Johnny Clegg, A Uniting Voice Against Apartheid, Dies At 66 The pioneering South African singer, songwriter and activist died Tuesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
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Johnny Clegg, A Uniting Voice Against Apartheid, Dies At 66

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Johnny Clegg, A Uniting Voice Against Apartheid, Dies At 66

Johnny Clegg, A Uniting Voice Against Apartheid, Dies At 66

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the most celebrated voices in modern South African music has died. Singer, dancer and activist, Johnny Clegg co-founded two groundbreaking, racially mixed bands during the apartheid era. And he took their music to fans around the world. Johnny Clegg died Tuesday at a family home in Johannesburg after a years-long struggle with cancer. He was 66. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASIMBONANGA")

JOHNNY CLEGG: (Singing in Zulu).

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Johnny Clegg wrote his 1987 song "Asimbonanga" for Nelson Mandela while the future president was still in prison. It became an anthem for South Africa's freedom fighters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASIMBONANGA")

CLEGG: (Singing) Oh, the sea is cold and the sky is grey. Look across the island into the bay.

TSIOULCAS: Clegg was born in England, but he became one of South Africa's most creative and outspoken cultural figures. He discovered the country's music when he was a young teenager in Johannesburg, as he told NPR in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLEGG: I stumbled on Zulu street guitar music being performed by Zulu migrant workers, traditional tribesmen from the rural areas. And they developed a totally unique genre of guitar music, indigenous to South Africa. And I found it quite emancipating.

TSIOULCAS: He'd been studying classical guitar, but he found a local black teacher who took him into neighborhoods where whites weren't supposed to go. Because he was so young, he was accepted. And in those neighborhoods, he discovered his other great passion - the warlike movements of Zulu dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLEGG: Which were pretty powerful for a young, 16-year-old adolescent boy. They knew something about being a man, which they could communicate physically in the way that they danced and carried themselves. And I wanted to be able to do the same thing. Basically, I wanted to become a Zulu warrior. And in a very deep sense, it offered me an African identity.

TSIOULCAS: And even though he was white, he was welcomed into their ranks, despite the dangers to both him and his mentors. He was arrested multiple times for breaking the segregation laws. Yet, he continued to go back. And it was through his dance team that he met one of his longest musical collaborators.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLEGG: I met Sipho Mchunu and we played for about six, seven years - traditional maskanda guitar music. We couldn't play in public, so we played in private venues - schools, churches, university. We played a lot of embassies. We played a lot of consulates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMPI")

JULUKA: (Singing in Zulu).

TSIOULCAS: Clegg wanted to try to meld Zulu music with Celtic folk and rock. So they founded a band called Juluka, which means sweat in Zulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMPI")

JULUKA: (Singing in Zulu).

TSIOULCAS: At the time, Johnny was a professor of anthropology. Sipho was working as a gardener. They landed a record deal. And while they couldn't get airplay or perform publicly in South Africa, the band still managed to find an audience. And one of its songs became a hit in the UK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCATTERLINGS OF AFRICA")

JULUKA: (Singing) They are the scatterlings of Africa, each uprooted one on the road to Phelamanga, where the world began.

TSIOULCAS: The band toured internationally for several years but eventually broke up. So Clegg founded a new group, Savuka, meaning we have risen in Zulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLEGG: Savuka was launched, basically, in the state of emergency in South Africa in 1986. You could not ignore what was going on. The entire Savuka project was based in the South African experience and the fight for a better quality of life and freedom for all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MAN ONE VOTE")

SAVUKA: (Singing) One man, one vote. Step into the future. One man, one vote in a unitary state.

TSIOULCAS: Nelson Mandela eventually danced on stage with Savuka, and Clegg went on to a solo career. But in 2017, he announced he'd been fighting cancer and launched one final tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRIENDS OF JOHNNY CLEGG SONG, "THE CROSSING")

TSIOULCAS: The following year, dozens of high-profile musicians recorded one of Clegg's songs to honor him and benefit primary school education in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CROSSING")

FRIENDS OF JOHNNY CLEGG: (Singing in Zulu) I'm coming. (Singing in Zulu) I'm coming. (Singing in Zulu) Even though the tide is turning...

TSIOULCAS: Clegg never shied away from being described as a crossover artist. He embraced the concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLEGG: I love it. I love the hybridization of culture, language, music, dance. If we look at the history of art, generally speaking, it is through the interaction of different communities, cultures, worldviews, ideas, concepts that invigorates styles and genres and gives them life, and gives people a different angle on stuff that was really just, you know, being passed down blindly from generation to generation.

TSIOULCAS: Johnny Clegg didn't do anything blindly. Instead, he held a mirror up to his nation and urged South Africa to redefine itself. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CROSSING")

FRIENDS OF JOHNNY CLEGG: (Singing) Through all the days that eat away...

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