There are musicians who’ve built bridges between genres. There are musicians who’ve ventured in unpopular directions. There are even musicians who’ve charted uncovered ground. But then there’s Johnny Clegg — a British-born, African-raised secular Jew who dared to challenge South Africa’s strict apartheid laws in the 1970s by teaming up with a black migrant worker to perform an intriguing mix of Celtic folk, Zulu street music, and singer/songwriter fare. Their band, Juluka, openly celebrated biracial multiculturalism in a fierce — and violent — white supremacist society, and their fervent political activism came a full decade ahead of the popular international attention that eventually brought apartheid down.
After Juluka broke up in 1985, Clegg formed another interracial band, Savuka, which continued to blend traditional African music with the hard-rocking, keyboard-driven style of the era. In 1987, they achieved global popularity thanks to their song “Asimbonanga,” an ode to the then-still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela; in 1992, their immense popularity in Europe caused Michael Jackson to cancel a concert that fell on the same night as Savuka’s landmark performance at the Cologne Zulu Festival. Clegg went solo in 1993, and 17 years later, he released his first album, Human, on an American label. And still his piercing intellect and unwavering commitment to multiculturalism endure, making him a cult global hero.
Folio Weekly Magazine spoke with Clegg about the challenge of economic recessions, conducting crossover conversations, and touring the world.
Folio Weekly Magazine: In the United States, multiculturalism seems like a dirty word these days. Do you think it’s regressing everywhere?
Johnny Clegg: Multiculturalism always slips backward when there’s an economic downturn. The moment there’s a huge uptick in the economy, that relaxes and people find space for each other. Multiculturalism depends on a modicum of tolerance, and the moment everything’s working and everybody believes in the American Dream, it’s all cool. But we still haven’t come out of the 2007 economic regression, which has been exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis and other conflicts in the Middle East. So there are always challenges to multiculturalism when there’s global instability and fear sets in, making people scared that their little bit of turf is going to be overwhelmed. It’s the same thing with racism, or xenophobia. In a sense, humans don’t learn. They forget that there is space for everybody. All societies go through seasons, which affects not only multiculturalism, but the anticipation of what democracy is supposed to deliver. That’s when you find people expressing extreme right-wing or left-wing political beliefs, as they are right now.
For you, has music always been as a positive corrective to that?
I stumbled onto Zulu street guitar music at the age of 14. I responded to it, because I liked traditional Celtic folk music, and I heard the same kind of basic, primitive perception of life in Zulu war songs. But I couldn’t fully identify with it. Only later did I realize that the happiest music comes out of the toughest places. Music provides a way to be humanized in a dehumanizing context. That’s its basic, primitive level. And it doesn’t exist until I play my guitar, or the drums start, or a singer starts singing, or dancers start dancing. Then, suddenly, you’re swept up in this performance that enables you to transcend for an hour or two the place that you come from and the place that you might be going tomorrow. It puts you into what I call “quality space”: an innovative moment that comes, then goes, and then disappears. That’s the magic.
Today’s musicians have more access than ever to the wildly variegated influences. Do you see any younger artists following a trajectory similar to yours, blending such disparate forms of music?
Well, because young South Africans were affected by the cultural boycott in the 1980s, when we had our first democratic elections in 1994, they wanted to be part of the global youth culture. That brought a massive influx of hip-hop, dance, house, and rock, which saturated the townships to the extent where traditional music was almost totally silenced. Now, you can talk country and Western and rap and hip-hop, but there isn’t much control from record labels and radio stations the way there was in the 1980s and ’90s. I’ve been touring every year since 1983, so I’ve managed to build a career as a mid-level artist with a nice repertoire of 300 or so songs that I can rearrange and make more interesting. This year, I’m touring with a percussionist, which I’ve never done before. So I’m lucky. Young bands are just trying to find their way: to be discovered, to bootstrap themselves through social media and YouTube, to build an audience. That’s what I did. It’s tough, but it’s the best way to do it.
Do you have much experience touring in Florida?
I played at a big event in Miami about six years ago — some kind of expo or something. It was very memorable, though, because Jimmy Buffett came on stage and sang [my song] “Great Heart,” which he covered on one of his albums, with me. That was really nice. Also, the weather was fantastic. I hope it’s like that when we come back.