She was affectionately known as Mama Africa: her real name was Miriam Makeba. She was a South African musician. She was a revolutionary. And with music as her weapon of choice, she bravely fought against Apartheid, bringing the plight of millions of black South Africans to the collective consciousness of the world.
This poignant quote of hers encapsulates Miriam Makeba:
I look at an ant and I see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit.
The picture she painted comparing herself to an ant is very apt. She was a young, charismatic, vivacious and beautiful black woman who appeared fragile, but beneath her vulnerable exterior, she was extremely resilient.
She had to be to bear the burden of white racism and apartheid that from her birth, had done everything to reduce her to a non-being. This formed her anti-racism attitude. It made her aware of white injustice from an early age.
Makeba came from humble roots. She was born on the fourth of March 1932. Her mother was a Swazi sangoma (a traditional African healer).
I remember her saying in one of her interviews that she inherited her ability to heal with music from her mother who healed with herbs.
Her father was a Xhosa; he died when she was six years old. Eighteen days after her birth, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi, an African traditional beer brewed using cornmeal and malt. It was illegal to brew and sell this homemade beer.
Her mother spent six months in prison together with Miriam Makeba. The experience left an indelible mark on her. The music she would make decades later would be grounded in the life and struggle of her people.
In a nutshell, it was social commentary capturing the many facets of life for Africans living in the townships of Apartheid South Africa.
Music was part and parcel of her formative years. She sang in the choir of Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria. It was a primary school she attended for eight years.
Makeba had her only child at the age of eighteen in 1950. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time. Her first husband, James Kubay, left her then.
Her singing skills were honed in the 1950s when she was a part of the Manhattan Brothers, they sang African jazz. However, the union didn’t last.
She left soon after to sing with her all-woman group, The Skylarks. Their music was a concoction of Jazz and traditional South African melodies.
Pata Pata which she released in 1956 catapulted her to the top. It was written by a fellow Southern African musician and friend of hers: Dorothy Masuka came from Zimbabwe, then known as Southern Rhodesia. The song was played on all radio stations and made Makeba into a household name.
A few years later, she appeared on an anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa, produced and directed by American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. The viewers response was awesome and Rogosin secured her a visa to attend the twenty-fourth Venice Film Festival in Italy.
It won the Critics Award. It opened up new vistas for her. She suddenly found herself in the lead female role in King Kong, the Broadway-inspired South African musical.
She later met the charismatic musician and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte on her travels in London. He was instrumental in helping her secure entry to the United States. He was equally instrumental in helping her rise to fame in the US.
However, disaster struck. Her mother passed away. On her attempts to return, she discovered her South African passport had been cancelled. The injustice radicalised her; it strengthened her resolve to fight apartheid.
She buried herself into her music and signed with RCA Victor. She released her first U.S. studio album. She named it Miriam Makeba. About two years later, she sang with Belafonte at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden.
However, she didn’t attend the after party because she was not feeling well. Kennedy insisted on meeting her so Belafonte arranged a car to pick her up.
Three years after her first studio album, she released the second, The World of Miriam Makeba.
It peaked at number eight-six on the Billboard 200. However, her fight with Apartheid regime was raging in the background. Months later, she appeared at the United Nations to testify against apartheid.
The Apartheid regime retaliated: they revoked her citizenship and right to return to her motherland. She was left country-less. However, good fortune followed in her footsteps. There were no shortages of countries willing to serve Mama Africa.
Ghana, Guinea and Belgium stepped up and offered her international passports putting Apartheid South Africa to shame. From that point, she became a citizen of the world. The world was dying to own this African songbird.
She held nine passports in her lifetime and was granted honorary citizenship in ten countries. That was ironic for a person rejected by her country because she dared to speak against the Apartheid regime’s inhumane treatment of her people.
Her life was one of lifetime struggle.
She married another musician, Hugh Masekela, in 1964. They first met on the set of King Kong where Masekela was a member of the cast. However, it was short lived. They divorced two years later.
The album focussed on the plight of black South Africans under Apartheid. It set new ground blending Zulu, Sotho and Swahili songs in an authentic setting. Her fame was growing.
