Renowned anthropologist, dancer, singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg had the audience singing along to a traditional Zulu war song when receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University on 16 April 2013.
Clegg was honoured during the College of Humanities Graduation ceremony for his sensitive and inspiring promotion of South African culture, music and history at home and abroad, and for his success in uniting South Africans and bringing pride and hope to South Africa.
‘The tradition of street music I stumbled upon had been forged over decades of experimentation as the ebb and flow of migration to Johannesburg and Durban exposed the migrants to new ideas and formats,’ he told his audience about his early musical years.
‘I was amazed at the innovative manner in which western instruments were thoroughly Africanised. The guitar developed from a strumming style (ukuvamba) to a highly sophisticated picking style (Ukupika). Whereas the guitar could simply be re-tuned and strings changed around, the concertina had to be physically taken apart and all the buttons changed around in order to play Zulu music,’ said Clegg.
Clegg is known as one of South Africa’s greatest musical exports and has been in the music industry for over 40 years. Sharing his musical journey with the UKZN audience, he said: ‘I often did not know what I was singing, but I had a musical ear and I could pronounce Zulu perfectly in a melody ... This led to some awkward moments where I rendered some very lewd, bawdy and explicit songs with the innocence of a 15-year-old, which made my audience at the hostels laugh until they cried, saying “play it again, play it again!” And I would play it again, happy that they found my performance so intensely moving,’ he said.
With a critical eye on South Africa’s racial imbalances, Clegg has promoted a unique pride in African heritage in a way that reconciles rather than tears apart. At the height of apartheid he made possible what seemed impossible: a celebratory ideological and artistic model for tolerance and human brotherhood, against the backdrop of divisive racial policies.
Clegg’s career includes lecturing Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand where he also worked on blending English lyrics and Western melodies with Zulu musical structures. South African music producer Hilton Rosenthal then signed up Clegg and his musical associate and friend, Sipho Mchunu, at a time when there was official prejudice against mixed race groups.
Clegg – who campaigned consistently against the injustices of apartheid and was instrumental in putting the new South Africa on the world map – has performed at all four of Nelson Mandela’s 46664 AIDS Awareness Concerts in South Africa and Norway.
‘If there is a continuity in the work I have done, it is this underlying idea of crossing boundaries and mixing competing approaches. It forms the background and influence in the crossing over of musical forms in most of the music I have composed,’ Clegg said.
This was an attitude and approach to culture, he explained, which finds resonance in Levi-Strauss’ notion of “bricolage” - being a cultural handyman and fixing the changing world with anything at hand. ‘That has given life and meaning to what I do,’ he said.
In addition to a number of international awards and honorary degrees, Clegg’s South African awards include the Four Outstanding South Africans Award in 1990; an honorary doctorate from Wits University in 2007; a SA Music Association nomination for the Best Live DVD in 2008, and the Order of Ikhamanga in 2012 for his ‘excellent contribution to and achievement in the field of bridging African traditional music forms, promoting racial understanding … working for a non-racial society and being an outstanding spokesperson for the release of political prisoners’.