NPR Story
2:16 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

Johnny Clegg On South Africa, Post-Mandela

Originally published on Mon April 28, 2014 2:49 pm

Johnny Clegg‘s song “Asimbonanga” resurfaced after the death of Nelson Mandela last year, being widely shared online. The song was an anti-apartheid anthem, calling for the release of Mandela when he was jailed. Mandela would later join him on stage for the performance of the song.

Clegg is currently on tour and out with a new album of acoustic songs. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young in the studio to talk about his country, post-Mandela.

Interview Highlights: Johnny Clegg

On what South Africa looks and feels like to him today

“It’s been a roller coaster in a way because in 20 years we’ve seen the release of Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC [African National Congress], a completely new constitution. But apart from that, we’ve moved so quickly from the heady days of the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC to a time now where we are moving to darker and much more muddy waters where our president is accused of corruption, which doesn’t bode well for the future — if it continues.”

On the power of music and how its role has changed for him

“The problem is is that music no longer is a platform. Today, if there’s a protest, it’s on Facebook, it’s on Twitter, it’s on the news and you move on. And so what this has done is it’s taken issues and made them into consumable passing moments. … When I was 15, I discovered Zulu street guitar music. These tribal organic musicians have taken a Western instrument and they’d Africanized it, changing the strings around, changing the tuning. My instincts said this is a new genre and I want to learn it.”

On how traveling and moving as a child helped him become more accepting

“I was an outsider. I went to five schools in three different countries in five years, and one of those countries was non-racial — it was Zambia. It was quite a shock for me to move from a whites-only school into a nonracial schooling system where there were more black teachers than whites and there were more black kids than whites. So when I came back to South Africa, I was far more open to sounds, people, cultures than my contemporaries who had only just grown up in a whites-only South Africa.”

On his view of death and how he’s coped with losing many loved ones to violence

“The thing is that Africa’s got a very, very pragmatic and practical idea about life and death. People die. That’s a given. We’re not gonna make a fuss about it – what we’re gonna make a fuss about is making that guy a good ancestor or that woman a great ancestor and letting the passage go through and to look after the people who feel like there’s a hole where that person used to be. So people didn’t dwell on the issue of death in it of itself. They dwelt on the political aspect or the reason why the person was killed or died or whatever it is. So it’s a much tougher environment and I was hardened by that in a way — you know, I started to understand that people are dropping like flies, they’re all over, I have to keep going, I have to keep doing what I’ve got to do.”

Guest

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASIMBONANGA,")

JOHNNY CLEGG: (Singing in foreign language)

YOUNG: "Asimbonanga," in Zulu, we haven't seen him. The 1987 anti-apartheid anthem by white South African musician Johnny Clegg and his interracial band Savuka demanding that Nelson Mandela be released from jail. That message and his wild dancing stage shows made Johnny an international superstar. He was also jailed. He's out now with a new collection of acoustic songs and joins us in the studio. Welcome.

CLEGG: Hello.

YOUNG: How are you?

CLEGG: I'm fine, thank you.

YOUNG: Well, actually I asked you how are you because your country is so changed, Nelson Mandela having passed. What is South Africa feel like?

CLEGG: It's been a roller coaster in a way, because in 20 years we've seen the release of Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC, a completely new constitution. But apart from that, we've moved so quickly from the heady days of the release of Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC, to a time now where we are moving to darker and much more muddy waters where our president is accused of corruption, which doesn't bode well for the future if it continues.

YOUNG: Well, so as that shakes out, it seems like you still have to work to do as a musicians.

CLEGG: Yeah. The problem is is that music no longer is a platform. Today, if there's a protest, it's on Facebook, it's on Twitter, it's on the news and you move on. And so what this has done is it's taken issues and made them into consumable passing moments.

YOUNG: So funny, I would not have thought of that, that social media is the new protest song.

CLEGG: Yep.

YOUNG: Well, but you still have the songs.

CLEGG: Yeah.

YOUNG: So I'd love to hear one of them. Which is the song do you think is more--most appropriate to hear now that reflects some of the things you've spoken of?

CLEGG: "Asilazi." Now "Asilazi" I wrote - I spoke to all kinds of people in 2010. And they said, you know, we've got political freedom, but we have no economic freedom. And the government had a number of, like, you know multi-billion ran funds, which would they would fund more businesses and start-ups.

And then on the other side, I found young, white males complaining that because of the government's black empowerment policy, they would only employ black women as primary, black male, and then Indian colored, and then white. So a lot of young white people are leaving when they finish and going to England. So I wrote a song about this called "Asilazi."

