As one of the most visible cultural ambassadors for South Africa, world beat artist/activist Johnny Clegg has long split his focus between entertaining and educating the masses. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but Clegg has had more than four decades of practice. He’s a cultural and political bridge builder who uses music as the foundation for change. Clegg noted, “I talk about things I find fascinating across cultures, how different groups create meaning and interpret their world. All human societies are fascinated by the way other groups construct their worlds. It serves as a mirror or a foil to reconsider their own world views, and how they interpret their own experience.”
Though British-born, Clegg was raised in South Africa (as well as other locales), finding a kinship with its people and a passion in its music. The post-apartheid nation is still not without its challenges, particularly when the broader region is considered. From Algiers to Angola, Somalia to Sierra Leone, the continent never seems to be conflict-free. But, as Clegg observed, “The solutions have to come from within.” Outside intervention may provide a bandage to stanch the bleeding, but the indigenous peoples have to heal the wounds themselves.
“Africa is a continent with deep connections to traditional and tribal world views (like parts of Asia and South America). Its development has been deeply affected by colonization. All these countries had to go through the refracting lens of Western cultural domination to find their own way into the modern world. Some have done this effectively; others still struggle. South Africa, in many respects, holds a promise to make the jump in the next 20 years.”
Seeing how far his country has come — and how far it still has to go — fuels Clegg’s mission. And in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, many international eyes are on South Africa to see which way the wind is going to blow. Political corruption, poor government administration and a lackluster education system top his list of the most critical issues currently facing the nation. “Our real challenge is capacity building and changing the moribund political culture that has emerged over the last 20 years.”
But there’s also a lot of good to be found, if not praised and emulated. “On the up side, South Africa has tremendous infrastructure — from roads, ports, airports, fibre optic cable and developed IT capacity. Our banking system is the envy of the West. We are so advanced that you can open an account on your phone and start transacting. We have the most free press and public debate in the whole of Africa.”
And so, Clegg continues to spread the gospels of goodness, of hope and of progress, wherever he goes. This year, that means a 40-city North American concert tour that culminates in Thousand Oaks on May 10. The show comes on the heels of his latest album release, Best, Live & Unplugged.
Johnny Clegg Band, May 10 at Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, For more information, visit www.ptgo.org.