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Doo-wop singer, dancer, author, Ilanga dies at 82

Isaiah Thompson
Doo-wop singer, dancer, author, Ilanga dies at 82

Born Arnold Anthony Scott on July 23, 1940 in Onset, Massachusetts, the artist, poet, dancer and musician who would change his name to Ilanga grew up in Roxbury in what friends and relatives describe as a highly musical family.

As a young man, Ilanga helped form a popular doo-wop and rhythm and blues group, the G-Clefs, comprising himself, his brother Chris and various cousins, who performed in and around Boston at venues including the Strand Theater and the Wonderland Ballroom. The group went on to perform at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York and on the Ed Sullivan Show. The group had two Top 40 hits: “Ka-Ding-Dong,” in 1956; and “I Understand (Just How You Feel),” in 1961.

Ilanga maintained a lifelong dedication to social justice and activism, founding at 15 a social club called the Band of Angels, one of few integrated and coed social clubs at the time and which participated in community services and charities. Ilanga joined the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee in 1964 and participated in the 1965 March on Selma/Montgomery, Alabama, and joined the 1995 Million Man March. Ilanga was also instrumental in helping to start, in the 1990s, the Roxbury Homecoming Committee celebration, now known as well as Roxbury’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

In the 1970s, he changed his name to Ilanga, meaning “The Sun” in Zulu.

As his artistic interests grew and his career as a dancer advanced, Ilanga traveled widely, moving to Europe in the 1970s to form an Afro-jazz dance company in Amsterdam before relocating to Greece for more than two decades, where he taught dance and performed.

Ilanga returned to Boston in the 1990s, joining the Tony Williams Dance Center in Jamaica Plain as director of outreach, and serving as a mentor and guide who “was invaluable at dispensing instruction and wisdom to young performers,” as Center founder and artistic director Tony Williams told the Boston Spirit in a 2021 cover story featuring Ilanga.

Ilanga also starred in the Center’s famous annual production of “The Urban Nutcracker,” in which he performed the role of “Grandfather” and a doo-wop performer alongside his brother, Chris.

A lifelong seeker of spiritual truths, Ilanga was a member of Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide religious organization, and practiced and taught hatha yoga.

An author as well as a poet, Ilanga published two books, “Cycles: A Memoir,” and “The 2020 Birthday Book of Message: An Inspirational Thought For Each Day.”

“He was a special individual — he was a poet, he was a Buddha,” says his cousin John Cruz, who fondly recalls tagging along with the G-Clefs as a teenager. “He loved the world, he loved everybody and everybody loved him. … I can remember my whole life he was always a giving, friendly, loving warm person, and that’s one of the reasons he was so loved.”

Sharon Scott-Chandler, a niece of Ilanga’s, recalls, “He was the uncle that everybody loved, that everybody got advice from, that everybody asked to go places with … He was often like the pied piper in terms of kids, and all of his nieces and nephews. And later in life, it just became more and more evident that people around him were drawn to him, were so positively influenced by him. … He just approached life so unassumingly and positively and at the same time very dedicated and focused on his artistry and on his community and giving back.”

Kenny Francis, a mentee of Ilanga’s, calls him “a shining example of the joy that comes with living life freely” and “an anchor for his family, proud to be the glue that kept his family united.”

Ilanga died on Dec. 24 at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer. He is survived by his brother, Christian, many nieces, nephews and cousins, and friends around the world.