She went on to release some of her most memorable and popular songs in the US such as Malaika and the Click Song [Qongqothwane in Xhosa].
One often overlooked aspect of Miriam Makeba is her rebellious spirit. She had an iron will. She was unconventional.
At a time when many artists and women were embracing huge wigs and white standards of beauty, Makeba embraced her African roots.
She was a bonafide star but she shunned makeup. She refused to curl her hair for shows. She was a forerunner of what many would term the “Afro look”. It is such an absurd misnomer. She was simply being herself and looking the way God created her, black and beautiful.
Her stance confounded critics. The media didn’t know how to pigeonhole her. Trouble and controversy surrounded her because of her maverick ways. But her star quality was undeniable.
She released Pata Pata in the US in 1967 and it became an instant hit sending her reputation even higher.
However, the following year she married a young radical who was a member of the Black Panther Party, and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader.
The marriage caused huge controversy in the United States because Carmichael was a civil rights activist and considered too much of a radical because of his advocacy for self defence against state brutality in the US.
The power brokers and gatekeepers of the music industry reacted by cancelling her record deals and tours. It cost her a fortune. But she remained steadfast and refused to have the music industry define who she could love. She stood by her man and her decision.
Consequently, the couple bid farewell to America and relocated to Guinea where President Ahmed Sekou Toure welcomed them with open arms. Guinea was home to Makeba for fifteen years. It became her home away from home.
The couple were close to the president and his wife Andree. Stokeley worked closely with the president while Makeba was appointed Guinea’s official to the United Nations. This was a public relations coup for Toure.
Miriam Makeba was rewarded with the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986 for her new role. Her marriage to Carmichael lasted until 1973. The toll had taken its effect on the couple.
She continued to perform in Africa, Europe and Asia and stayed clear of America which had rejected her because of her love for Stokeley Carmichael. She found herself at one of the most historic events to be held in Africa.
The following year she addressed the United Nations again. Makeba used her profile to raise awareness of the plight of her people and pushing for freedom snd equal rights.
She didn’t think twice about using her star quality and charm to put the cause of freedom above her own career. Black liberation was her motivation.
Tragedy struck again. Her daughter Bongi passed away. She was more than just her daughter. She was her friend, confidant, collaborator and song writer on unconventional projects such as the Tribute to Malcolm X.
As usual her mettle and never say die attitude got her through the difficulties.
Two concerts were held in Harare, Zimbabwe. I remember watching them on TV. The shows were billed as Graceland: The African Concert. It was an exquisite show. I was mesmerised watching Paul Simon performing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
However, Miriam Makeba stole the show and my heart though she was much too old for me. Nevertheless, I had a crush for this woman whose aura radiated way beyond the TV screen. I can understand why Carmichael and Masekela and others fell for her.
Makeba was a strong woman. She was outspoken. She was a revolutionary. She was an artist and unconventional. She attracted men with similar strengths to hers. It is possible that this is why their unions were short lived.
She had a thing for strong black men who were about black liberation and Black Power. If she was not with them physically, she was with them mentally and spiritually.
They were the subjects of her music. They were her muses. There was a two way exchange of energy fuelling the fight for liberation. Her projects on Malcolm X. and Samora Machel illustrate her awareness of the icons of the Black liberation struggle.
The tour worked its magic and brought record executives back to their senses. Warner Bros signed her up and she released Sangoma [Healer], in honour of her mother who was a sangoma. It was her way of paying tribute to her and dealing with that tragedy that seemed to dog her.
The album consisted of accappella healing chants. Her autobiography Makeba: My story followed shortly after. It was published and translated into numerous European languages.
She soon returned to what she did equally well – getting under the skin of the Apartheid Regime. She performed at Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute held at Wembley Stadium in London on the 11th of June 1988.
It was broadcast to 67 countries and garnered an audience of about 600 million. The purpose of this event was to call for the release of the struggle icon Nelson Mandela.
It didn’t do her any favours with the Apartheid regime which was nearing its doomed shelf life and squirming under the glare of the world. The pressure was too much and the cracks began to appear.
