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The end of a journey: A tribute to Johnny Clegg

Constant & Cultural is a monthly column by Michelle Constant, a journalist, radio presenter, business leader and champion of the arts.

Johnny Clegg South African singer music musician

I recently heard the account of a traditional storyteller in Beirut, who would end his daily tale at the ‘cliffhanger’, in order to get his audience to return the following day. One night he heard a banging on his door, and one of his daily audience members charged in, brandishing a weapon and yelling: ‘Tell me what happens next, I have not slept a wink, and cannot do so without knowing the rest of the story!’
     I loved hearing this, as it really does highlight the power of the storyteller. In the same month of July, we have lost three iconic storytellers – veteran actress Nomhle Nkonyeni, artist David Koloane and performer Johnny Clegg. All three played a role in our country’s history and narrative. Through their work, we learnt about dreams, our desires and ourselves. As artists, they gave of themselves in order that we might see more, and think differently. This is the credit that is owed to all artists in the country – they entertain us, but they also guide us through our lives, if we allow them.
     Over the years, I have had great opportunities to watch Johnny Clegg perform, but also to interview him both on radio, and to create an audio archive for his website. What has always struck me about Johnny was his desire to share, to engage, and, importantly, to perform. He was the ultimate storyteller, the true griot – both in song and in conversation. It seemed that he was driven by curiosity and the constant desire for reinvention. It was as if he was gnawing at the very marrow of the meaning of South African life, but also the universe. I always knew that if he was coming in to do an interview, we needed to ensure that we had plenty of time. 

Johnny Clegg Sipho Mchunu South African singer music musician
Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu

 I have tried to write this column all week, knowing that everything that can be said about Johnny Clegg and his public life has been said, but that doesn’t make the loss less. And so – this is not a column, but rather a small tribute to the many, many storytellers – those that are with us, and those that watch over us. To the words, the music, the colour, the joy, the pain, the delight, the insanity, the moments that leave us silent, infuriated, applauding, arguing and loving. You leave me in awe, sometimes in tears, but always nourished. Like the Lebanese audience member, we are not fulfilled without you. Thank you. 

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