Clegg’s autobiography brings readers into his crazy, beautiful world
If you ever wanted to sit at the feet of the late, great Johnny Clegg, hearing tales of his early years in his own unique voice, you now have that opportunity. Although Clegg passed away in 2019, he began writing about his life in the years prior to his death. The result is the newly released Scatterling of Africa, which is his “origin story” in his own words.
“It’s a hugely surreal moment for us and a joy to share our dad’s incredible story with the world. It has been a long journey to get to this point, and we are honoured and proud to be able to finally release it,” says his son, Jesse Clegg, in an interview with the SA Jewish Report.
The past few years have been “an emotionally challenging period to be without our dad, especially considering the circumstances we find ourselves in the world”, says his younger son, Jaron Clegg. “We are, however, hugely comforted and feel his presence when we see his music and storytelling connect with people. This book was a way for us to share his presence again and working on it was cathartic because it felt like he was with us as we were making our way through his journey.”
Clegg was known as Le Zoulou Blanc and didn’t emphasise his Jewish identity, and yet the book shows how his life was “book ended” by two very Jewish life-cycle events. We are introduced to his overbearing grandfather, Harry Braudo, who insisted that Clegg have a Brit Milah even though his biological father wasn’t Jewish. This moment and Braudo’s decisions at the time reverberate across the generations.
Then, on the second page of the book, the Clegg family thanks the Chevrah Kadisha for its support over the very difficult period of Clegg’s passing. And so, in birth and death, Clegg was bound to Judaism. In between, as he writes, there were moments when he wrestled with his Jewish identity as well as the question of whether one can change identities, finding a home in another community that welcomes you as one of its own sons.
“An anthropologist by training, our dad always had a curiosity and appreciation for all cultures and religions,” says Jesse. “With Judaism, there were many principles and values that he respected deeply and connected us to as his children. Sometimes we would light the Shabbos candles and he would explain the symbolism around the traditions, and we also had Barmitzvahs. Our family has always had a connection to the Jewish community, and we are grateful for the support and compassion we’ve received.”
Although it can be unsettling to read the writings of someone whose early death remains so raw, Clegg’s voice shines through from the very first word in the most comforting way. He takes us into his childhood memories and teenage explorations with a gentle hand, as if to say “come, let me show you something wonderful”. He talks about how both he and his mother had an almost naïve fearlessness and boundless curiosity, which allowed him to follow a path that none had treaded before.
Asked how the book came together, Jaron explains that his father “chose to focus on his formative years, as it was these years that were so important in shaping his journey as an artist and as a human. It came together sporadically in moments and short vignettes and stories that he would write down as they came to him, and it continued like that until the end. When he passed, we were left with a beautiful collection of anecdotes and memories and so our job, with the editor, was to order and structure the text into a cohesive narrative. With that said, our main priority was that everything was in his own words and nothing was altered from the original text.”
“We had never heard some of these stories before!” says Jesse. “He goes into incredible detail about his family life, his connection to music, and his connection to Zulu culture and South Africa in general.”
In many accounts, Clegg’s stepfather, journalist Dan Pienaar’s decision to take the young Clegg with him to the townships, is credited with kindling his interest in Zulu culture. But in the book, we see that many more forces were at play, including Clegg’s initiative, drive, and joy in discovering a new world – often at great risk. He describes the impact Pienaar’s approach to life had on him in many ways, especially during the year they spent in Zambia. Linked to this are other fascinating stories, such as how Pienaar kidnapped Clegg’s stepsister and went to Australia.
Asked how Zulu culture featured in their lives, Jesse says, “We spent many weekends in Zululand growing up, so we were very exposed to this world and experienced the magical community. We certainly hold dear the Zulu culture and way of life. We visit Sipho Mchunu’s homestead in Makhabaleni often, and reminisce about the life he shared with our father. And every time we drive down, as the Tugela River Valley opens up, it’s like a doorway into another world. This is part of the magic of the place our dad came to love and live by.”
Having access to their father’s story after his passing “is a gift for us as a family because of how strong his voice is and how clearly he comes across”, says Jaron. “We feel especially lucky to have this piece of him as we move forward, something that we can tangibly hold on to and read through whenever we want to hear his voice.”
In the cast of characters we are introduced to in the book, Clegg’s mother, Muriel, plays an important part. “Muriel, or ‘Gogo’ as we used to call her, was a strong and eccentric woman who had a massive role in our dad’s life,” says Jesse. “She championed him in many ways especially in his music career. Of course, she wasn’t without her own troubles and traumas and some of that baggage was carried by our dad throughout his life. To us, she was a good grandmother who read to us all the time and introduced us to the magic of poetry, storytelling, and karate.”
The Clegg sons carry the surname of their father’s biological dad, Dennis Clegg, who their father wasn’t allowed to meet until he was 21. “Without a father, there certainly was a void in his life growing up, and in a way, it reinforced his connection to the Zulu culture as their masculine values as well as their music and dance gave him the tools to father himself,” says Jaron.
“My brother and I did get to meet Dennis, and in fact, we spent a few holidays with him. He would come down to South Africa to visit us, and we always enjoyed seeing him. He was a very kind and gentle man, and incredibly funny. He could also talk to dogs!”
They hope the book “will give people an intimate look at the man behind the music, a glimpse into the world that shaped him and people who championed his journey. For us, our dad’s life serves as testament to human connection against all odds, and the incredible power of music and dance to transcend our differences. We feel honoured and proud to be able to share it with the world.”