South Africa’s Clegg Has a Song of Change : Apartheid: He eschews direct political involvement in battling segregation. Instead he works through his biracial band.
President Johnny Clegg?
Not likely. The South African pop musician has long been a leader in the fight against apartheid, and there’s been some talk that political changes in his country could boost him to a role of statesman/artist, a la Czechoslovakia’s playwright-President Vaclav Havel.
“No, thank you,” said Clegg, a short but solid, curly haired singer, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel lounge recently. “The problem in South Africa is there are already too many politicians, too many political things spinning around which have clouded the issues for years.”
Clegg, 36, believes he can be more effective through his music than in politics. Clegg and his band Savuka--the biracial make-up of which is still revolutionary in South Africa--will be opening for Tracy Chapman tonight and Thursday at the Greek Theatre, Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheatre and Monday at San Diego State University’s Open Air Theatre.
“I can accomplish more raising the issues on stage, you see,” he said. “I’m not accountable to a party and don’t have to present things in a certain way. . . . My position has always been that it’s through cultural interaction and change that true change happens in the everyday life of the working man.
“If you’re a racist and I’m to convince you about certain things, I believe I can do it far more convincingly if I expose you to the food, dress style, the dance, the different things of the culture you detest, the race group you detest. I’ll present them to you as human and there might be one or two things you like, and things you dislike, but you will have experienced them. Culture to me has to do with experience. That’s the whole point.”
Few people can claim more cultural experience than Clegg. “I’m a patchwork,” he said of his background. He was born in England to a Zimbabwe-born woman of Lithuanian Jewish heritage. When his mother remarried a journalist with a fascination for Africa, the family moved to Zimbabwe, then to Zambia and then to South Africa. By the time Clegg was 12 he had attended six different schools (some biracial, some white-only) in three different countries and shared his stepfather’s love for African culture.
Defying both convention and law, he enlisted a black musician to tutor him in traditional styles and by 15 he was playing and dancing at otherwise all-black gatherings. It was here that he first was made aware of the politics that come along with South African culture.
“I was in a migrant labor hostel in Johannesburg in a room of some 30 or 40 people,” he recalled. “We were all dancing inside and the police had a raid on the hostel. There’s lots of faction fighting in the hostels, every weekend people are killed, stabbed.”
The police initially thought this young white boy was being held captive. When he told them he was there voluntarily, he was whisked home, where his mother was given a stern lecture not to let him go there anymore and warned that if he had not been a minor he would have been jailed.
But Clegg persuaded his mother that he knew what he was doing and eventually became such a fixture in the black music and cultural scene that he was ceremonially inducted into three Zulu tribes and became a founder and vice president of the social-change-minded South African Musicians Alliance.
A teen-age partnership with black musician Sipho Mchunu--largely banned from public performances--evolved into the band Juluka, which had an international hit with the song “Scatterlings of Africa.” After Mchunu quit, Clegg reconstituted the band as Savuka, which means, “we have risen.”
With its third album, “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World,” Clegg and Savuka have achieved a full melding of traditional Zulu styles and modern Western pop, as well as a global outlook in such songs as “One (Hu)man One Vote” and “Warsaw 1943 (I Never Betrayed the Revolution).” The album has cemented Clegg’s superstar status both at home and in Europe (he’s particularly huge in France) and is affording him increased exposure in North America.
This international success has become increasingly important to Clegg, who believes that the struggles in South Africa only presage what is coming for the rest of the globe.
“In a kind of peculiar way South Africa is a preview of what is going to happen in the next 20 years with the politics of globalism,” he said. “The East meets the West, the North will meet the South, and in that a lot of the problems that South Africa is now being forced to address in a very short time will have to be addressed: race, class, ethnicity, language, First World, Third World, rural and urban. And I really believe there will be a South African model: Either we tried to do it this way and failed, or it kind of worked.”
And his own experiences as a “patchwork man”?
“I’m a prototype model,” he said, half-jokingly. “There are others following. . . . Maybe.”