Music for a Sunday: Johnny Clegg, RIP

Back in the early 1980s, a video cracked the CHUM 30 chart that was unlike all the rest of the pop parade of the day. It featured strong Zulu chants, references to Olduvai Gorge and Phelamanga (“the place where the lies end”), and a shaggy, bearded white guy dancing right along with the natives in perfect step:

That white guy was the late Johnny Clegg, who was not only the singer of a band (then called Juluka, later Savuka), but an anthropologist, and an anti-apartheid activist from South Africa just pointing out the obvious: that ancient ancestral bones show how we all came from Africa before we scattered over the globe, and that therefore, it was (and still is) a crime against humanity for the white colonial apartheid state to make “scatterlings” (i.e. displaced persons) of the local blacks. In a further fuck-you to white supremacy and separatism, he donned native dress, sang native chants, and danced like one of them, not in front of them or apart from them, but in the same line. He became, in effect, a white Zulu. For this effrontery, he faced persecution and censorship at home, but won international fame that went well beyond a charted hit.

Johnny’s efforts were not only shunted to the sidelines by a government determined to keep them out of the spotlight; they were also poorly understood by the political left of his day and land. He once said: “I hacked my own way and my own road…I was called a crypto-tribalist by the Left. I was promoting tribal values in a time that we should be promoting universal, counterculture values … But I was inside a migrant culture and I was living it and I was dressing it and I was eating it. I was a complete devotee. There was something that they knew about life that my people didn’t know.”

It was not just a simple, shallow gesture of rebellion. He became one of the Zulus in order to integrate — not by imposing a new culture from without, but by lifting up an existing one out of “the dust of Olduvai” and holding it high before the world. He harmonized African chants with his own music in English. He was saying, in effect, that indigenous cultures are not inimical to those of outsiders, nor are they “exotic” — they are how real people have lived for thousands of years, and are still in place, still functioning, and very much alive today. If a white person could learn to live at one with Zulu comrades, then there was no excuse for apartheid, nor for the murder, repression, and displacement it brought with it.

This, then, is the not-so-hidden message of “Scatterlings”, which got worldwide airplay at a time when the international community and popular culture were finally waking up to the horrors of apartheid and starting to mobilize against it, even as governments continued to do business with the South African régime and turned a blind eye to its systemic racism and human rights abuses. Things changed in the wake of “Scatterlings”, and they are still changing. It is still as relevant today, in an age of neofascism, as it was when first recorded in 1982, and when it broke the Canadian charts in 1983.

Thank you, Johnny, for teaching us all so much. Dance on!

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