By Litha Hermanus
An essay on the true legacy of one of South Africa’s musical geniuses
We are no more than souls who are clothed in flesh; so when death walks into a room, it’s more than bodies that disappear. This is a fact.
I can never forget that one evening in April of 2016 when my then boss ran into the studio with all the tears of the world in his eyes.
“He’s gone! Have you heard? Prince is dead!”
The news had literally ruffled him – he was in a terrible state. I knew about Prince, of course. It was after hours and I’d been working relatively late. This meant my boss had already been home and imbibed one or three glasses of wine with his dinner. He was emotional in the most animated way. He waited for my answer, with an expression on his face that said: “You better not have heard. You can’t be this okay!’”
“I know we all call him Prince but were you on a real first name basis with the guy?” I replied cheekily, but in my very internal ‘I’d-still-like-to-be-employed-here-tomorrow’ voice.
I’d heard Prince’s songs; I knew some of his later music a bit more. But I’d never owned any of it – never been what you’d call a fan. It’s nothing against Prince, but not every great is everybody’s favourite, though we may all agree on the greatness. Before I could really say anything else my boss turned around and walked away, somewhat scornfully, in search of someone who understood. But the building was as empty as his void for commiseration and a hug.
The passing of Johnny Clegg hit me differently. It left me with a hollowness I didn’t understand, given my general indifference towards stars and stardom. I had never actually owned any Juluka, Savuka, or Johnny Clegg music, much like with Prince. So I was burdened with why news of his death was so unsettling to me.
Perhaps it was because I had met Johnny Clegg, not once but twice. Not being an out and out fan I was not star-struck when he walked onto the plane – an extremely empty late December flight many years ago. I was a cabin attendant and he was one of three passengers in my section, if not the entire economy class. It was only a Joburg-Durban flight, but I had time with him.
The first thing I recall is how gracious he was. Although he seemed to want to be alone he indulged each of the cabin attendants who went up to him to make conversation. There was a glint in his eye, a childlike presence that spoke of a perennial wonder for life, a sureness about himself – an understanding of who he was in the world that was immediately the opposite of arrogant.
I would run into the legend once more when he came in to do the Surprise Interview at the same radio station where my boss had wept over Prince’s passing. Not only did I get to be in Johnny Clegg’s presence again, but I had the privilege of listening up close to accounts of his life and creativity as they were drawn out of him by one of the country’s most astute interviewers, John Perlman. Still, meeting Mr Clegg twice and being on the fringes of his glow (for a glow he did have) didn’t seem to me enough reason to be unsettled by news of his death in the way I was. For a clue to my gloominess I delved into the legacy he left for the majority of us – his music.
Three things came to me as I listened. (And listen I did; for every waking hour, until days became a week, and the week became two.) I discovered that although I had never owned any of the music, many of the songs were acutely familiar as a soundtrack to my early life. Also, as a writer and novelist, I was struck by his use of language in the quest to shape meaning for himself and others – the sheer mastery with which he was able to do this. And finally, as a human being (and South African) for whom he left an important legacy, I had an epiphany about what that legacy actually is.
As part of the soundtrack to my early life, Johnny Clegg’s music is bittersweet. Being a young child in the 80s, my memories of that time are usually melded into a monolith that’s more a feeling than recollection. Consequently, Woza Friday, Impi, and Scatterlings of Africa, which reverberated with the strongest sense of nostalgia once I played them, all feel like they came from the same album, though they were created many years apart. The music conjured up in my mind a blur of teargas smoke; the smells of molten rubber and sizzling flesh (the wilful murder of a tabby cat – don’t ask); police terror and African men and women who were the focus of it. The men lashed out, of course, but most in the direction of their women or anything that was physically weaker. There was yellow maize meal everywhere; Henry Cele was Shaka Zulu and bigger than McGyver. Two uncles disappeared only to pop up in Angola and London. All this in a largely apolitical home where none of that would ever be contextualised. Yet the music also reminded me of days when simplicity and naiveté were daily companions for me. In the same way I had no language as a child to make sense of the world I was growing into, I would have never been able to understand or lay bare the artistry and preciseness of Johnny Clegg. But ‘manje sengimngaka’, so here goes…
Johnny Clegg was tasked (in part) with arranging words in beautiful and unfamiliar ways unique to the stroke of his own pen. A good writer (at least in my imagination) is someone who is able to cut through various strata of meaning and levels of creativity with a single scribble of ink.
