By Patricia Freeman Melissa McCoy
October 24, 1988 12:00 PM

As a teenager, Johnny Clegg was strolling through Johannesburg one day when he overheard a black janitor playing a battered guitar. “It was so strange, the noise it made,” says Clegg. “It was like nothing I’d ever heard.” Inspired, he asked the janitor to give him lessons. He also persuaded his skeptical mother to take the brand-new guitar she had given him for his birthday and trade it in for a beat-up secondhand model capable of producing the sounds that he longed for.

Clegg abandoned more than a fancy guitar the day that he decided to play and sing what he eventually discovered was Zulu music. Along the way, he found himself crossing South Africa’s all-but-insurmountable racial barriers. Now the 35-year-old leader of that country’s first commercially successful mixed-race pop band, he speaks the Zulu language fluently and has been ritually initiated into the tribe by three Zulu clans. One of the few white Africans who have mastered the most difficult tribal dances, he and his band, Savuka (Zulu for “We have arisen”), weave Western sounds into Zulu street music to create an exhilarating expression of rage at apartheid.

Clegg’s cross-cultural music has found an enthusiastic audience: Five of his 10 albums have gone gold and two platinum in South Africa, and he has begun to achieve international attention. His latest LP, Shadow Man, just hit the American charts, and a single, “I Call Your Name,” has hit the Top 10 in France, where many fans know his music so well that they can sing along in Zulu. Clegg has also made himself a marked man at home for daring to bridge the gulf between black and white. He has been arrested more than a dozen times, his songs are frequently banned from the radio, and the army has halted his concerts with tear gas. Angry listeners have slashed his car tires and jumped onstage to confront him during performances. Under the circumstances, his growing fame is a kind of protection, since the government, he believes, would be reluctant to arrest or expel an international star. “I’d have to commit treason to be chucked out now,” says Clegg.

Born in England, Clegg travels freely on a British passport and doesn’t flinch at calling South Africa’s government “a leper in the world community.” Though he thinks of himself as an artist, rather than a political activist, he sympathizes with countries that impose economic sanctions against South Africa and scoffs at the idea of gradual reform. “You can’t reform apartheid,” he says. “How can you reform racism? You have to dismantle it.” Ironically, though he is widely accepted by South African blacks, Clegg has occasionally been treated as a pariah by antiapartheid forces outside the country. He has been expelled from the British Musicians’ Union because of his refusal to stop performing in his homeland. Last summer, over the protests of Winnie Mandela, the union banned him from the Nelson Mandela “Freedomfest” at Wembley Stadium, even though his worldwide hit “Asimbonanga” (“We Have Not Seen Him”) is a tribute to the jailed African leader.

Clegg, the son of a British father and a Lithuanian-born Jewish mother, has been an outsider most of his life. After his parents divorced when he was an infant, his mother bundled him off to Rhodesia. When he was 6, he moved with her to South Africa, where a boyhood interest in Zulu tribal life would eventually blossom into obsession. At 15, he was arrested for the first time when police found him in one of the black bars where he spent his evenings soaking up Zulu music. Inspired by what he heard and felt, he abandoned his dream of going to work on a wildlife preserve. “I didn’t have to go into the jungle to find wild things,” he says. “They were in me.”

In 1970, at age 17, Clegg teamed up with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu to form a musical partnership that eventually became the band Juluka (“Sweat”). That broke up in 1985, and Clegg went on to form Savuka with co-star Dudu Zulu.

Clegg loathes the White Zulu label given him by the South African press. But at home in a white section of Johannesburg with his wife, Jenny, and their infant son, Jesse (named, in part, for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, in Clegg’s opinion, “has the greatest fire in his soul”), tribal habits touch his life. Even in Los Angeles, while touring with Savuka, he likes to eat the traditional migrant workers’ porridge of maize and meat, scooping it with his bare hands like a bushman.

It is onstage, though, that he gives himself over completely to a Zulu state of mind. After 20 years, he says, the African folk tunes still hit him like an “emotional ambush. Even today, some songs weaken me. You’re singing about something that really happened: Somebody died, somebody lost a loved one, so he wrote a song.” Dancing, he adds, lays bare his soul. “When you dance Zulu, you’re in a state of absolute calm and readiness,” he says of the high-stepping, free-form movement that, through sexual and martial elements, represents the ability to give life and to take it. Though the dances are ancient, the feelings expressed can be as current as the headlines in the Johannesburg Star and as urgent as the need for racial rapprochement. “I stab the ground,” says Clegg, who at one point in the dance attacks the stage with a stick, as Dudu Zulu does the same, “because I do not want to kill my brother.”

—Patricia Freeman, and Melissa McCoy in Los Angeles