South African Musician and Icon Johnny Clegg Dies at 66

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s iconic singer and songwriter, Johnny Clegg, has sadly passed away today, Tuesday 16 July 2019, at the age of 66. The nation and all the “scatterlings of Africa” will mourn his passing.

John Clegg dances with a member of his band Savuka. A multi-racial band, Savuka was one of the first bands to bring traditional South African pop music to the rest of the world.

johnny clegg

Clegg was diagnosed with cancer four years ago in 2015.

During his career he helped unite South Africans of all colours, with his pre-1994 songs becoming anthems for a restless nation that wanted the end of Apartheid. Fluent in Zulu, Clegg mixed traditional folks music (mbaqanga), and was loved by fans of all ages.

Johnny Clegg photos by MARGUERITE DE VILLIERS

His popularity spread across the globe. In France he was known as the “White Zulu”. He was a Grammy nominee, and a Billboard music award winner. In 2015, the legendary singer was honoured by Queen Elizabeth II with the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). He described the news at the time as a “tremendous moment”.

Clegg said at  the time: “It has been a long journey of more than 30 years, from when I first began to experiment with truly South African cross-over music, and at the same time becoming a cultural activist in the struggle against apartheid.

“Our music was banned or restricted on national radio, as well as shows being closed down from time to time by apartheid’s security police; we were faced with many obstacles that we had to contend with.

Johnny Clegg Kirstenbosch 2015
Johnny Clegg at Kirstenbosch 2015, reunited once again with his Juluka partner Sipho Mchunu

“Having worked with The End Conscription Campaign, the Trade Union Movement and the Free the Children in Detention Campaign, resisting forced removals of rural communities, fund raising for the United Democratic Front amoungst other progressive causes, this award re-energises those dreams and commitments in a very special way.”

FILE PHOTO: Johnny Clegg seen here with fellow South African Princess Charlene and her husband, Prince Albert II of Monaco. Clegg was in the principality to attend the South Africa Gala night in Monaco, September 29, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/File Photo

In South Africa, he was awarded the presidential Order of Ikhamanga in 2012, and was also the recipient of many  doctorates and awards.

Roddy Quin, Clegg’s manager, friend and family spokesman, released a statement saying:

It is with immense sadness that we confirm that Jonathan (Johnny) Clegg, OBE OIS succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66 on the afternoon of 16 July 2019 at his family home in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Johnny leaves deep foot prints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us he awakened awareness.

Johnny was born on 7 June 1953 in Bacup, Lancashire England and moved to Johannesburg, South Africa with his Rhodesian mother when he was 6 years old. His exposure to Zulu migrant workers during adolescence introduced him to the culture and music. His involvement with black musicians often saw him arrested during Apartheid.

At the age of 17, together with Sipho Mchunu they formed their first band called Juluka. At the age of 33 in 1986 during the height of Apartheid he partnered with Dudu Zulu to form his second inter-racial band called Savuka. Clegg also recorded several solo albums and enjoyed international success selling out concerts wherever he performed.

Apart from lecturing at the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Natal respectively, Johnny studied anthropology and combined his studies with music.

He was awarded by a number of local and international bodies for his contribution to music and society notably by the French Government in 1991 with a Knight of Arts and Letters, and in 2015 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. In 2012 he received the Order of Ikhamanga from the South African government. He was awarded a number of Honorary doctorates by the Universities of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), Dartmouth College in the USA and the City University of New York.

He authored and published the book “UkuBuyisa Isidumbu” (1981, Ravan Press), and presented papers on “The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers in Johannesburg” in 1981 at the Grahamstown International Library of African Music and “Towards an understanding of African Dance: The Zulu Isishameni Style” in 1982 at Rhodes University.

Johnny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015 but despite fighting cancer continued to tour and perform around the world to pay homage to his fans worldwide.

Johnny is survived by his wife of 31 years, Jenny and their two sons Jesse and Jaron.

His passing has left us numb and we request that the family’s privacy be respected during this trying time.

The family will be holding a Private funeral service and we ask you to please respect the families wishes.

There will be a service for public to pay their respects and the details hereof will be announced in due course.

Johnny Clegg photos by MARGUERITE DE VILLIERS

WATCH Nelson Mandela join Johnny Clegg on stage in France, 1999