulu Blanc’ in Europe).

In 1979, Juluka recorded their first album, Universal Men. The album highlighted the lives of Zulu migrant workers living and traversing two worlds, the rural and the urban. The band’s second album African Litany was released two years later and it was greatly received. Juluka went on to release more critically acclaimed albums until their split in 1985. Clegg used to translate texts into Zulu for the union movement in the days of apartheid.

Mchunu decided to go home and pursue cattle farming while Clegg formed another band named Savuka, meaning “we have risen”. Savuka carried on the legacy of Juluka in terms of it making cross-over music, but Savuka took it to another level by mixing African music with international rock sounds. Savuka’s first album Third World Child was released in 1987 and it broke international sales records in several European countries. This was followed by other albums, ShadowMan in 1988, Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World in 1989 and Heat, Dust & Dreams in 1993. The group disbanded in 1993. Also that same year he was nominated for a Grammy award.

After a temporary reunion with Mchunu that resulted in an album, Ya Vuka Inkunzi. Clegg has since pursued a solo career. He has won several local and international awards and produced several albums and toured Europe on his own. Clegg was in the music industry for just a little over 30 years and he celebrated that by performancing locally and abroad throughout 2011 and subsequently. 

In the period between 2005 and 2008, Johnny has featured at several major European festivals, notably Live at Sunset, Zurich 2005, Fête de l’humanité 2007 in Paris, France; Musique Métisses 2006 at Angouleme (France’s premier World Music festival), Bal à la Bastille 2007 (open air for 100,000 people at the Place de la Bastille in Paris – televised live by over seventy TV stations), Quebec Summer festival 2006 (Festival d’eté de Québec) and concurrently completed his own annual European tours and in 2005 completed a 30-date coast-to-coast tour of the continental US and Canada and a sell-out tour of Australia and New Zealand. He has also performed annual runs in major South African centres for capacity audiences.

Johnny Clegg has performed on all four of Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Aids Awareness Concerts in South Africa and in Norway. Mandela has joined him on stage during the rendition of Asimbonanga, a song written by Johnny about Mandela during his period of incarceration (and other struggle heroes Victoria Mxenge, Neil Aggett and Steve Biko).

At every live performance of this song, the audience, charged with emotion, spontaneously rises to their feet. During the Cape Town and Tromso 46664 shows, Johnny also performed duets of his work with Peter Gabriel.

Johnny’s haunting refrain Impi (meaning “Zulu warriors” or "War") regularly echoes within any South African Rugby stadium which, together with his song Great Heart from the movie Jock of The Bushveld and The Crossing (written for Dudu Ndlovu, his Zulu dance partner in the Savuka era), has achieved anthem status with crowds in South Africa. Other notable hits penned by Johnny Clegg include, amongst others, I Call Your Name, Scatterlings of Africa, African Sky Blue, Take My Heart Away, African Shadow Man, December African Rain, Kilimanjaro, Fever and many more.

In 2012, the South African Government conferred the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver, on Clegg for his 'excellent contribution to and achievement in the field of bridging African traditional music with other music forms, promoting racial understanding among racially divided groups in South Africa under difficult apartheid conditions, working for a non-racial society and being an outstanding spokesperson for the release of political prisoners'.

In that same year he was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Dartmouth College. 

In 2013 Clegg was awarded an honourary Doctorate from UKZN.

Unfortunately he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. He still continued performing until his health could no longer allow it. 

Jonathan 'Johnny' Clegg passed away on 16 July 2019 at his home in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa.

He is survived by his wife Jennifer and sons, Jesse and Jaron.

Hamba Kahle Johnny Clegg. We love all the scatterlings of Africa. 

International Awards

1988 The Mayor’s Office of Los Angeles Award: For the promotion of racial harmony

1988 Le Victoire French Music Industry Award for biggest International record album sold in France between 1987 and 1988 (1.3 million albums)

1989 Honorary Citizen of the town of Angouleme, France

1990-1991 French Music Industry Award for the biggest selling world music album in France

1990 Humanitarian Award: Secretary of State of Ohio, USA

1991 Awarded the CHEVALIER DE L’ORDRE DES ARTS ET DES LETTRES (Knight of Arts and Letters) by the French Government

1993 GRAMMY AWARD nomination for best World Music Album (Heat, Dust and Dreams)

1994 Billboard Music Award Best World Music Album

1996 Medal of Honour - city of Besancon

1998 Kora Awards: Best African Group

2004 Mayoral Medal of Honour from Mayor of Lyon, France, for outstanding relations between the people of Lyon and South Africa

2004 Medal of Honour – Consul General of the Province of Nievre

2004 Medal of Honour – Consul General of the Province of L’Aisne

South African Awards

1986 Scotty Award : Master Music Maker

1987 Communication Contribution Award

1987 The Autumn Harvest Music Personality Award

1988 OK TV Best Pop Music Award

1988 CCP Record Special Award : In recognition of exceptional achievement in promotion of South African music internationally

1989 Radio 5 - Loud & Proud Award - South African Music Ambassador of the Year

1990 FOYSA Award (Four Outstanding South Africans) Junior Chamber of Commerce

1999 Avanti Award - Best Music Video "Crocodile Love"

2012 South African National Award - The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for traditional African music

We also include an interview with Johnny Clegg in 1988. https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/interview-johhny-clegg 

 

 

References

Williams, L., (2007), Johannesburg: The Bradt City Guide, (Globe Pequot Press), p.116|

Johnnyclegg.com, ‘Johnny Clegg biography and awards’ from Johnnyclegg.com [online], Available at www.johnnyclegg.com[Accessed on 1 November 2011]|

Entertainment-online, ‘Johnny Clegg Quotes and Bookings’ from Entertainment-online, Available at www.entertainment-online.co.za[Accessed on 1 November 2011]

Sources in Our Archive

Collections in the Archives