Remembering the great Johnny Clegg for what he should be remembered for
The news accounts are full of tributes to prominent South African musician Johnny Clegg, who tragically died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at age 66. When I heard this myself on Twitter, I was sad enough to shed tears.
The postmortems describe him as an anthropologist, a bridge-builder, a barrier-breaker, and an activist. They made much of his embrace of Zulu culture — not just liking it, but jumping into it, going native, learning the language, mastering the dances, wearing the ceremonial dress, and using it in his performances to the point of earning the nickname "the white Zulu" — a nickname he reportedly disliked. Media outlets ran headlines like this:
I find this unsettling. Did they remember why Clegg was important at all? Did they ever hear his music? Did they understand that there was something special about his music? To read these headlines, he could have been any musician, the music was a sort of side gig and could have been executed at any level, because actually, what was important about him is that he was an activist.
It's as if they've boxed him in with his political era and want to shut him off there and move on. This is rubbish, because Clegg is going to be listened to a lot longer than just the era that fostered his talent. Yes, it's valuable to consider an era and its context when evaluating an artist, but they've taken this way overboard.
Actually, it was Clegg's music, well outside any political context, that made him matter. And it's why his death is so sad. And it's why there's such an outpouring of mourning from South Africans of all political stripes: we wanted more.
Clegg was one helluva musician with a body of work that superseded any ephemeral politics, righteous or not, that he championed.
I listened to it for years before I knew anything at all about him. It's beautiful. It's utterly original, unlike anyone else's, amplified by virtuosity, luscious layers of sound, pitch-perfect vocals, powerful melodies, original blendings of European and African sounds, a taut youthful fast energy, strong rhythms, and harmony like nobody's harmony. And there's a ton of it, all good. You can listen to it 20 years after you've already played it to death on your tape recorder or whatever and still find it amazingly good. You can marvel at the technical virtuosity of both Clegg and his bands; those were musicians who so obviously put the hours in. What's more, very few of any of Clegg's songs in collections are duds, just about all are vividly brilliant and worth listening to — his was a talent that just kept creating.
Nor would you need to know a thing about the South African Apartheid-era struggle to appreciate it. Encountering Clegg's work is like encountering a Caravaggio in Rome. Not knowing anything about the man or his era wouldn't be an impediment to standing in awe at the masterpiece before you if you happened upon it unawares — you'd just say "wow."
Yet even when the press does get around to mentioning Clegg's music, it inevitably focuses on just one song, his famous "Asimbonanga," which was a politically charged number about Nelson Mandela and black South Africans' longing to see him out of prison, a brilliant rallying anthem, for sure. But Clegg actually had a prodigious output that was about way more than political anthems. Most of his songs weren't anything political, just brilliantly sketched outlines of the human condition. They are honest, intimate songs, not typical romanticizations often seen by well meaning but doofusy white people trying to advocate for a black or brown culture, unafraid to portray people as they are. A helluva lot of them were politically incorrect, with ferocious celebrations of male culture and picaresque songs of township criminal and gun culture, Clegg himself singing the roles. Clegg was empathetic, though, and sang songs describing the mind of a migrant and the thoughts reverberating through his head as he leaves, in "Third World Child," and even some tremendously delirious love songs.
It goes to show how different things are now. What's more, if Clegg were the "it" musician of today, he'd be blasted as a cultural appropriator, something that didn't happen in his era, when it was a dangerous thing to do.
There are other signs that Clegg's music was great, in part because he had a lot of integrity. Breitbart editor Joel Pollak noted this personal encounter with Clegg, which sure as heck isn't going to get into the mainstream media obits:
I sat next to Johnny Clegg once on an 8-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg. He was under extreme pressure from his left-wing allies in South Africa to denounce Israel. He would not do it. A freedom fighter, a musical genius, a Zulu warrior, a proud Jew. Hamba kahle! 🇿🇦🇮🇱🇺🇸— Joel B. Pollak (@joelpollak) July 16, 201
And far from being cultural appropriation, his music was quite original to him, incorporating a sort of Britishy dance-hall melodism much as the Beatles did when they combined their own sound with R&B. If it weren't unique to him, why would anyone pay attention to him at all? Much easier to go straight to the source for the music, the Zulus themselves.
I think they've got it all wrong. Clegg was great not because of his activism, which is an evanescent thing, given the mess South Africa has recently descended into, but because his music was great. It was a thing of awe, and it is certain to outlive him. None of these accounts seems to know much about why I liked Clegg, which was solely because of the beauty of his music.
Can't we just praise the man and his music? Does everything have to be political?
RIP, Johnny Clegg.
Image credit: YouTube screen shot.