Day 6

'Goodbye is a tough thing': Groundbreaking South African superstar Johnny Clegg's farewell

For four decades, he broke down racial barriers. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, Johnny Clegg reflected on his final concerts. Clegg died July 16, 2019 at age 66.

Clegg died July 16 after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer

Johnny Clegg performs on June 30, 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa, on the first live gig of his final world tour. (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

Originally published Nov. 25, 2017. 

Johnny Clegg died July 16, 2019, after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 66. When Day 6 spoke with Clegg in 2017, his cancer was in remission.

Original story runs below.

South African police tried to shut down his shows for years. Johnny Clegg resisted. He kept playing and kicking high.

Now, more than four decades later, the groundbreaking South African singer-songwriter has played his final concerts, including a sold-out show last November in Cape Town.

"I feel like I could keep on going forever, but I know that is an illusion," Clegg told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. The singer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015 and is in remission.

South African singer Johnny Clegg (L) performs on March 9, 2011. (FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)

"I have a very, very serious condition … which, at some point, it's going to raise its head again."

Clegg is revered in South Africa, credited for bridging racial gaps through his own music and that of his beloved multi-racial bands Juluka and Savuka. 

He was born in Britain but grew up in South Africa, playing with Zulu street musicians and learning their language and dance — something he incorporated into his live show.

"I was a lot more open to the other South Africa that most white kids were not open to," he said. Clegg quickly recognized the special sounds their guitars were making and started collaborating.

"This was a unique genre of guitar, African guitar music, coming from South Africa. I knew that nobody in the white world particularly knew about it."

'We did not preach politics'

The authorities weren't pleased. Clegg was arrested when he was 15 for hanging out with the Zulu migrant workers without a permit. And during apartheid, he kept playing, performing in largely black areas at universities, in homes and rural towns far from the city.

"We would average about 20 per cent of the shows closed down by police, but we could get through about 80 per cent of our performances," he said.

At some shows, they'd show up with police dogs. At others they used tear gas on the crowd.

Johnny Clegg, left and Sipho Mchunu, who formerly made up the band Juluka, perform at Grandwest Arena, on June 30, 2017, in Cape Town, on the first live gig of his final world tour. (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

Clegg never understood why police found the band such a problem: "We were acting against apartheid but we never used the word apartheid … we did not preach politics to anybody."          

'We will always remember his legacy': Clegg's influence

Juno-winning world musician Lorraine Klaasen grew up in South Africa and now lives in Montreal. Her mother is the famed South African jazz star Thandi Klaasen. Here are her thoughts on Clegg's impact:

"Johnny Clegg's music played an important part in promoting South African music to the world. By singing and dancing Zulu culture [and] working with Juluka, [he] demonstrated that white and black can live and share their heritage.

I am saddened that he is taking time off. But we will always remember his legacy. I had the honour to present him during the 10th anniversary of freedom in South Africa and the 25th Montreal Jazz Festival. My dear beloved mom … may her soul rest in peace, also shared the stage.

But we must remember that the South African Music will live on. I am still standing. So keep supporting this beautiful music."

Asimbonanga, which is one of Clegg's best-known songs, became an anti-apartheid anthem with its references to a then-jailed Nelson Mandela. The song — which means "we have not seen him" in Zulu — was banned in the country when it came out in the late 1980s.

More than decade later, Clegg got to play it for Mandela at a 1999 show in Frankfurt, a career highlight. 

Mandela snuck on stage behind Clegg, dancing back and forth to the tune as he walked out. Clegg still plays the video on stage in his live show.

"It was an amazing moment," he said.

'It looks like the planet Mars'

Post-apartheid, much has changed in South Africa.

"I look back at that time and think, how perverse and how absurd," Clegg said. "It looks like the planet Mars."

Still Clegg sees instances of "racism and xenophobia," a topic he touches on in his more recent music, such as the song Colour of My Skin from the 2017 album "King of Time."

"There's been quite a strong racial issue about whites owning the economy and blacks still being excluded, and I just thought I have to, I have to write something about it."

Clegg hopes he has left a legacy for others to make change through music and dance.

All this has drawn comparisons to the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie, his advocacy work for Indigenous people and how the band's final tour panned out. Clegg paid tribute to the late singer at his Toronto show in October 2017. He also made stops in Montreal and Quebec City.

"I've had a great life. I've had a great 40 years of music," Clegg said.

"When I take my guitar off and say goodbye for the last time, it's both a very, very happy moment … but at the same time obviously a goodbye's a tough thing."

To hear the full, extended interview with South African superstar Johnny Clegg, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.