My very first formative encounter with Johnny Clegg was, funnily enough, via another white man here in the United States: I was introduced to the South African musician, who died Tuesday at age 66, by a beloved teacher of mine, Brian Hesse, in my “Africa in Popular Media” elective course in my last year of high school in Maryville, Mo.
My basketball-loving professor had been nicknamed “mzungu mrefu” or “tall white man” while studying in Tanzania as a lanky undergraduate, and he used this course to explore common tropes about the continent in Western film (we watched “District 9” and “Black Hawk Down”), literature and political discourses. But when we began listening to music (including, of course, Toto’s “Africa”), I found Clegg, the multilingual “umlungu” (“white person” in Zulu), particularly fascinating.
He would often sing in a mixture of Zulu and English, often heavily in the former; I had never encountered a white African who performed the way he did, and I never imagined not feeling confused or disgusted by a performance like that. My professor played the 1982 hit “Scatterlings of Africa,” a quintessentially catchy 1980s earworm with a continental twist that resonated with me, a then-17-year-old daughter of Zimbabwean immigrants grappling with my own diasporic African identity. I was a scatterling, too.
My second formative encounter — which left a far more indelible mark on my racialized psyche — was June 26, 2010, the evening that I saw Clegg perform in Johannesburg. I took a bus from Mbabane, Swaziland, where I was spending the summer after my high school graduation, to visit my cousin and see the show. I had been waiting for this show and playing his music on repeat in the months after I had discovered him in class. We sat in the fourth row. I was so proud that I had paid for the tickets myself. I was disappointed that he mostly sang his later English-language songs rather than my Zulu favorites, but I was taken aback by what happened when he did sing in Zulu.
I was one of the few black audience members — I could just about count us all on one hand. When Clegg would speak or sing in Zulu, the painfully white audience would titter or lightly clap amusedly at the novelty of his language skills, as though Gauteng province is not nearly 20 percent native Zulu speakers and as though he had not been speaking and singing in Zulu for his entire adult life. It felt as if hell was empty and the devils were all in that auditorium.
On what should have been the happiest day of my life, I struggled and failed to find the language for the epiphany that his music was not so straightforward — that even in an overwhelmingly black country such as South Africa, indigenous language could still be treated like some kind of novelty or spectacle.
Jonathan “Johnny” Clegg was born in Lancashire, England, in 1953 to an English father and a Rhodesian mother. As a small child, he moved to not-yet-independent Zimbabwe with his mother and then to the suburbs of Johannesburg with her at age 6. He was taken to the city’s townships by her, a jazz singer, and his stepfather, a crime reporter. As a teenager, he learned Zulu, maskandi acoustic guitar, and isishameni dancing (one of the forms of the famed high-energy, high-kicking traditional Zulu dance he would come to incorporate in his stage performances) from musician Charlie Mzila.
These intimate interactions with Zulu culture were, of course, forbidden by apartheid law, which demanded a tightly regulated policy of racial separation. Though his communion and community with black migrant laborer-musicians in black townships was in direct violation of the Group Areas Act (the urban spatial policy that assigned different racial groups to different commercial and residential areas), he persisted in his dancing and musicmaking. In the late 1960s, he met KwaZulu-Natal-born guitarist Sipho Mchunu, with whom he would go on to create the band Juluka in 1969, named for one of Mchunu’s bulls. Mchunu would be a close collaborator in the following decades. Clegg, simultaneously, was studying social anthropology at Wits University, eventually going on to lecture about Zulu dance and music. Juluka’s debut single, “Woza Friday,” was released in 1976; their first album, the now-classic “Universal Men,” was released in 1979. The mixed-race outfit’s tunes were censored by the white minority government, and so they toured their syncretized Afro pop across the beleaguered country defiantly flouting the law and actively supporting domestic and international campaigns against the National Party and its apartheid policy.
I discovered his music years after this tireless anti-racist campaigning work, though that spirit never died. I saw him onstage years after his hamstrings were limber enough to raise his foot over his head before slamming it back down to the earth as energetically as he once could. I heard him sing “Asimbonanga,” his ode to Nelson Mandela and its invocation of three anti-apartheid strugglers made martyrs by the apartheid regime — Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett — two decades after Madiba’s release in 1990 and three years before his death in 2013. Although I came to love Clegg long after his healthiest years — he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, just five years after I was an audience member at his Johannesburg show — a vicarious empathy and nostalgia and militancy and joy and sadness and hope still emanated through his music, even though I don’t speak Zulu.
Now equipped with language to describe and criticize cultural appropriation, how do I memorialize a man that Swaziland’s King Sobhuza II named as a “royal minstrel,” an honor that could also uncomfortably bring to mind the National Party’s disingenuous claim that government censorship of his music was justified because he was making a cultural mockery, and so performing a racial minstrelsy, of Zulu music? How do I reconcile my love for Clegg’s musicality with my enduring contempt for the way so many white Africanists in academia seem to pimp the continent for their own careerist gain? Clegg loved and embraced Zulu culture, and he tried to make it globally celebrated and accessible to audiences that were not familiar with it, often preceding each song with a humorous or sentimental or deeply politicized anecdote about memory or family or cattle herding or struggle or friendship or love or rurality, drawing on his training as an anthropologist — but was it “his place” to do this?
I mourn for Clegg with all of these nonrhetorical questions in my head about cultural relations, race and power juxtaposed against the wide acknowledgment of his incredible warmth, kindness, generosity, care and dedicated devotion to his craft and to his fans and to the culture he constantly drew from for lyrical content, onstage choreography and the orientation of his worldview. Any thoughtful or loving eulogy I would write for Clegg would be tied up with the same contradictions as his nickname: “the White Zulu,” or “umZulu omhlope.”
That potentially questionable moniker was not self-adopted. It was “a kind of inside joke,” an affectionate designation he picked up in Soweto “because a white Zulu could not exist in apartheid society,” he told Siddhartha Mitter in a 2017 interview. But there he still was. No one could honestly call him, a white man, a victim of apartheid. Yet the apartheid state’s censorship of his bands’ music did illustrate the way that white supremacy fights to strip expansive racial-cultural formations from our creative imaginations, even still today.
Clegg’s is not a story about saviorism or the answer to a hypothetical question posed about the possibility for white redemption, nor is it a personal affirmation of the mythos of racial colorblindness or South Africa’s “post-apartheid” “Rainbow Nation.” Because what does it mean for a white South African anthropologist to compel me to feel such love and cultural affinity for my cousins across the Limpopo River? His story and his life’s work lovingly demand we consider and reconsider the nature of and our capacity for a confrontational and self-sacrificial interracial solidarity (and, for whites, not simply political actions that are personally convenient), the historical and contemporary power of music and culture in anti-oppression struggles, and what it means to ethically and responsibly participate in the cultural forms of a people that is not yours. He was a beacon in so many ways, a once-in-a-lifetime artist and performer and activist. And the world was made immeasurably brighter during the time he spent in it.