Johnny Clegg, a South African musician who performed in defiance of racial barriers imposed by the apartheid system decades ago and celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela, died July 16 at home in Johannesburg. He was 66.
Mr. Clegg had pancreatic cancer, his manager Roddy Quin told the state broadcaster.
Sometimes called the “White Zulu,” Mr. Clegg was a British-born singer whose multiracial bands attracted an international following during the era of white minority rule in South Africa. He crafted hits inspired by Zulu and township harmonies, as well as folk and other influences.
One of his best-known songs is “Asimbonanga,” which means “We’ve never seen him” in Zulu. It refers to South Africans during apartheid when images of then-imprisoned Mandela were banned. Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison and became South Africa’s first black president in democratic elections four years later.
Mr. Clegg’s 1993 record “Heat, Dust & Dreams” received a Grammy nomination for best world music album. “He played a major role in South Africa getting people to learn about other people’s cultures and bringing people together,” Quin said.
Jonathan Clegg was born in Bacup, England, on June 7, 1953. His father was English, and his mother was a cabaret and jazz singer who raised Johnny in her native Zimbabwe before marrying a South African crime reporter.
They moved to South Africa when Johnny was 7, according to a biography on his website, and he learned about Zulu music and dancing as a teenager while hanging out with a Zulu cleaner and street musician called Charlie Mzila. Mr. Clegg later explored his idea of “crossover” music with the multiracial bands Juluka and Savuka at a time of bitter conflict in South Africa over white minority rule.
Mr. Clegg recorded songs he was arrested for and “never gave in to the pressure of the apartheid rules,” his manager said. The apartheid-era censorship also restricted where he could perform. Mr. Clegg was performing as late as 2017, high-kicking and stomping with his cancer in remission during one last tour, known as “The Final Journey.”
At a concert in Johannesburg that year, Mr. Clegg said that “all of these entries into traditional culture gave me a way of understanding myself, helping me to shape a kind of African identity for myself, and freed me up to examine another way of looking at the world.”
Mr. Clegg had been diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and the grueling treatment included two six-month sessions of chemotherapy and an operation. “I don’t have a duodenum and half my stomach. I don’t have a bile duct. I don’t have a gall bladder and half my pancreas. It’s all been reconfigured,” he told reporters in 2017.
In that interview, Mr. Clegg recalled how he performed “Asimbonanga” during a tour of Germany in 1997 and experienced a “huge shock” when Mandela, beaming and dancing, unexpectedly came out onstage behind him.
“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world. And at peace with myself,” Mandela said to the audience. He called on Mr. Clegg to resume the song and urged all in the audience to get up and dance. At the end of the song, Mandela and Mr. Clegg walked offstage holding hands.
“That was the pinnacle moment for me,” Mr. Clegg recalled. “It was just a complete and amazing gift from the universe.”
Information on survivors was not immediately available.