07 Oct 21 ICONS: Johnny Clegg
Adrian Steirn’s portrait of Johnny Clegg for 21 ICONS South Africa was taken at the Cradle of Humankind, showing the musician brandishing a spear adorned with the words ‘music’ and ‘anthropology’ – two interests that have shaped his life’s work. The spear is reference to his nickname “the white Zulu”, which he got from his biracial bands and mixing of Zulu and English lyrics and African and Western sounds. Steirn says, “I became fascinated with the concept of a man who started off as an anthropologist and ended up as an incredible musician. The wooden spear with those letters became the statement for the portrait. The image of Johnny standing on that African horizon, like a Zulu warrior, really reflects where he began and where he is going.”
While lecturing in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Clegg wrote the hit song “Scatterlings of Africa”, and his life took a turn. Over the next decade, he achieved international success initially with the band Juluka, which he started with Sipho Mchunu. They received little radio play in South Africa because the state broadcaster frowned on the mixed languages and a band featuring both black and white members, which also made public appearances difficult and subject to police harassment. But through word of mouth their fame grew and they developed a strong following especially among students and migrant labourers.
Juluka came to an end in 1985 and Clegg formed another crossover band, Savuka. More overtly political, their first album, “Third World Child”, was released in 1987. It featured the song “Asimbonanga” (We’ve Never Seen Him), which called for the release of Nelson Mandela, incarcerated on Robben Island, and spoke to a generation of children who had never seen the struggle hero because images of him were banned.
Arguably one of the country’s most famous performers, musical ambassadors and cultural activists, Clegg used his bands’ growing international fame to remind audiences of the terrible reality of apartheid South Africa. He has received both local and international awards that recognise his promotion of racial harmony and humanitarian efforts.
Like all the portraits of the individuals in the 21 Icons South Africa series, Clegg’s signed portrait will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to the charity of his choice.
Over 21 weeks black and white portraits of 21 South African heroes will be shared as collectable posters in the Sunday Times newspaper, and the accompanying short films will air on SABC3 at 6.57pm, just before the 7pm news. Fans can follow the series online through the digital campaign launched by Quirk Joburg on Facebook, on Twitter or at www.21icons.com, where you can find icon profiles and behind the scenes images uploaded weekly. Or you can catch up here every Monday.
21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon, Deloitte, The Sunday Times, SABC3 and the Department of Arts and Culture. Additional credits go to content-creation company Ginkgo Agency.