In the summer of 1988 I went to see Steve Winwood in concert, and his opening act was Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In case you’re unfamiliar with the band, they were a South African group formed during the final years of apartheid, but their music seems as relevant today as ever.
I don’t remember much about their performance other than liking what I heard and saw. Years later, I picked up a CD of their greatest hits and each time I listen to it, I find more to like.
Their sound is fairly typical of African rock and roll of the era, with the distinctive guitar tone, steady drum rhythms, and chanting vocals. For comparison, Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” has a similar feel.
Here’s the thing: Clegg was a white South African and say what you will about the “white savior” problem in the arts, but his work shows a profound sensitivity to the issues of apartheid. In the songs that I know, the band sings of a pan-African unity, the heartbreaks of racial injustice, and the resiliency of the African people.
One song in particular jumped out at me as I listened to my CD last week. “Asimbonanga” is a slower tempo song with a lot of Zulu lyrics. But it becomes clear upon repeated listening that they’re singing about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robbin Island, and also about the many South Africans who suffered and died from the systemic racism in that country. At the end of the song, Clegg recites a few names–Stephen Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. He is “saying their names,” reminding us that these were people who dedicated their lives, literally, to ending systemic racial oppression. “Asimbonanga” translates as “we have not seen him.”
Johnny Clegg may not have understood apartheid in the same way a black South African would, but he nonetheless risked a lot. According to Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds….”
Under the system, it was illegal for blacks and whites to mingle, and the band risked attracting the attention of law enforcement every time they performed in South Africa. Despite the risk, the band was undeterred in its goals. The band was advocating radical change.
Two years after I saw Johnny Clegg and Savuka in concert, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He made a triumphant tour of America, and my mother, my girlfriend (now wife), and I went to see Mandela live at a large rally in Oakland, California. Even considering the depth of my own white privilege, I understood that the decades of hard work by artists, journalists, and ordinary people had at last yielded results.
I can only hope for the same here in America.