Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 9 November 2008), nicknamed Mama Africa, was a Grammy Award-winning South African singer and civil rights activist.
In the 1960s she was the first artist from Africa to popularize African music around the world. She is best known for the song “Pata Pata”, first recorded in 1957 and released in the U.S. in 1967. She recorded and toured with many popular artists, such as Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, and her former husband Hugh Masekela.
Makeba campaigned against the South African system of apartheid. The South African government responded by revoking her passport in 1960 and her citizenship and right of return in 1963. As the apartheid system crumbled she returned home for the first time in 1990.
Makeba died of a heart attack on 9 November 2008 after performing in a concert in Italy organized to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organization local to the region of Campania.
Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932. Her mother was a Swazi sangoma (traditional healer-herbalist). Her father, who died when she was six years old, was a Xhosa. When she was eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi, an African homemade beer brewed from malt and cornmeal. Her mother was sentenced to a six-month prison term, so Miriam spent her first six months of life in jail. As a child, she sang in the choir of the Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria, a primary school that she attended for eight years.
In 1950 at the age of eighteen, Makeba gave birth to her only child, Bongi Makeba, whose father was Makeba’s first husband James Kubay. Makeba was then diagnosed with breast cancer, and her husband left her shortly afterwards
Her professional career began in the 1950s when she was featured in the South African jazz group the Manhattan Brothers, and appeared for the first time on a poster. She left the Manhattan Brothers to record with her all-woman group, The Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional melodies of South Africa. As early as 1956, she released the single “Pata Pata”, which was played on all the radio stations and made her name known throughout South Africa.
She had a short-lived marriage in 1959 to Sonny Pillay, a South African singer of Indian descent. Her break came in that year when she had a short guest appearance in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary produced and directed by American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. The short cameo made an enormous impression on the viewers and Rogosin managed to organise a visa for her to attend the première of the film at the twenty-fourth Venice Film Festival in Italy, where the film won the prestigious Critics’ Award. That year, Makeba sang the lead female role in the Broadway-inspired South African musical King Kong; among those in the cast was musician Hugh Masekela. She made her U.S. debut on 1 November 1959 on The Steve Allen Show.
I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That’s when it hurts.
Makeba then travelled to London where she met Harry Belafonte, who assisted her in gaining entry to the United States and achieving fame there. When she tried to return to South Africa in 1960 for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that her South African passport had been cancelled. She signed with RCA Victor and released Miriam Makeba, her first U.S. studio album, in 1960. In 1962, Makeba and Belafonte sang at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden, but Makeba did not go to the aftershow party because she was ill. President Kennedy insisted on meeting her, so Belafonte sent a car to pick her up and she met the President of the United States. In 1963, Makeba released her second studio album for RCA, The World of Miriam Makeba. An early example of world music, the album peaked at number eighty-six on the Billboard 200. Later that year, after testifying against apartheid before the United Nations, her South African citizenship and her right to return to the country were revoked. She was a woman without a country, but the world came to her aid, and Guinea, Belgium and Ghana issued her international passports, and she became, in effect, a citizen of the world. In her life, she held nine passports, and was granted honorary citizenship in ten countries.
In 1964, Makeba and Masekela were married, divorcing two years later.
In 1966, Makeba received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording together with Harry Belafonte for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. The album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid, and it was one of the first American albums to present traditional Zulu, Sotho and Swahili songs in an authentic setting. From the time of her New York debut at the Village Vanguard, her fame and reputation grew. She released many of her most famous hits in the United States, including “The Click Song” (“Qongqothwane” in Xhosa) and “Malaika”. Time called her the “most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years,” and Newsweek compared her voice to “the smoky tones and delicate phrasing” of Ella Fitzgerald and the “intimate warmth” of Frank Sinatra. Despite the success that made her a star in the U.S., she wore no makeup and refused to curl her hair for shows, thus establishing a style that would come to be known internationally as the “Afro look”. In 1967, more than ten years after she wrote the song, the single “Pata Pata” was released in the United States and became a worldwide hit.
I’d already lived in exile for 10 years, and the world is free, even if some of the countries in it aren’t, so I packed my bags and left.