Two years later, President Frederik de Klerk unbanned the ANC [African National Congress] and other banned organisations. His announcement that Mandela was to be released sent shockwaves across the world.
Mandela was finally released on 11 February 1990. I remember the moment he was released, walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela and waving to an ocean of supporters.
Mandela never forgot the efforts of Makeba. He persuaded her to return. She promptly returned at his invitation and reassurances for her safety. Three decades after she left, she was finally back home to reap the rewards of her sweat and tears.
Her return home was magical. She made an enchanting appearance in an episode of The Cosby Show. Now, she could have some fun. A role in Sarafina followed the same year. It was a role befitting her role in the struggle.
Good fortune continued to follow her and her life of struggle seemed to be behind her. Miriam Makeba was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in October 1999.
The following year she was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music Album category for her album Homeland. Cedric Samson and Michael Levinsohn for the New York City based record label Putumayo World Music produced it.
However, Mama Africa was touched by the suffering she saw in Africa. Away from the glare of the limelight, she rolled up her sleeves and worked with Graça Machel-Mandela; she was the South African first lady. They worked with children suffering from HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and the physically handicapped.
Awards and accolades followed soon after. Makeba received the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold by the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin. It was awarded for outstanding services to peace and international understanding in 2001.
Many others followed. She was voted 38th in the Top 100 Great South Africans. She embarked on a farewell tour in 2005, performing concerts in all the countries she visited during her years in exile or working life.
Tribute shows were done in her memory at the Barbican in London and the Festival d’Ile de France. The latter was hosted by another prominent musician and activist Angelique Kidjo from Benin and a Grammy Award winner.
A documentary, Mama Africa, about her life also followed providing insight into her long and colourful career and personal life. It cemented her legacy as a musician and a revolutionary.
Miriam Makeba dedicated her life to fight injustice and wherever she found it she fought it. So it is no coincidence that on the 9th of November 2008, she was performing at a concert organised to support Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camora.
The Camora is a mafia like organisation found in the Region of Campania.
Mama Africa suffered a heart attack after performing the hit, Pata Pata, that brought her to the world’s attention. The doctors at the Pinetta Grande clinic were unable to revive her.
She passed away doing the two things she loved doing – music and fighting for freedom. It was typical of Miriam Makeba to sacrifice her life to causes she believed in even if it cost her comfort or her life. She always put others before herself which is the opposite of what most musicians do today.
It is not only her music that made her such a loved person. It was her humanitarian and civil rights activism that garnered the respect of the world. Unlike most musicians today, she was outspoken and refused to be silenced by the corporations or those in the corridors of power. She spoke truth to power.
That was a remarkable feat for a young black girl who spent her first months in prison, then grew up in the dusty townships of South Africa. Throughout her life, she embodied the African’s resiliant spirit to overcome adversity against all odds.
For Makeba, the people, Africa came first. She was never ashamed of her culture. She was proud of it and made African culture cool. She didn’t have to chant the slogan Black is Beautiful. She personified it. She wore it like a royal cloak with subliminal splendour and grace. She said it loudly and silently but without uttering a word.
She paved the road for the current crop of African musicians who are enjoying international fame today.
She was a phenomenal African woman who embraced her Africaness with pride and the dignity of royalty. She serenaded the world with her music and documented the life’s of Africans in the townships of South Africa.
She brought their plight to the world. She was the most vociferous and visible anti-apartheid campaigner for over three decades. She was a civil rights activist and stood for freedom, equal rights and justice all over the world.
She said it best herself when she said, “My life, my career, every song I sing and every appearance I make, are bound up with the plight of my people.“
She was and will always be a revolutionary musician. It is not enough to love her music. Her legacy should remind us and inspire us to do more to be better people and make the world a better place.
There are those who claim struggle credentials to monopolise power and accumulate wealth in society and conveniently omit the contributions of people like Miriam Makeba who gave of themselves selflessly without care for reward or financial compensation.
These are the true heroes and heroines who we must continue to write about and tell their stories to prevent the collective memory from forgetting. I salute this phenomenal revolutionary musician. May the Makeba spirit live through every one of us through the act of remembering her and impersonating her selfless sacrifice for freedom and justice.