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Johnny Clegg On South Africa, Post-Mandela

Johnny Clegg performs in the Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)
Johnny Clegg performs in the Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

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.”


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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