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Unveiling Miriam Makeba – A Musician, An Anti-Apartheid Activist, Mama Africa
Unveiling Miriam Makeba – A Musician, An Anti-Apartheid Activist, Mama Africa

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 30-01-2020

Miriam Makeba, whose full name is Zensi Miriam Makeba, was born on March 4, 1932 to a Swazi mother and a Xhosa father in Prospect Township, near Johannesburg, South Africa. Makeba grew up in Sophiatown, which was a segregated black township outside of Johannesburg and started singing in a school choir at an early age. She was forced to find a job as a child after the demise of her father. Makebe also had a short and allegedly abusive first marriage at the age of 17, gave birth to her only child in 1950 and survived cancer of the breast.

READ ALSO: Nelson Mandela – A Freedom Fighter, Anti-Apartheid Activist, Revolutionary Leader

The Early Life of Miriam Makebe

Makebe’s vocal talent gained recognition when she was a child but she began singing professionally in the 1950s, with the Cuban Brothers, the Manhattan Brothers and an all-woman outift, the Skylarks, where she performed a mixture of jazz, traditional African melodies and Western popular music. As a professional vocalist in 1954, she performed primarily in Southern Africa. Her singing and recording talent had made her well known in South Africa in the late 1950s. She also made a debut appearance in the documentary film Come Back, Africa (1959) which attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte, who later became her friend and mentor and other American performers. Makeba got assistance from these performers in 1959 which enabled her to settle in the United States, where she continued her successful singing and recording career. In New York City, where she moved to, Makebe became immediately popular, and recorded her first solo album in 1960. In an attempt to return to South Africa that same year for her mother’s funeral, Makebe was prevented by the country’s government.

Makebe’s Anti-Apartheid Struggles
Makebe sang different popular songs but excelled well at Xhosa and Zulu songs, which she introduced to her Western audiences. She was widely known for songs which criticized apartheid. This was the reason she was denied reentry into South Africa and she remained in exile for three decades thereafter. The South African government later placed a ban on her records and revoked her passport in 1963. Makebe got married to a trumpeter and fellow Belafonte protégé Hugh Masekela in 1964. Although the couple divorced two years later, they maintained a close professional relationship. In 1965, together with Belafontewon, they won a Grammy Award for best folk recording for their album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. She later testified against the South African government at the United Nations and became involved in several civil rights campaign

Makeba married the American black activist Stokely Carmichael, who was a leader of the Black Panther Party in 1968 (divorced 1979), a circumstance which led to the decline of her career in the United States. She also lost support among white Americans and faced hostility from the US government which also contributed to her relocation with Carmichael to Africa to settle in Guinea and then moved to Belgium, continuing to record and tour in Africa and Europe.

Makebe, however continued to perform, mostly in African countries, including at several independence celebrations. She began to write and perform music that were more explicitly critical of apartheid such as the 1977 song “Soweto Blues”, written by her former husband Hugh Masekela, which was about the Soweto uprising. Her autobiography, Makeba: My Story (coauthored with James Hall), was later released in 1988. In 1990, she was encouraged by the South African black activist Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from his extended imprisonment to return to South Africa, using her French passport, on 10 June 1991 and she performed there for the first time since her exile. She also continued recording and performing and released in 1991, an album with Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie. The album combined jazz, R&B, pop, and traditional African music and was an immediate hit across Africa. Makeba and Gillespie then toured the world together to promote the album. Later that year, she made a guest appearance on a US sitcom, The Cosby Show. She also appeared in the 1992 film Sarafina, which centred on students’ involvement in the 1976 Soweto uprising. Makeba portrayed the title character’s mother, Angelina, a role which The New York Times described as having been performed with “immense dignity”. And in 1999, she was named a UN goodwill ambassador, a platform she used in her campaign for humanitarian causes. Makeba was named a Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on October 16, 1999. Her album, Homeland, produced by the New York City based record label Putumayo World Music, was also nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music Album category in January 2000.

Makebe worked closely with Graça Machel-Mandela, the then South African first lady, advocating for children suffering from HIV/AIDS, child soldiers and the physically handicapped. Later on, she established the Makeba Centre for Girls, a home for orphans,which was described in an obituary as her most personal project. She also participated in the 2002 documentary: Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, which critically examined the struggles of black South Africans against apartheid through the music of the period. The Miriam Makeba Story, which was published in 2004 was Makeba’s second autobiography. Later in 2005, she announced that she would retire and started a farewell tour, despite having osteoarthritis, she continued to perform until her death. At this period, her grandchildren Nelson Lumumba Lee and Zenzi Lee, and her great-grandchild Lindelani, sometimes joined her performances. 

Makebe was known for many songs internationally, which included hits like “Pata Pata” and one known as the “Click Song” in English (“Qongqothwane” in Xhosa); both songs featured the distinctive click sounds of her native Xhosa language. In her career, Makeba made 30 original albums, in addition to 19 compilation albums and appearances on the recordings of several other musicians.

Makeba was among the most prominent Africans in the United States; as a result, she was often seen as an emblem of the continent of Africa for Americans. Her music artistry earned her the moniker “Mama Africa” she was severally described as the “Empress of African Song”, he “Queen of South African music” and Africa’s “first superstar”. A music scholar named J. U. Jacobs once said that Makeba’s music had “both been shaped by and given shape to black South African and American music.” She was also among top celebrities campaigning against the apartheid system in South Africa and was responsible for popularising several anti-apartheid songs, which included “Meadowlands” by Strike Vilakezi and “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” (Watch out, Verwoerd) by Vuyisile Mini.Due to her public profile, she became a mouthpiece for Africans living under oppressive governments and especially for black South Africans living under apartheid.

Death and Legacies of Makebe
Makebe fell ill during a concert in Castel Volturno, near Caserta, Italy. The concert, which had been organised to support the writer, Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a criminal organisation active in the Campania region on November 9, 2008. Makebe suffered an heart attack after singing her hit song “Pata Pata”, and was taken to the Pineta Grande clinic, where doctors confirmed her dead.

Giving a remark after her death, Mandela described her as “South Africa’s first lady of song”, and said that “her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.” Outside her home country, South Africa, Makeba was credited with bringing African music to a Western audience along with other top African artists.

READ ALSO: Remembering South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Activist – Steve Biko

Later from 25 to 27 September 2009, a tribute television show to Makeba entitled Hommage à Miriam Makeba was held at the Cirque d’hiver in Paris. In 2014, she was honoured (along with Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Steve Biko) in the Belgian city of Ghent, which named a square after her, the “Miriam Makebaplein”.

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