The Great Heart: Remembering Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg was born in Bacup, a town in Lancashire, England in 1953. His mother was a Jazz Singer hailing originally from Zimbabwe and raised Johnny in Zimbabwe until she remarried a South African journalist and immigrated to South Africa when Johnny was seven years old. Johnny was exposed to a broader cultural outlook from a young age as he frequently visited townships with his father. It was during these excursions that Johnny would meet Sipho Mchunu, his future songwriting partner and performer.

After graduating, Johnny lectured Anthropology at the University of the Witwaterstrand and it was at this time that he began his musical career. He experimented with the concept of combing English lyrics and westernized pop melodies with African, specifically Zulu, beats and rhythms. Johnny and Sipho were signed to music producer Hilton Rosenthal’s independent label. During this time, music mixing was unprofitable as there were radio censorships concerning mixed bands and mixed music. Nevertheless, Johnny and Sipho formed the band Juluka which translated from Zulu means “sweat”.

Due to censorship and the Group Areas Act, Juluka was not able to receive radio play or perform to mixed audiences and turned to touring of small, private venues such as church halls and universities. Despite the fact that many of these shows were subsequently shut down by the police, Juluka had already accumulated a substantial following consisting of mostly students and migrant workers. In 1982, after the release of Juluka’s third studio album, Johnny and Sipho took an opportunity to tour the US, Germany and Scandanavia garnering an international following.

Juluka had many well-loved hits that have become timeless modern classics such as Impi and Scatterlings of Africa with the later charting in the UK. Juluka’s lyrics touched on universal themes such as love, politics, work and both rural and city life. The group pushed the message of equality, exhibiting defiance against the beliefs of the Apartheid government of the time. Songs such as African Sky Blue and Work for All, Mdantsane and Siyayilanda are examples of Juluka’s support of the movent for democracy.

After more than 6 successful years, including two platinum and five gold-selling albums, Juluka split and Johnny formed the cross over ban Savuka which translates to “we have risen”. Savuka’s musical focus was to mix African melodies with a more broader range of styles, such as rock influences. Savuka had a slew of successful albums that broke a number of sales records internationally and Savuka toured both the US and Europe extensively. Similar to that of Juluka, Savuka continued to express their message of freedom in South Africa. At the time of Savuka’s formation, the political climate of the country had worsened and the group’s new record reflected this with even more references to political activists such as Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett.

In 1997 Juluka briefly reformed before Johnny continued on a solo career releasing 4 albums between the years 2002 and 2017. Although detested by supporters of Apartheid through the majority of his career, Johnny Clegg became a mainstream musical icon after the fall of the Apartheid Government. He was a great musician beloved by many. A man who inspired a generation with his songs of freedom and compassion.


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