South African singer and musician Johnny Clegg, one of the loudest voices in pop during the anti-apartheid movement, is being widely mourned in the country following his death earlier this week.
The so-called “White Zulu” — so named for his use of indigenous South African music and dance – passed away at age 66, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Musician Sipho Mchunu was just 17 when he met the young man who would change his life — and South Africa’s music scene.
Mchunu was walking down the street when Clegg, just 16, approached him and asked him to sing him a song. He did, and the rest, he says, is history: the two formed a band, Juluka, and became known for their inventive use of Zulu songs and dance. In 1990, they became the biggest-selling world music group on the planet.
‘He taught me a lot also’
Clegg was no ordinary singer — and, Mchunu says, no ordinary South African. His goal was to unite South Africans across color lines. But Mchunu says the learning went both ways.
“I’ve never been to school so I can’t read and write,” he told VOA this week in Johannesburg. “So he made me understand the white people, a little bit of the culture. I guess you could say he helped me a lot. I helped him too. But I don’t feel like, when the people they say, “you taught him a lot.’ I say, ‘he taught me a lot also.’ So in Zulu, we call that ‘izandla ziyagezana,’ the hands wash each other.”
‘He captured the imagination’
On the streets of the hip Johannesburg suburb of Melville, South Africans of all races mourned the loss.
“You can compare him to any international performer,” said music fan Philip Brook. “For instance, Queen was a true performer, a true artist. So was Johnny Clegg. He captured the imagination of the people, he told a beautiful story.”
He also continues to inspire a new generation of musicians, like 20-year-old student Nipo Mubaiwa.
“When we speak about legends and icons we’re actually speaking about people like Johnny Clegg, people like Freddie Mercury and so I think for me that’s a really iconic moment,” she said. “And you know that you created such a big impact when you pass away and so many people are just in a state of shock because of the amount of impact that you had on their lives.”
Mchunu taught Clegg how to dance and stick-fight like a Zulu man, and was by Clegg’s side as they rocketed to stardom with hits like “Asimbonanga” and “Impi,” a song so controversial it was banned by the apartheid regime.
Fans big and small
But Clegg’s music, which dealt with big issues and major figures like former South African President Nelson Mandela, also touched the hearts of ordinary South Africans. Street guard Konose Kula says he will forever carry Clegg’s music in his heart.
“Johnny Clegg was the best,” he said. “He was a super musician. Yeah. He was a legend.”
Kula, too, is a musician, and plays the guitar and the piano. And, he says, the legend himself may be gone, but the White Zulu’s music will never die.