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Long before Paul Simon teamed up with South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, there was Johnny Clegg.
As a teenager in Johannesburg, Clegg sought out Zulu migrant workers and learned their traditional songs and dances. In the 1970s, he started a band, Juluka, which brought black and white musicians together onstage. That was illegal under Apartheid, and so the group was harassed and banned from the radio.
Still, a few years later, Clegg became famous beyond South Africa with an anthem to Nelson Mandela called "Asimbonanga." Mandela was still in prison when that song came out, but everything changed in 1994, when elections brought the black majority to power.
Now, Clegg is releasing his first album on an American label in 17 years, titled Human. He tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne that his music did change after Mandela's rise as a political hero and leader, but that the guiding principle behind it remained the same.
"The central theme of my music is finding a crossover between different cultures, languages, music forms," Clegg says. "That aspect of my music has always been steadfast. The political side of it did come to an end. After the 1994 election, we were still left with the issue of, 'What does it mean to be a South African? How do we find a common identity?' "
In "Asilazi," a song from the new album, Clegg looks at how that uncertainty still lingers in South African economics.
"There's been some really major developments: 46 percent of all homeownership now is in black hands, which is quite a remarkable statistic. But people in the township believe very strongly that economic freedom has not come with political freedom," he says. "On the white side, there are verses about young white people who feel that they've been excluded now from the economy because of what you might call affirmative action — where the government jobs are only going to black companies."
Still, Clegg says the country did reach a level of unity unprecedented since 1994 last summer, when it welcomed half a million soccer enthusiasts for the World Cup.
"In this welcoming ritual that was unfolding in every town, in every city, South Africans just rubbed shoulders in a different way," he says, "and found a new way of being together."
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