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Anti-apartheid musician Clegg dies in South Africa

China Daily | Updated: 2019-07-18 09:19
Johnny Clegg performs during the South Africa Gala night at the Monte Carlo Opera, Monaco, in 2012. [SEBASTIEN NOGIER/REUTERS]

JOHANNESBURG-Johnny Clegg, a South African musician who performed in defiance of racial barriers imposed under the country's apartheid system and celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela, died on Tuesday. He was 66 and had pancreatic cancer.

The Grammy-nominated singer sometimes called the "White Zulu" died peacefully at home in Johannesburg with his family, according to Clegg's manager, Roddy Quin.

"He fought it to the last second," Quin told the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Clegg's multiracial bands during South Africa's white minority rule attracted an international following. He crafted hits inspired by Zulu and township harmonies, as well as folk music and other influences.

South Africa's government said in a statement: "His music had the ability to unite people across the races. … Clegg has made an indelible mark in the music industry and the hearts of the people."

One of his best-known songs was Asimbonanga, which means "We've never seen him" in Zulu. It refers to South Africans during apartheid when images of the then-imprisoned Mandela were banned. Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison and became South Africa's first black president in allrace elections four years later.

Political opposition leader Mmusi Maimane said Clegg "wrote our SA story when our country was at its worst and at its best".

The Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir said it was "devastated" by Clegg's death and called him a "music icon and a true South African". Fellow musicians posted similar tributes on social media.

Clegg was born in England, the child of an Englishman and a jazz singer from Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). He learned about Zulu music and dancing as a teenager when he hung out with a Zulu cleaner and street musician called Charlie Mzila. He later explored his idea of "crossover" music with the multiracial bands Juluka and Savuka at a time of bitter conflict in South Africa over the country's white minority rule.

Clegg recorded songs he was arrested for and "never gave in to the pressure of the apartheid rules", his manager said.

The apartheid-era censorship also restricted where he could perform, yet Clegg "impacted millions of people around the world", Quin said. "He played a major role in South Africa getting people to learn about other people's cultures and bringing people together."

The musician performed as late as 2017, high-kicking and stomping during a tour called The Final Journey while his cancer was in remission.

He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015.

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