On a very basic level, Johnny Clegg is able to hold meter and rhyme in his verse(s). This means he went out of his way to compose sentences that he has to bend to his will in order to have them behave a certain way sonically. They also have to be of relatively the same length so they do not jar with too many syllables packed into one line over another. This makes him sonically neat. But Clegg makes sure he doesn’t rhyme simply ‘for the sake of riddling’. There is a deeper intention to his words. They carry a message with themes through each verse of the song as well as through the entire song. There is a golden thread that runs and grows through the thing. But the highest level at which he works is how he is able to infuse universal truths into his words while keeping the other elements of creativity in place. His meaning is capable of echoing through the globe because he paints a face of humanity each of us is able to confront in the mirror. If there is a mountain-top of creativity Johnny Clegg sits comfortably at the summit, with the likes of Bob Dylan. And tell me the timbre of their voices doesn’t bear similarity at a certain pitch or in certain songs, even if only marginally. If you disagree I’ll lead you to Impi and Blowin’ in the Wind as a start. Of course, Johnny Clegg’s words ride a distinctly different musical style and are accompanied by the theatrical spectacle of Zulu dance. But my interest is purely in the magic of his words – in what he says to us.
In Scatterlings of Africa, he tackles a subject close to my own writing – migrant labour. He makes reference to people traversing spaces in brutal ways. For the Zulu people, whose voice and idiom he carries, and many other Africans whose lands were cut into homelands there is this truth. Men, women, and children who came from very communal cultures were deliberately moved and severed from each other under the economic demands of apartheid.
Mr Clegg shines the light on this brutality from the first verse. He begins with the copper sun sinking low, with scatterlings and fugitives with red eyes and weary brows seeking refuge in the night. There is fatigue, a sense of foreboding, a lack of safety for the displaced who need to seek refuge from various threats that come with the night. Perhaps the night is their refuge; i.e. they seek it so as to be home in their dwellings and off work. Or their need is to be invisible under the cloak of darkness because their bodies are easy targets for the terror machine of apartheid during the day? If you use my memories of the 1980s as a backdrop or read Mongane Serote’s To Every Birth Its Blood, for example, or anything from that time, then you will have a particular understanding of the type of nights experienced by these kinds of people. These are the kind who, after being uprooted, often ended up in hostels and in the peri-urban spaces we call townships and informal settlements. One is comfortable reading this migrant labour narrative into Clegg because of his outspokenness on the subject. Of course, these scatterlings in his song are not headed to Joburg from a rural town in the Zulu Kingdom. He makes no mention of that. They are headed to where the world began, and herein lies his greater theme. But we’ll come back to that later.
Le Zulu Blanc (as the French call him) speaks of also being a scatterling. ‘We are the scatterlings of Africa, both you and I,’ he belts out later in the song. This is interesting to me because when he speaks to John Perlman, he talks about feeling uprooted in his identity as a youth due to the movement of his own family. He recounts how he felt lost and found salvation in Zulu ways, sonically and culturally, identifying that the folk music he would later internationalise with Sipho Mchunu would be couched in the ethos of Zulu culture. This rooted him in his own creation of an African self, he tells John Perlman. When he sings: ‘both you and I’ are scatterlings, however, he does not mean only his migrant labour friends in relation to himself. He speaks of something more. He says everyone under the sky is a scatterling. He is aware of society’s prevalent forces that swing people from here to there. If one thinks about it, even the European settlers who made this place home with the price of blood were displaced; never mind that some ran from need and oppression only to champion a new brand of subjugation and poverty for others here.
But the overarching theme of the song is that of Olduvai Gorge and the bones that rest there. It’s a place that Clegg describes as the origin of the very first cry, where deep in the dust are clues to who we are. He presents the idea of human beings as scatterlings in a paleontological sense. Olduvai is an excavation site in the Tanzanian territory of the Great Rift Valley. Even though hominids, our earliest ancestors as humans, are known to have reached what is central China (Shangchen site) , it is agreed and understood by many paleoanthropologists that they originate from Africa from sites such as the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, the lower valley of the Omo River in Ethiopia, and Olduvai Gorge, among others.
There is a recent debate that seeks to place the oldest hominid discovery in Europe, (I’m sure there are other debates too) but debates are not why I’m here. I believe the point Johnny Clegg makes with his reference of Olduvai is this: all who belong to the human race may be scatterlings that lie in various corners of the world, but their origins are rooted in Africa. This means the human race is actually one, and racial divisions are constructs and lies. So instead of being disingenuous like a racist who may say: ‘I don’t see race’; Johnny sees it and mocks its constructed nature. And though he begins with a sense of foreboding and lamentation of the fugitive state of the scatterlings, he leaves a slice of hope in his lyrics that humanity will one day understand the deeper truth about itself, that it is one.
Litha Hermanus is the author of new Penguin release: The Eyes of the Naked – a political and psychological novel. He is a freelance writer with an MA degree in Creative Writing and an Honours in Media Studies, both from Wits University.