And on the one hand, the chorus is in Zulu saying, we don't know when the day will come when we will be economically free. And in the verse, the guy says, I was born in the new South Africa and I had nothing to do with the old apartheid, you know, but I have to deal with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "ASILAZI")

CLEGG: (Singing) You know, this is hard for me, facing the judgment of history. I'm a..

YOUNG: So Johnny Clegg, still singing about imbalance and equity in your beloved South Africa, just remind us, just a little bit, you're also an anthropologist. Remind us how is that you, as a white came to so embrace the blacks in your country?

CLEGG: It's through music, through how when was 15, I discovered Zulu street guitar music. These tribal organic musicians have taken a Western instrument and they'd Africanized it, changing the strings around, changing the tuning. My instincts said this is a new genre and I want to learn it.

YOUNG: You, and then Paul Simon after you.

CLEGG: Yeah.

YOUNG: But you also have talked about being a bit of an outsider yourself.

CLEGG: Yeah.

YOUNG: Your mom Rhodesian, your dad English.

CLEGG: English, yeah.

YOUNG: And you lived in other places before South Africa.

CLEGG: Yeah.

YOUNG: So you felt like the outside.

CLEGG: I was an outsider. I went to five schools in three different countries in five years. And one of those countries was non-racial, Zambia, it was quite a shock for me to move from a whites only school into a non-racial schooling system where there were more black teachers than whites and more black kids than the whites.

So when I came back to South Africa, I was far more opened to sounds, people, cultures than my contemporaries who had never knew - just grown up in a whites only South Africa.

YOUNG: Well, we want to hear a song from you, because you're sitting there with your guitar and it would be a waste if we didn't. What are you going to play now?

CLEGG: I'm going to play "Scatterlings of Africa." It's about Africa as the origins of mankind.

(Singing) Copper sun sinking low, scatterlings and fugitives, hooded eyes and weary brows seek refuge in the night. They are the scatterlings of Africa each uprooted one, ooh, um, um, yeah. On that road to Phelamanga where the world began. I love the scatterlings of Africa each and every one. Move over, yeah. On that road to Phelamanga where the world began. (Singing in Zulu).

YOUNG: Johnny Clegg, singing "Scatterlings of Africa." Another part of your show is also the dancing.

CLEGG: Yeah.

YOUNG: Are you still doing the dancing?

CLEGG: Yeah. I don't have my dancer with me. You know, he was assassinated in 1992 in the politics, and wrote that song "The Crossing."

YOUNG: A lot of people in your life have been assassinated.

CLEGG: Yeah.

YOUNG: The anthropologist.

CLEGG: Yes, David Webster.

YOUNG: David Webster.

CLEGG: Yeah.

YOUNG: In 1989.

CLEGG: Yep. And a lot of Zulu friend, they were just murdered on the trains during the political violence. But the thing is that Africa's got a very, very pragmatic and practical idea about life and death. People die. That's a given. We're not going to make a fuss about it.

What we are going to make a fuss about is making that guy a good ancestor or that woman a great ancestor and letting the passage go through and to look after the people who feel like there's a hole where that person used to be.

So people didn't dwell on the issue of death in it of itself. They dwelt on the political aspect or the reason why the person was killed or died or whatever it is. So it's a much tougher environment and I was hardened by that in a way. You know, I started to understand that people are, you know, dropping like flies, they're all over, I have to keep going, I have to keep doing what I've got to do.

There's nothing much, you know, actually I did the memorial lecture for David Webster. And I said, you know, and if any way I think that most people who are in the front line, they kind of were acknowledged that this might happen to them, you know. So it's - in those times, 1990 to 1994 it was--we were basically in a kind of a hidden civil war.

It was extremely troubling, but Dudu used to say to me, the dancer, he used to say we carry our lives in our hands in a paper packet, a paper bag. It's so delicate and so fragile. And we get blown away like a leaf in the wind.

YOUNG: But now, a new chapter...

CLEGG: Yes.

YOUNG: ...for Africa and for South African musician Johnny Clegg. Thank you so much for talking to us about South Africa post-Nelson Mandela, although he never goes away.

CLEGG: He never goes away. Yeah.

YOUNG: And for your new CD.

CLEGG: Thanks.

YOUNG: Thanks so much.

CLEGG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: "Africa, What Made You So Strong," off that new CD from Johnny Clegg. More on his tour at hereandnow.org.

HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.