Jonathan Clegg was born near Manchester, England, in 1953 and grew up in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. Between his mother (a cabaret and jazz singer) and his step-father (a crime reporter), who took him into the townships at an early age, Johnny was exposed to a broader cultural perspective than that available to his peers. As a teenager in northern suburbs Johannesburg he encountered the demi-monde of the city's Zulu migrant workers' music and dance. Under the tutelage of Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, Clegg mastered both the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar and isishameni dance styles of the migrants while still in his mid-teens. Through these he also gained a profound understanding of Zulu culture, as his songs attest.
Clegg's involvement with black musicians often led to arrests for trespassing on government property and for contravening the Group Areas Act. Undeterred, he immersed himself in the world of Zulu migrant labourers and was soon entering hostel dance competitions at the head of his own team.
In the early 1970s Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, a migrant worker and guitarist from KwaZulu, formed an acoustic Zulu musical duo called Juluka (meaning sweat). In the meantime, he studied Social Anthropology at this University, where he was influenced by, among others, Professor David Webster, and earned his BA (Hons). He then joined the staff of the department and pursued an academic career for four years, lecturing at Wits and the University of Natal and writing several seminal scholarly papers on Zulu music and dance.
In 1976 Clegg and Mchunu enlarged their inter-racial band, secured a major recording deal, and made their first hit song, entitled Woza Friday. King Sobhuza II of Swaziland named Clegg an official 'royal minstrel'. A period of development followed, during which Clegg worked on bringing together English lyrics and Western melodies and Zulu musical structures. In this he was spectacularly successful and set the standard for the Afro-Anglo 'crossover' popular musical ensembles of the 1980s.
The formation of Juluka contravened the apartheid laws, which emphasised the separation of language, race and culture. The group's recorded music was censored and banned, and the only way to access audiences was by touring. In late 1979 Juluka's first album, Universal Men, was released. The collection wove together seamlessly English and Zulu folk balladry and dance, providing an affecting melodic and rhythmic platform for lyrics of outstanding literary quality. In 1982 and 1983 Juluka toured the USA, Canada, the UK, Germany and Scandinavia. The group split in 1985 and, in 1986, Clegg formed another band, Savuka (we have risen), mixing African music with Celtic folk and international rock sounds. Savuka toured Europe extensively in 1986 and 1987 and, by the end of 1987, was the leading world music group touring Francophone countries.
By the end of 1989 Savuka had sold over 1-million copies of its debut album and its second album was reaching 700 000 units. In 1990 the group received the Victoires award from the French recording industry as the best-selling international artists over two years. In that year it also received the world music award as the biggest-selling music group internationally. Clegg, now known throughout Western Europe as Le Zoulou Blanc, was declared a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French Government in 1991. In 1993 Savuka's last trademark album was nominated for a Grammy Award for the best world music album.
Clegg's music presents an intricate and holistic spectrum covering culture, its practice and its expression through song and dance. He is, perhaps, the only white artist to have mastered Zulu maskandi guitar and its lyrical and choreographic styles, together with a deep understanding of their cultural origins.
Johnny Clegg's music was both implicitly and explicitly political. The success of his bands (which openly celebrated African culture) was a thorn in the flesh of the National Party government and Clegg's music was officially banned from the airwaves, ostensibly for 'insulting the Zulu people by pretending to play their music'. As a songwriter he produced some explicitly political songs. For example, the album Work For All included South African trade union slogans. Even more explicit was the Savuka album Third World Child, in 1987, with songs like Asimbonanga, which called for the release of Nelson Mandela and featured the names of three martyrs of the South African liberation struggle – Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. Asimbonanga became something of an anthem for the Mass Democratic Movement's umbrella organisation, the United Democratic Front. So great was Clegg's reputation that there was no boycott of his international shows. When Savuka was, at first, refused permission to play at Mandela's 70th birthday concert at London's Wembley Stadium in 1988, Winnie Mandela called from South Africa to intercede and the ensemble was allowed to perform.
Organisationally, under Clegg's chairmanship during the later 1980s, the South African Musicians' Association (SAMA) played a crucial role as the political spokesman for and representative of the Mass Democratic Movement for performers, channelling their energies in progressive political directions and making sure the cultural boycott was responsibly upheld. SAMA gave an enormous boost to both the political and professional representation of musicians and, transformed into the Musicians Union of South Africa (MUSA), still plays an important role as arbitrator in the professional community of musicians, especially in Johannesburg, the centre of the industry.
Clegg also developed an innovative aspect of his performances that creatively employed the cultural and ethnographical knowledge and communicative skills he had acquired and honed in Wits' Department of Social Anthropology and in the hostels. He preceded each song with snippets of Zulu culture, information, commentary, humour and personal anecdotes relevant and unique to that song. An engaged social anthropologist, he not only mastered the theories but delved into the culture and disseminated it. In the hands of a less skilled cultural raconteur these mini-lectures might have evoked impatience from audiences but Clegg's obvious passion, sense of timing, and irresistible charm held them spellbound. The spell worked even more powerfully with exile and foreign audiences in North America and Europe. Clegg's poetic lyrics in both English and Zulu evoked powerfully not only the sufferings of rural Zulu migrants but also their proud cultural memory.
Briefly reunited with Mchunu in the mid-1990s, Clegg re-formed Juluka and toured throughout the world as the opening act for King Sunny Ade, as well as in his own headline performances. Today he continues to tour abroad regularly and entertains packed houses in South Africa. He has also become a major force in the independent music production industry, finding and sponsoring new talent in South Africa. He has, on many occasions, assisted his old department at Wits, giving guest seminars and performing solo at student benefit events.
Johnny Clegg's life and productions give meaning to the multiculturalism and social integration South Africans yearn for. It is therefore fitting that his alma mater confers on him its highest honour, the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa.