South African singer and apartheid activist Johnny Clegg died Tuesday in Johannesburg at age 66, after battling pancreatic cancer since 2015. Clegg founded two racially mixed bands during the apartheid era, and was one of the most celebrated musicians of modern South African music. His 1987 song “Asimbonanga,” written for Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned, was considered an anthem for South Africa’s freedom fighters. Clegg became fascinated by native South African Zulu music and dance during his childhood in Johannesburg. “They developed a totally unique genre of guitar music, indigenous to South Africa. I found it quite emancipating,” he told NPR in a 2017 interview.
Taken in by a local black teacher as a teenager, Clegg was able to enter segregated neighborhoods and learn about the Zulu culture. Clegg highlighted Zulu art forms throughout his career, and embraced being described as a crossover artist. “I love the hybridization of culture, language, music, dance, choreography,” Clegg told NPR. “If we look at the history of art, generally speaking, it is through the interaction of different communities, cultures, worldviews, ideas, and concepts that invigorates styles and genres and gives them life.”