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Culture in France

"Politics attracts the mediocre," says Johnny Clegg

Audio 12:14
(Sleeve design: Anthony Serres/Photo: Claude Gassian)

Johnny Clegg explores the contradictions of human nature in new album Human. In his 15th studio album Clegg, who is known as Le Zoulou Blanc (the White Zulu) in France, touches on Gaza, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the struggles of modern day South Africa.

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Johnny Clegg doesn’t seem to age, he looks pretty much the same as the energetic activist of his Asimbonanga (the song called for the release of Nelson Mandela) days in the 80s.

When I told him that he reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Dorian Gray, he raised his hands in mock horror, asking if I was referring to the picture in the attic which showed the dark side of Wilde’s character.

In more or less the same way, Clegg’s album Human seeks to explore the hidden side of human nature.

“There’s a saying in English, ‘he’s only human’, here the word human means frail or unable to meet expectations. On the other side, when you say ‘that’s inhuman’, you’re actually saying that this is not how a human being should act, since being human is a very positive thing, it’s caring, sensitive … so you have two composite pictures here, one which is positive and one which is frail,” says Clegg.

In his latest album, he sets out to examine the paradox of our actions as humans within the context of politics as well as in intimate relationships.

Clegg says that some of the inspiration for his songs stems from personal experiences. For instance when pondering about love he questions, “is it the power of love or the love of power?”

The 57-year-old musician has developed a dualist idea of relationships over the years.

“I think you fall in love sometimes with a person whose qualities you would like to have and you think that if you could just be like them, you could be happy. Then there’s the other side, you’re subconsciously attracted to somebody who has the same damage as you, whom you feel more comfortable with because they will know your pain.”

When talking about power, Clegg considers how the sentiment is expressed in various aspects of life, whether in the family or between siblings, whether it is power between couples or between headmaster and children. He believes that humans are always subverted by power.

“We like to deceive ourselves, we like to pretend that the power relationships don’t exist, whether between individuals or groups or classes. That is like the weak, dark side of us.”

In that regard, the English born musician feels that the most revolutionary and most radical art is the one which questions our choices.

“As a young activist in Africa during the late 70s we were all shaped by those questions. As I travelled and read widely across cultures, I discovered Czeslaw Milosz (the Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner for literature) and other east European writers who went through the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation. I found that they had the same arguments.”

“All these special moments which I thought were uniquely South African were in fact global and came out of similar arguments, ‘is art a cultural weapon?’ Of course it’s not, otherwise it’s not art, its propaganda!”

He also discovered a resonance in artists from South America like Pablo Neruda who were faced with the same kind of oppression and troubled by the same issues. Question such as, “how do you keep your individuality in a struggle and how do you find a way to be objective when people are being shot in the streets?”

Asilazi, the fourth track on the album, discusses modern day South Africa and its new struggles. Sixteen years after apartheid, South Africans are a battling for a new kind freedom, an economic one.

The recent wave of strikes, including the public sector one, point to the economic discrepancies of the rainbow nation.

“During the Mbeki-era, a difficult choice had to be made whether to create a black middle class or go for a worker orientated poverty alleviation programme. Mbeki [chose] a black middle class which can create an economy and move us forward. The antagonisms that we see today in the Zuma presidency are really a legacy of Mbeki’s [period], we’ve seen such a strong split between the workers’ alliance and the nationalist middle-class bourgeois components in the ANC (African National Congress).”

The musician says he is not worried by the turmoil South Africa is going through. He calls them “little hiccups”, normal stages of development after liberation.

“Politics, generally speaking, attracts the mediocre. You will find one or two exceptional leaders from time to time. Whatever is happening at the political level, underneath all the surface froth, you have a very strong business economy that is driving the country forward.”

He is confident that the country’s strong economic backbone will see it through. South Africa’s leading information technology sector, its armament industry, the commodity market all contribute to positioning South Africa as a leading emerging power. For him, the real big problem facing South Africa is Aids, the 27 per cent unemployment rate and crime.

After 30 years in the music business what keeps Clegg going is probably an innate curiosity. He has an attraction to digging under the skin, to unravelling what is hidden. That kicks-off his inspiration as a lyricist.

 

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