Johnny Clegg — the British-born, South African musician who stood against apartheid in his adopted home and whose work crossed racial divides — died on Tuesday at his home in Johannesburg, Associated Press reports. He was 66.
The singer, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, was born in Bacup, Lancashire, England, on June 7, 1953, but moved to South Africa with his mother when he was a child and primarily grew up in Johannesburg. He performed in the bands Juluka and Savuka as well as a solo artist, and attracted an international audience for his songs and performances that united people who were against South Africa’s apartheid, the institutionalized racial segregation that plagued the region for five decades.
While in Juluka, the group defied apartheid rule with their mixed race members and by performing publicly in segregated spaces, violating the apartheid legislation dubbed the Group Areas Act. Their songs also pushed boundaries of the era. As New York Times notes, “Impi” (translation: “Regiment”) from Juluka’s 1981 African Litany LP, championed the victory of Zulu forces over British colonial invaders.
“RIP Johnny Clegg. One of the greatest artists of South Africa and the world,” Steven Van Zandt tweeted. “Musa Ukungilandela by his band Juluka is one of the greatest albums of all time. He was a great friend when I needed one during my Sun City research. His use of Zulu influenced me to use it in ‘Pretoria.”
Savuka’s 1987 song, “Asimbonanga,” which translates to “We’ve never seen him,” was penned while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and his images were banned. After 27 years in prison, Mandela was released in 1990 and became South Africa’s first black president four years later. The track resonated to the point that Mandela surprised Clegg in 1999 during a show in Frankfurt, Germany when he joined him onstage for the song.
Nicknamed “White Zulu,” Clegg received many honors over the course of his career. In 1993, Savuka was nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music Album category for Heat, Dust and Dreams. France made him a Chevalier of Arts and Letters in 1991 and in 2015, Britain named him an officer of the Order of the British Empire. In 2012, he received South Africa’s highest civilian medal, the presidential Ikhamanga Award.
“He has left deep footprints in our hearts,” the South African government posted on its official Twitter account in an online tribute to Clegg. “He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity #RIPJohnnyClegg.”
RIP Johnny Clegg. One of the greatest artists of South Africa and the world. Musa Ukungilandela by his band Juluka is one of the great albums of all time. He was a great friend when I needed one during my Sun City research. His use of Zulu influenced me to use it in Pretoria.
— Stevie Van Zandt (@StevieVanZandt) July 17, 2019
Asimbonanga ofana no Johnny Clegg. He has left deep footprints in our hearts. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. #RIPJohnnyClegg https://t.co/vSnqHv5XkO pic.twitter.com/LT9ZQLL2Jy
— South African Government (@GovernmentZA) July 16, 2019