EXCLUSIVE: Johnny Clegg on that moving viral video, his upcoming autobiography, and his health

On 11 December 2018, Channel24 published what would be our final ever interview with Johnny Clegg. As news of his death broke on Tuesday, 16 July we share it once again. 

Cape Town – A video of fifty of some of the biggest names in local music, including Karen Zoid and Lira, singing a rendition of Johnny Clegg’s famous song, The Crossing, went viral last week. 

The video was played for Johnny on Wednesday, 5 December after he performed in Cape Town. The same night saw the launch of Friends of Johnny Clegg, a fund created in Johnny’s honour to help alleviate the education crisis in South Africa.

All proceeds from downloads of this special version of The Crossing will go toward this fund.

Channel24 spoke to the man who brought us Great Heart about this momentous night, his battle with cancer, writing his autobiography, and the one thing he wants his fans around the world to know. 


Johnny Clegg

The song featured in the video, The Crossing, is one Johnny’s biggest hits but his first international hit, Scatterlings of Africa, was the one most closely linked to his main career at the time: anthropology. 

Here’s what he has to say about the success of that song and how it changed his life: "I am a trained anthropologist and I spent twelve years in academics. I worked at Durban University for one year and at Wits for three and the moment my life changed was when through some strange twist of fate Scatterlings of Africa got onto the Top 40 in England and was a hit. And I had to choose whether I wanted to continue as an academic or become a professional musician and this was on the fourth album of Juluka. I went in and I resigned and I never looked back."

About the night he watched fifty artists cover his hit, the 65-year-old said: "It was an incredible moment to me. The song was written in 1992 – and to have my peers as well as the next generation all singing it – it took my breath away. It made my day. You know I was having a bad day, I’ve had some health problems, and I sat there after having just done a performance in Cape Town at Ellerman House for the Click Foundation and they said, ‘sit here Johnny, we want you to watch this.’ And they ambushed me (laughs). I was not expecting anything, I didn’t know what I was going to see, and I was crying by the end of it."

He happily added: "I was flying by the end of it and I got a very strong sense of being affirmed and validated but also that the song was given a new life and a new purpose. I was just blown away."

Johnny has been very open about his battle with cancer and how it has affected his career, but his health struggles have not dampened his desire to continue to tour the world.

He said, determinedly: "Well I am semi-retired now, due to my health. Which is why I had to cancel the second half of my world tour; I still have to do the western side of America because I did the east coast, I still have to do France, Belgium and Switzerland. I still have to do Australia and the western side of Canada. I’ve just come off six months of chemotherapy and then I had to go into stereotactic radiation because it (cancer) has metastasized into my lungs.

"So, we’re basically monitoring it over the December/January period to see if my tumour count can come down, if it can come down then we will continue with the tour. But, technically right now, I am semi-retired. I also writing my autobiography and slowly getting on it and keeping myself going."

Johnny Clegg

In the process of the interview the singer and songwriter revealed that he is writing an as yet untitled book about his life. 

About the progress on the autobiography, the music legend said: "I’m about 150 pages in and it’s about halfway done. I’ve had to wait at times because I’ve done interviews with my old band mates and sometimes, they’re not in the country. The record company that released me in 1983 in England doesn’t exist (anymore) but the owner is still there, and we keep in contact, so I’m going to have to go back to England to interview him and some of the other people who were involved in the very tortuous moments."

Johnny also gave us insight into what the book will focus on in part, saying: "It was during the time of the cultural boycott and South African bands were basically prohibited from touring internationally. So, we had to deal with the anti-apartheid movement and we had to deal with British Musicians’ Union and it became a huge story.

"There are many layers to the book and other than having to struggle through apartheid, through the Group Areas Act, through the global segregation and not being able to perform in public (as a non-racial band). There was also having to find holes in the system from playing private venues to churches to private school halls; we also played in people’s lounges and at private school halls. Many embassies during the seventies and eighties had these little cultural events where fifty or sixty people came, and we were the requested group. We started to find ways to perform, we figured out that if you play the really rural areas or universities or technikons. So, all of those stories are in there."

If you’re hoping for some new music from the prolific artist, you might be in luck. He explained: "I’m always writing. I always have new ideas and melodies and I record those into my little iPhone and keep that in a log on my phone. And then I come back, and I develop them, and I work out a lyric around those ideas. It’s a slow process, making songs."

This song writing process means that Johnny has a confession that a lot of us are happily guilty of: "I’m a car singer! They have wedding singers, I am a car singer. People – when I stop at robots I sing – and sometimes people look at me and they must be thinking, ‘this guy is talking to himself, look at him!’ But I’m singing. What I do is I sing the melody and then I do the drums with my mouth. I’m always looking to innovate."

As important as music and work are to the artist, family is just as important to the father and husband. He said: "If I’m ever feeling down and missing people or my home or my animals out, I just go to my computer and look at some of the videos and pictures. It gives me sense of grounding and connection."

What’s the one thing Johnny Clegg wants his fans around the world to remember? It’s simple: "Be vigilant."

He added: "The world is in such a wobbly and shaky place, both in our country and globally. All of the issues that seemed to be bubbling under and so far away are now coming to the fore, from poverty to unemployment and inequality. It’s like all these things have come to a head at once and the whole world has lost its confidence in itself. So, we have to be vigilant and we have to careful about what is going on."

Johnny Clegg

(Photos: Getty/Gallo)