Change matters: The power of Johnny Clegg

Johny Clegg, one of South Africa’s best-known musicians, left us on July 16, succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66.

August 1, 2019 10:08
3 minute read.
Change matters: The power of Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg performs during the South Africa Gala night at the Monte Carlo Opera on September 29, 2012. (photo credit: SEBASTIEN NOGIER/REUTERS)

Johny Clegg, one of South Africa’s best-known musicians, left us on July 16, succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66. Since then, like many others, my time has been spent listening to old favorites, reminiscing, eulogizing and paying respects. For those of us – especially the children of South Africa – who were brought up on his music, this is a loss that is felt on so many levels: individual, communal, national, international, and more.
It’s not just because he was a great singer, songwriter and musician. It is not just because of the surreal juxtaposition (at that time) of this white man stomping and dancing African style to the beat of African drums.
For many of us growing up in apartheid South Africa, Johny Clegg and his entourage represented a beacon of light and validation for a country in the midst of terrible times. We were not just a sum total of bad politics, inhumanity and racism.
Despite international sanctions being put in place, Johnny and his music still played in the international arena. Johnny was blind to the racist doctrines and broke the barriers of apartheid, as his music crossed borders and grew wings. He broke the stigmas about who you can hang out with, work with, sing like, be like, look like. In a time of terrible compartmentalization, he was an example to all of us that things could be different. That was the power of his music and the example that he set. We can never underestimate what it did for the children of South Africa to see Johnny on the international stage. For our impressionable minds, he was someone to admire and emulate. We too could choose to transcend. We too could embrace and join together. That is the power of music and creative pursuits. That is the power of Johnny Clegg.
I never met Johnny, although I have stomped and jumped with him across his sound tracks. I have no idea whether he was political or not. I don’t know whether he wanted to be the one to influence a generation. I don’t know whether he consciously used his art to break the boundaries and challenge the norm, or whether it all just happened serendipitously. His music served to unite, gather and show that our similarities were far greater than our differences.
So in the spirit of our times, wherein boycotting people and places because of their nationality, religion, political beliefs and ideologies has become commonplace, Johnny teaches us that creative and artistic pursuits will always prevail. They will always transcend. For all of those in favor of trying to cut off these pursuits, just imagine if my generation had not had a Johnny Clegg.
Just imagine if Johnny, because of inertia, apathy or ignorance, had enforced the segregation laws and not lead the life he did. We would not only have missed out on his music, we would also have missed out on seeing a person be the change that the country needed to see.
Sometimes called “The White Zulu” because of his mix of modern Western music with traditional African rhythms, Clegg was the subject of a Jerusalem Report interview in 2012, titled “The Jewish Zulu.” Although born in Lancashire on June 7, 1953, he moved with his Jewish mother as a baby to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then to South Africa at the age of six, spending part of a year in Israel as well.
As he related to journalist Andrew Friedman, Clegg felt little connection with Judaism, but decided to celebrate a “double” bar mitzvah together with his son Jesse.
Johnny Clegg is survived by his wife, Jenny, and sons Jesse and Jaron. His most famous song was probably “Asimbonanga” (We have not seen him), which he wrote in 1987 as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, the iconic leader who was then still in jail.
During a performance in 1999, Mandela – now president of a new democratic South Africa – danced with Clegg and his band, Suvuka, on stage, much to the delight of the audience. In the elegiac and soulful anti-apartheid song, an anthem that sparks a crazy nostalgia in me for my home city, Cape Town, he sings:
A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me?
I know the answer to that question. You did, too, Johnny. You broke the silence and closed the distance between us.

R.K. Mayer is a writer, change management consultant, entrepreneur and co-founder of OtailO. He lives in Ramat Hasharon

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