Her marriage to Trinidad-born civil rights activist, Black Panther, and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused controversy in the United States, and her record deals and tours were cancelled. As a result, the couple moved to Guinea, her home for the next 15 years, where they became close with President Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife, Andrée. Makeba was appointed Guinea’s official delegate to the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986. She also separated from Carmichael in 1973 and continued to perform primarily in Africa, Europe and Asia, but not in the United States, where a de facto boycott was in effect. Makeba was one of the entertainers at the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaïre. She addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the second time in 1975. She divorced Carmichael in 1978 and married an airline executive in 1980.
In those years, when I came to the States, people were always asking me why I didn’t sing anymore. I’d tell them, ‘I sing all around the world—Asia, Africa, Europe—but if you don’t sing in the US, then you haven’t really made it.’ That’s why I’ll always be grateful to Paul Simon. He allowed me to bring my music back to my friends in this country.
After the death of her daughter Bongi in 1985, she decided to move to Brussels In the following year, Hugh Masekela introduced Makeba to Paul Simon, and a few months later she embarked on the very successful Graceland Tour, which was documented on music video. Two concerts held in Harare, Zimbabwe, were filmed in 1987 for release as Graceland: The African Concert. After touring the world with Simon, Warner Bros. Records signed Makeba and she released Sangoma (“Healer”), an a cappella album of healing chants named in honour of her mother who was an “isangoma” (“a healer”). Shortly thereafter, her autobiography Makeba: My Story was published and subsequently translated from English into other languages including German, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish. She took part in the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, a popular-music concert staged on 11 June 1988 at Wembley Stadium, London, and broadcast to 67 countries and an audience of 600 million. Also referred to as Freedomfest, Free Nelson Mandela Concert, and Mandela Day, the event called for Mandela’s release.
Return to South Africa
Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute increased pressure on the government of South Africa to release Mandela, and in 1990, State President of South Africa Frederik Willem de Klerk reversed the ban on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organisations, and announced that Nelson Mandela would shortly be released from prison. Mandela, who was effectively released from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl on 11 February 1990, persuaded Miriam Makeba to return to South Africa. She returned home on 10 June 1990, on her French passport.
In 1991, Makeba, with Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone and Masekela, recorded and released her studio album, Eyes on Tomorrow. It combined jazz, R&B, pop, and African music, and was a hit in Africa. Makeba and Gillespie then toured the world together to promote it. In November of the same year, she made a guest appearance in the episode “Olivia Comes Out of the Closet” of The Cosby Show. In 1992, she starred in the film Sarafina!. The film’s plot centers on students involved in the 1976’s Soweto youth uprisings, and Makeba portrayed the title character’s mother, “Angelina”. The following year she released Sing Me a Song.
On 16 October 1999, Miriam Makeba was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In January 2000, her album, Homeland, produced by Cedric Samson and Michael Levinsohn for the New York City based record label Putumayo World Music, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music Album category. She worked closely with Graça Machel-Mandela, who at the time was the South African first lady, for children suffering from HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and the physically handicapped.
In 2001, she was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold by the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin, “for outstanding services to peace and international understanding”. She shared the Polar Music Prize with Sofia Gubaidulina. The prize is regarded as Sweden’s foremost musical honour. They received their Prize from Carl XVI Gustaf King of Sweden during a nationally-televised ceremony at Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, on 27 May 2002. She also took part in the 2002 documentary Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, where she and others recalled the struggles of black South Africans against the injustices of apartheid through the use of music. In 2004, Makeba was voted 38th in the Top 100 Great South Africans. Makeba started a worldwide farewell tour in 2005, holding concerts in all of those countries that she had visited during her working life.
Death and legacy
On 9 November 2008, she became ill while taking part in a concert organized to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organisation local to the Region of Campania. The concert was being held in Castel Volturno, near Caserta, Italy. Makeba suffered a heart attack after singing her hit song “Pata Pata”, and was taken to the “Pineta Grande” clinic, where doctors were unable to revive her. Her publicist notes that Makeba had suffered “severe arthritis” for some time. She and family members were based in Northriding, Gauteng, at the time of her death.
On 25, 26 and 27 September 2009, a tribute show to Makeba entitled “Hommage à Miriam Makeba” and curated by Grammy Award-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter and activist Angélique Kidjo for the Festival d’Ile de France, was held at the Cirque d’hiver in Paris. The same show but with the English title of “Mama Africa: Celebrating Miriam Makeba” was held at the Barbican in London on 21 November 2009. Mama Africa, a documentary film about the life of Miriam Makeba, co-written and directed by Finnish film director Mika Kaurismäki, was released in 2011. On 4 March 2013 Google honored her with a doodle on the homepage.