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Johnny Clegg: Earth Man

Johnny Clegg is raving. “I’m unbelievable!” he insists. “In fact, I’m truly remarkable!”

What’s this? Has South Africa’s master muso let international success shoot straight to his head? Not at all. What the “White Zulu” is talking about here, in fact, is his ability to type with two fingers.

Not that Clegg could be blamed if he was suffering from a sudden dose of ego-inflation: after all, he’s one of the very few white South African musicians ever to crack through the forbidding wall of international hostility. Certainly, he is the most visible and most successful in international terms.

But Clegg’s too modest for that. Too real. And too concerned with basic human issues to waste his deep, spiritual sensibilities on anything as frivolous as idle self-esteem.

You’ve seen the guy in concert or on TV plenty of times, and you’ve probably heard most of his records. Now it’s time to meet the man behind the voice, the body behind the Zulu war dance…

IN PERSON

We’re siting beside his swimming pool in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs shortly before he departs on his new world tour. The blistering African sun beats down on us and trickles of sweat have collected in the familiar furrow of Clegg’s forehead.

“Love me, love my frown,” says Johnny with a crinkly grin that lights his face like sunshine bursting from behind a cloud after a highveld thunderstorm. Before I have time to respond, Clegg zaps the conversation with a stream of Zulu words. Hang about. Now he’s whistling. Uh, oh… now he’s pouting like a hooker. Forget it; I can’t keep up…

One thing’s for sure. He’s got presence. Johnny Clegg is happening Non-stop. Alive. Animated. And, despite his playful, hyperactive attitude, a deeply committed human being.

Let’s get serious, I plead. Let’s talk about the current world tour. How is Clegg going to make his musical message understood when he performs for thousands of foreign fans who don’t even understand English, let alone Zulu?

“The band already speaks a sort of visual international language: there’s no need for anyone to fully comprehend the lyrics to understand what we’re trying to do,” says Johnny. “The clothing, the dance movements, the mixture of sound and color, and the fact that it’s an integrated band singing in English and Zulu are all statements that make up a powerful information package.” OK. Then why have some people complained that this Savuka “package” is a lot less powerful and energetic than the old, beloved Juluka? Why are so many people saying that Clegg has gone commercial?

Not true, says Clegg. His eyes uncrinkle to reveal a deep blue. They catch my own and then gaze into some inner distance.

DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK

The fact that his band now gets knocked by some street critics is one of the negative indications of success. It instills Johnny and his men with an even stronger sense of motivation. And the truth is that more – not less – choreography has been pumped into the act.

Not that he’s denying his music has changed. It’s grown, expanded, and it now incorporates a distillation of the sounds he’s been exposed to during his overseas ventures. It’s a natural development and Clegg sees nothing wrong with it.

His ambition has always been to create a new king of music, a fusion of African based musical styles that could compete successfully on the world stage. Now that Johnny’s achieve this aim, he’s “gained the confidence to follow certain musical directions in order to grow”.

His unwavering belief in the uniqueness and importance of the South African experience has allowed Clegg to dance like a Zulu warrior on top of the world, leaving his music and his message of love and brotherhood imprinted across a wide cross-section of international social landscapes. And while he has persisted in informing his music with his thoughts and feelings about the South African situation, other local artists have generally failed to make it overseas because they’ve felt – erroneously – that the South African experience is a parochial, unimportant reality compared to the larger global picture.

But according to Clegg’s particular vision, South Africa is helping to shape a new image of mankind: it is becoming a role model, as it were, for the rest of the world.

ONE MAN, ONE PLANET

“Twentieth Century morality has been crushed by two World Wars, by the Holocaust, Vietnam and all the rest. We need a new image – a global human being belonging to a single planetary civilization.

“We should each have the same human rights; and the environment; the same idea about how to deal with each other on a social, political and cultural level. But that can only come about if we all share the same vision of what mankind is and what mankind means.

“Today, South Africa is being forced by international and internal pressure to deal with problems that the rest of the world may only have to deal with at the start of the next century.

“We’re a social experiment. And that’s why we are crucial, and why I say the South African experience is such an important one!”

Quite a speech. You can almost see the exclamation mark rebounding off the ceiling at the end of his delivery. But Johnny escapes before it hits the floor. He’s gone to clear his throat: the result of a double dose of 24-hour flu.

Glance around the room while he’s gone and you discover that the décor, the woven baskets and the railway sleeper furniture more aptly reflect the inner soul of Johnny Clegg than any wall mirror ever could. The whole place represents a total integration of cherished Western and African values. In this room, at least, Johnny Clegg’s vision of a united mankind is a reality.

ONE MAN BAND

Savuka is singing, dancing, walking, talking – and successful – proof that black and white (and all the colors in between) can operate together. Take, for example, the finale of one of his most recent South African shows…

While Clegg punched out One Man, One Vote on stage, the crowd (apart from a few singular diehards) raised arms in unison as they sang along with their hero and his band. Either the arena was packed with raving liberals or it’s a catchy sing-a-long phrase.

But does Clegg himself really believe that the political proposal espoused in his song could work in this country? In a word: yes. Given South Africa’s various ethnic groups, Clegg foresees the development of a complex network of coalition politics.

“I believe the notion of ne man, one vote will take place in a decentralized political structure. Here, unlike in Zimbabwe, we have enough groups to make multi-party democracy and one man, one vote a viable political alternative,” he avers. “Stalling for time by saying blacks aren’t yet ready to be given the vote isn’t good enough: the situation needs to be rectified urgently.”

A major priority should be the infusion of massive amounts of money into the country’s chaotic black education system, an essential source of our country’s problems, according to Clegg. “You cannot deny a man education through political means, and then blame him for his ignorance.

“It’s not the Constitution that ultimately changes things. It’s the nation’s inner constitution: the state of mind and heart of every citizen.”

DOWN TO EARTH

What of Clegg’s plans for the future?

“I want to write a book – an historical romance, maybe. And perhaps I’ll do a movie as well; something dealing with aspects of the South African experience that haven’t been touched yet.”

The man is full of deep thoughts. He has a broader vision than most people in his profession. But as I walk away, musing over his philosophies, he brings me back to earth. Back to my feet, in fact: Johnny points out that my shoelaces are trailing on the ground and just waiting to be tripped over.

As I bend to tie the laces, I realize that Johnny Clegg is an integral part of this earth under my feet, party of this universe; a human being whose mind, body and soul are all finely tuned into this cruel, crazy, beautiful world.

Johnny Clegg would probably laugh at the idea, but I can’t help thinking that when he sang about his search for the spirit of the great heart in Jock Of The Bushveld, he might just as well have been singing about himself…

TALK, May 1990

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