Johannesburg, South Africa (CelebrityAccess) — Johnny Clegg, a celebrated South African musician, activist, and anthropologist who co-founded racially mixed bands during the nation’s apartheid era, died on Tuesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 66.
His death was announced by his manager Roddy Quin and confirmed by his longtime producer/collaborator Hilton Rosenthal.
“I am devastated. What a journey we shared – Johnny (the Great Heart) & I (the Scatterling), from the bottom of Kerk Street to the top of the charts – from Phelamanga to Paris, London to Los Angeles and Soweto to Sydney,” Rosenthal wrote in a post on social media.
“It was an honor, a privilege and a joy to know him, even more to work with him, but most importantly to be his friend. In over 40 years of working together, never one word uttered in anger – only friendship, love & respect. We shared so many laughs, even in the face of adversity,” Rosenthal added.
Born in England, Clegg moved to Africa with his mother, first to Rhodesia (Modern day Zimbabwe) and then, when he was 7, to Johannesburg, South Africa. It was in Johannesburg that Clegg was first exposed to South African music, including Zulu street guitar.
“I stumbled on Zulu street guitar music being performed by Zulu migrant workers, traditional tribesmen from the rural areas,” Clegg told NPR in a 2017 interview. “They had taken a Western instrument that had been developed over six, seven hundred years, and reconceptualized the tuning. They changed the strings around, they developed new styles of picking, they only use the first five frets of the guitar — they developed a totally unique genre of guitar music, indigenous to South Africa. I found it quite emancipating.”
Clegg’s early association with black musicians also meant frequent trouble for Clegg with South African authorities and he was arrested multiple times as a teen for violating anti-segregation laws.
When he was 17, he met Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker, and the two began performing together, founding Juluka, a band that would later become associated with the mass movement against apartheid.
In 1976, they released their debut single, “Woza Friday” and later scored their first critical success with their album Universal Men, which while banned on South African state radio became a number one hit on the independent Capital Radio 604.
Despite resistance from the South African government, Juluka became an international success, touring Europe, and North America and generating five platinum and 2 gold albums before disbanding in 1985.
While pursuing a career in music, Clegg also attended the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Natal, where he studied music and anthropology.
In 1986, Clegg partnered with South African musician and dancer Dudu Zulu to form the band Savuka, scoring major hits with their debut album Third World Child, as well their 1993 album Heat, Dust & Dreams which was nominated for a Grammy for Best World Music Album that year.
The group’s chart success helped them to become the second-best-selling South African band outside the country, behind only Ladysmith Black Mambazo. However, following the murder of Dudu Zulu in 1992, the group parted ways.
In the mid-1990s, Clegg and Mchunu briefly reformed Juluka, recording one album and embarking on a world tour but they again parted ways while Clegg pursued a solo career.
Clegg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015 and after undergoing surgery to treat the cancer in 2017, he cut back his touring schedule, performing his final public concert in October 2018.
Clegg was widely recognized for his contributions to ending apartheid, and in 2012, he received the Order of Ikhamanga, the highest honor South African can bestow on one of its citizens.
In 2015, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and was made a Knight of Arts and Letters by the French Government in 1991.