Jonathan Clegg

Posted by Sam on

Biographical information


South African musician

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
07 June 1953
Location of birth: 
Bacup, England

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 immigrated to South Africa after her marriage to a South African journalist who worked 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 different racial groups.

Juluka had to do with private performances and their performances were usually raided by security police. 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. This had a major impact on profits 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 Me. 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.

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 has been in the music industry for just a little over 30 years and he is celebrated that by performancing locally and abroad throughout 2011. 

• Williams, L., (2007), Johannesburg: The Bradt City Guide, (Globe Pequot Press), p.116
•, ‘Johnny Clegg biography and awards’ from [online], Available at[Accessed on 1 November 2011]
• Entertainment-online, ‘Johnny Clegg Quotes and Bookings’ from Entertainment-online, Available at[Accessed on 1 November 2011]

Last updated : 29-Jan-2019

This article was produced by South African History Online on 26-Feb-2013

Support South African History Online

Donate and Make African History Matter

South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.

Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.