You learn how serious you are about music when you face arrest for making it.

Johnny Clegg photo
by Fiona MacPherson

"In my head, I was never speaking to a particular audience; I was speaking to a set of ideas, which I still speak to.”

Johnny Clegg and I are talking about his primary audience, the people that he speaks to first whether by intention or unconscious habit. In Juluka, Savuka, and on his own, he has been one of the important musical voices in South Africa for more than 30 years, often combining English and Zulu in his songs. “Our first audiences were completely divorced from one another,” he says of Juluka. “We had Zulu migrant workers and university students, two groups that never met each other, but they were buying our albums.” Clegg plays the House of Blues tonight

Clegg grew up in Zimbabwe the son of a singing mother and a reporter father, and through his father’s work he had a broader cultural experience that many whites in South Africa. While teaching Anthropology at a university in Johannesburg, he started thinking about how to mix English and Western musical ideas with Zulu language and traditions. Clegg was obsessed with Zulu street guitar music as performers Africanized the guitar to suit their own purposes. That led him to engage more fully in Zulu culture. Today Zulu is his second language. “You don’t get a culture until you speak the language,” he says. “You can be moved by some exotic moment in a dance or song and not really know what’s going on. When you get the language, when you get symbolism, when you get how poetry is constructed, you start to understand a much deeper part of the cultural psyche. I started when I was 15. I learned Zulu when I was singing it, sometimes not knowing what the hell I was singing. The music is a very socially conscious tradition. They give you a deep sense of what the people are experiencing.”

With Sipho Mchunu, he started Juluka. “Juluka was trying to find a universal language to talk two audiences,” Clegg says. The way the band mixed languages, musical styles and structures, and tribal clothing with Western clothing, “it was a form of cultural resistance.” At the time, he received more harassment from white police than he did from Zulus. “Not from traditional tribesmen. The Black Consciousness Movement was very strong in South Africa, so the urban intellectual BC philosophers, they were very suspicious of whites performing black music, but we overcame that very quickly. The Black Consciousness Movement and the White racists were arguing the same thing: How can a White person experience a Black experience?”

Clegg pursued music that honor both traditions, and his new Best, Live & Unplugged at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town documents the Irish folk/rock/Zulu fusion he hit upon. His best known songs in North America - “Scatterlings of Africa,” “The Crossing (Osiyeza)” - are representative. They, like all his music, were first written for a South African context, but they’re not necessarily limited to it. “I write about the South African experience, but I use universal frames of reference,” he says. “I use metaphors and associations which any Western person would be able to listen to and say, They’re talking about one human, one vote. We have that here and we don’t think about it.”

As crucial as music is to the American identity, Clegg has seen how high the stakes connected to it can be as he has had to literally face arrest to perform. “That is a defining moment in a musician’s life,” he says. “Twenty to 30 percent of our shows were shut down by police. Sometimes politely, sometimes with tear gas and dogs.” Other shows were shut down by Black activists in the townships who regularly held rallies, strikes, and memorials for people who had been killed, and they expected musicians and promoters to cancel shows that took place on those days, no matter how long the shows had been scheduled. For a period in 1986, musicians were being murdered in their homes.

He has seen the power of music as well. Clegg says music was “huge” in the fight against Apartheid, and that he learned from Nelson Mandela that for those in prison, music was more meaningful form of expression than poetry for other forms of writing. “Then you had the more critically reflective alternative music, which had a smaller audience,” he says. “Tended to be more students. Tended to be more in touch with what’s going on. Then you had the real, hardcore political struggle songs which were sung at funerals, memorials, political rallies, at events, during strike actions, and during consumer boycotts. These songs were part of the heritage of 100 years of struggle.” Western commercial music also played a role as a representative of the goal. “R&B was huge in South Africa.”

As part of our conversation, I talk about how it seemed that we lacked political music in America these days - certainly any with the power to unite people and galvanize them behind a cause.  

“Societies go through periods of intensity and periods of sleepwalking,” he said, and agreed that South Africa was going through one as well. “An issue arises, and that issue galvanizes people and they start to create expressive forms. That’s when the intensity and the commitment and choice an artist makes comes out. There will come [an issue]. One brewing at the moment is the securocrats in America, and how individual freedoms are being eroded. There will come a point when people will say, That’s enough now. And something will happen. Or there will be an issue around banking. Or the economy. Something will trigger something and you’ll get that intensity again.”