Miriam Makeba, nicknamed Mama Africa, was a very famous and influential South African singer and a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist. Recognized for having been the first artist to take the unique sounds of Africa to countries beyond the borders of her homeland, Miriam used her musical talent to fight against apartheid in South Africa and for civil rights in the United States. Born in Johannesburg in 1932, when she was just 18 days old her mother was arrested for selling homebrewed beer, which was illegal at the time for Africans, and she spent the first six months of her life in a prison.
Miriam enjoyed singing from as early as she could remember. Her mother played traditional instruments and her father had a singing group called The Mississippi 12. By the mid-1950s, she became a professional vocalist. She worked with several different ensembles, singing a blend of American jazz and traditional South African melodies.
When she was 17, she became pregnant by James Kubali and had her first and only child, Sibongile (“Bongi”). Because Kubali was an abusive partner, Miriam ended the relationship and moved to her mother´s place. The following year, Miriam left for Johannesburg, where she joined a group called the Cuban Boys and then the Manhattan Brothers. She also took part in the documentary Come Back Africa, about life under apartheid.
Miriam travelled to Europe and she started to gain popularity in England. When she appeared on the BBC programme In Town Tonight she met the singer Harry Belafonte who helped her gain an American visa, which allowed her to move to New York City where she started singing in jazz clubs and Las Vegas, meeting her idols such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.
Through her music, Miriam expressed her opposition to the apartheid regime and spread a message of resistance. An Evening With Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, Miriam’s new album for which she won a Grammy award, was a cry to the world to look at the immorality of apartheid and the oppression faced by Black South Africans. This album included the track ‘Beware, Verwoerd!’ a popular song among Black South Africans talking to the founder of apartheid. This song meant Blacks South Africans were not in control of the country at the time but at some point they would be. If people were caught singing this song in public, they would be arrested. This album was also the first United States release to contain Swahili, Sotho, and Zulu languages. For the first time Americans could listen to South African languages and cultures through pop music.
Her most famous song, Pata Pata (“touch touch”) was recorded in 1956 and played on South African radio stations, bringing her talent to the attention of the nation. In 1967, it was successfully released in the United States. It became a worldwide hit and gave her a large amount of influence. With Pata Pata, Miriam became the first black woman to have a Top-Ten worldwide hit.
Mama Africa was another popular album. Mama Africa became her well-known nickname for being a worldwide known African musician. It was released in 1983 and contained the song ‘Sophiatown is Gone’. Sophiatown was the most vibrant mixed community in all of South Africa which was located very close to Johannesburg and was very attractive for all Blacks because of the short commute to work. The apartheid government thought it was too close and too valuable for Blacks to live, so one day it leveled the town to the ground. This outraged South Africans everywhere and so they found solace in Miriam’s song which also impacted the worldview on apartheid. Everyone who listened to this song could feel and hear the pain behind the destruction of this community.
Her anti-apartheid songs had devastating consequences. In 1963, Miriam, who was in her early thirties, gave a speech before the United Nations General Assembly. She pleaded with world leaders to pressure the South African government to do away with apartheid:
“I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the colour of your skin is different from that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality. I appeal to you, and to all the countries of the world to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.”
After that, her life changed. The South African government revoked her citizenship and Miriam was exiled from South Africa, unable to return until 1990.
Throughout her life, she held nine passports and had honorary citizenship in ten countries. During her exile from South Africa, Miriam also dedicated her life to fighting for Civil Rights in America. During the late 1950s and 1960s, Black pop culture and arts exploded in the United States. Miriam was together with such artists as Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson, in New York performing and pushing for civil rights. They travelled around the country and the world singing against this oppression.
In 1990, with apartheid disintegrating, Mandela was released from prison and he persuaded Miriam to return to South Africa. She returned, after 31 years in exile, and became a Goodwill Ambassador for South Africa to the United Nations. She undertook humanitarian causes, working closely with the first lady, Graça Machel-Mandela, she founded the Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for abused girls. She supported campaigns against drug abuse and HIV/AIDS awareness.
In 1992 she starred in the film Sarafina about the Soweto uprisings and was reinstated as a South African citizen. Miriam continued to record throughout the latter part of her career, producing a collaboration album with Dizzie Gillespie, Hugh Masekela and Nina Simone and winning a Grammy nomination for her 2000 solo album, Homeland. In 2002, Miriam starred in Lee Hirsch’s documentary Amandla about the powerful part of music in the struggle against apartheid. In 2005 she announced her retirement but, despite suffering with severe arthritis, continued to make public appearances.
‘Retire? I will sing till the day I die” declared Miriam Makeba in her 2004 biography Makeba. She had just taken part in a concert in Italy in support of the writer Roberto Saviano when she had a heart attack after performing. She died in November 2008, at the age of 76.
Right until the end, Mama Africa stood up for justice.
By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern