Listen to this track by South African “world music” pop alchemists featuring lead singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, Juluka. It’s “Scatterlings of Africa”, an international hit as taken from the band’s 1982 record Scatterlings, their fourth. This single received much attention on the Western charts, even reaching heavy rotation on video channels and programs at the time.
To contrast that, the band itself was practically illegal in their home country of South Africa. With black and white members, they were not even legally allowed perform in public and were banned from the radio under the Apartheid system. Along with the rest of the band, singer and songwriter Clegg and vocalist and guitarist Sipho Mchunu were the embodiment of a forbidden cultural unity in South Africa, performing a fusion cuisine of styles presented in both English and in Zulu languages, often within the confines of the same song.
All the while, Juluka had to keep a low official profile since forming at the end of the sixties. Their popularity was truly grassroots, eventually reaching the rest of the world by the 1980s with this hit song on international radio and on video channels. What was it about this song, and others that riled up the South African establishment so much? More importantly, how did this song fly in the face of Western mores and customs around geopolitics and race in very much the same way?
When we think about the most subversive political bands in music history, very few of them were under the same levels of scrutiny as Juluka, who’s very appearance together created violent outrage in the establishment. Ironically, they never considered themselves to be a political band in any intentional way. They were political just because they existed. Much can be said of their own personal and artistic persecution under a baldly racist and regressive regime in their native South Africa. But in many ways, their real impact came when the video for this song was played on MTV and in other quarters in Europe and North America, making many music fans cognizant of race and racism on our own shores.
The video for “Scatterlings of Africa” enjoyed widespread play during the early 1980s. A big part of this was because African music had begun to find its way into Western pop music in general, with Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Bow Wow Wow, and Adam & The Ants all flirting with African textures in their music. By the time the video for this song was seen on video rotation, and also getting respectable airplay on the radio, the stage was set in terms of style. The difference of course was that Juluka brought extra dimension to the proceedings. They weren’t using African styles in their music. They were African.
Further to all of that, and very importantly, they challenged our perceptions of what being African even means. As much as they’d defied the odds in subverting cultural norms in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, they were subversive on video screens here in North America, too. A high point and key image in the video for “Scatterlings of Africa” is the image of Johnny Clegg, a white man, authentically dancing in Zulu folk style with otherwise exclusively black participants and in traditional garb. It was, and perhaps still is, unexpected. It was even a shock. To me, that says a lot more about North American and Western culture and its expectations around race, nationality, class, and even our definitions of what “civilized behaviour” is than it does about Apartheid.
And here’s something else, too. I don’t think it was widely understood what this song was really about when it came out. Anecdotally speaking, I think the general perception was that the song was about the band; rejected by mainstream culture in their own country, but instead embracing their older and even ancient traditions where great meaning is found beyond the oppression of their times. In some ways, that is absolutely accurate, but it’s not the whole picture. So, who is this song really about? Who are the Scatterlings of Africa being sung about here? Well, they are us. They are all of us no matter what colour we are or from what continent. We are all uprooted from where we came from, lost on a road searching for Phelemanga, which is roughly translated into “place where lies end”, and not unlike a Zulu equivalent of Nirvana.
This is a song about unity. More than that though, it’s a song that makes a mockery of racism. It makes a mockery out of any system that divides people along any sort of line, with race being only one. If we’re all Scatterlings of Africa, a continent known to be the birthplace of the entire human race as we know it, then any divisions between us in terms of our biological origins is purely illusory.
This is not to say that issues around race are also illusory, of course. That distinction must be well understood, because they are very real. We’ve made them real. As such, we need to discuss those issues, particularly in the light of so much violence, tragedy, and systemic oppression around the subject of race and against people of colour that have endured for centuries all over the world. This discussion is particularly important for white people to have among ourselves as real history is considered. We’ve enjoyed undue benefits from racism, having created its mechanisms to serve us starting from colonial times. So, we must become the authors of that system’s demise working with all other communities in order to achieve reconciliation, justice, and peace.
Apart from that vital work that must be done, this song reminds us that there is another vision for the world that’s available to us once the healing is done; that we are all living in the same place in the universe, and with the same origins, struggling for the same sense of well-being, safety, love, and peace no matter what other differences distinguish us from one another.
It is this that makes the efforts to reconcile all the more meaningful, and with a better world for all of us as the ultimate goal. It is this truth that represents a spark of hope.
Johnny Clegg is an active musician today, on the road at the time of this writing on his Final Journey tour. He has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he remains to be a cultural ambassador, lettered anthropologist, and South African national icon to inspire new generations of musicians.
You can learn more about him at johnnyclegg.com.