Blog July 17, 2019
RIP: Johnny Clegg, South African Songwriter, Musician and Activist

Johnny Clegg, the South African musician and activist who made it a point to be a gadfly to the racist apartheid government in the '70s and '80s, has died at 66 years old. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, Clegg passed away peacefully at home in Johannesburg.

It's a hard one, and one that we'll obviously need to address more fully—Clegg leaves behind a legacy anyone should be proud of. He burst onto the international scene in the late '70s with the band Juluka, whose album Universal Men fused folk rock and Zulu maskanda. Juluka was an interracial band, which meant that their performances were illegal under apartheid laws, and the group was subject to harassment and sometimes arrest. It wasn't much in the parlance at the time, but Clegg was a man who took his privilege seriously and tried to use it to rectify injustice.

South Africa came around on him. He was nicknamed “the White Zulu,” was nominated for Grammys and was knighted in two countries. South Africa's current government tweeted out a thread of appreciation:

Afropop's Banning Eyre, before getting on a flight from Morocco back to the United States, sent this in an email:

We knew it was coming, but it's a shock just the same. We've lost one of the most inspirational artists it's been our privilege to know. Johnny Clegg was a bold giant of African music, and we'll have more to say about his life and work. But we note his death from cancer with this, our final interview with the man, when he knew he was facing down death.

A group of musicians came together last year to record Clegg's song “The Crossing” in tribute:


We'll have more on Clegg and his legacy soon. For now, a simple "thank you" will have to suffice.

Johnny Clegg at City Winery in 2012
Johnny Clegg at City Winery in 2012

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