Johnny Clegg died today. He matters because in violent, segregated South African apartheid, he organized, performed and recorded with integrated music groups Savuka and Juluka. They used music to fight injustice around the world, reaching peak popularity in the late 80’s/ early 90’s (hence the sassy vests). Professionally, he served as the model of an ally. He used his privilege to fight the system side by side with marginalized South Africans. Johnny Clegg made media that matters.
I first heard Johnny’s music on the Rain Man soundtrack, which includes his song “Scatterlings of Africa” . Years later, I discovered he was responsible for the adorable song George uses to court Ursula in George of the Jungle. I ordered his album Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World when I was 16 and listened to it on repeat. I always had a thing for South African music (blame Graceland), but Johnny Clegg brought something more: bleeding heart vocals unabashedly narrating human rights dramas like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on 1943, the Irish War of Independence, or the South African apartheid Clegg and his bandmates experienced. Johnny Clegg work awakened an awareness of South Africa in me. I read The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr, and later, Born A Crime by Trevor Noah. I was pretty lucky: in 2000, when I was 9, Disney Channel released The Color of Friendship about a black family who unexpectedly hosts a biased white South African. This introduced me to the conflict in South Africa, mind- bogglingly hostile concept. Whites fighting whites? Black fighting blacks? Whites fighting blacks? Whites becoming the majority in an African country?
Even now, 25 years after apartheid ended, South Africa is a mess. They faced the worst drought in modern history. Immigrants from all over Africa seek asylum in South Africa. Every time I hear about someone who goes on a surf safari in South Africa, I wonder: Do you know what’s happening here? Do you you know the real price of South African wine?
Johnny Clegg, Savuka and Juluka opened my world. Their art expanded my worldview, brought me a new perspective and helped me see conflict on a human level. Johnny Clegg and Savuka/ Juluka made me care about people living 10,000 miles away. Plus, his tunes are pretty damn catchy.