Zenzile Miriam Makeba was one of South Africa’s most iconic voices, with her vocal cords entertaining everybody, from the ladies selling traditional beer in Soweto’s shebeens to President John F. Kennedy’s guests at his birthday party in Madison Square Garden.
“Mama Africa”, as she will forever be affectionately known, was a Grammy Award-winning South African singer and civil rights activist born on the 4th of March 1932. Her voice took South African rhythms all across Africa and the world, and her fight for the end of apartheid made her a true citizen of the world.
Born in Johannesburg to a Xhosa father and a Swazi mother – who was a sangoma, or traditional healer – young Makeba spent the first 6 months of her fledgling life in jail. Authorities apprehended her mother and brutally threw her in jail for selling “umqombothi”, a home-made African beer derived from malt and cornmeal.
Her legendary musical career took its first steps in the choir of the Kilmerton Training Institute, a primary school she attended for 8 years. By the time she was 18, she had her only child, Bongi Makeba, with her first husband (James Kubay) who would later abandon her after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In the 1950s, she began to sing for The Manhattan Brothers – a South African jazz group – which around the first time her face appeared on a public poster. She subsequently left them to form an all-women’s group, The Skylarks, which fused traditional South African rhythms with typical jazz vibes. In 1956, she released one of her greatest hits, “Pata Pata”, which made her a household name in the Southern African nation.
In 1959, she married Sonny Pillay, a South African of Indian descent – but the marriage was quite short-lived. That year, she made a guest appearance on a documentary by Lionel Rogosin – an American man who used the film to criticize the prejudicial apartheid regime. The film won the prestigious Critics’ Award at the 24th Venice Film Festival. She then played the lead female role in a South African musical about King Kong (alongside future husband Hugh Masekela). By the first of November, she appeared on TV screens around the America on the Steve Allen Show.
In 1960, young star Makeba was struck by tragedy and shock – on her way to attend her mother’s funeral, she discovered that her South African passport had been cancelled!
She released her self-titled album, “Miriam Makeba” during the very same year, having signed with RCA Victor. Two years later, she was invited to sing alongside Harry Belafonte for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party, but she did not attend the after party due to an illness. However, the President of the United States was so moved by her music that he sent her a private car in order to meet her.
In 1963, she released her second album, “The World of Miriam Makeba”.
She testified against the apartheid regime before the United Nations, and the racist government there swiftly and brutally revoked her citizenship and denied her entry into her motherland. She was now in exile, and had no country. Fortunately, Ghana, Guinea and Belgium offered her international passports. By the time she passed away, Miriam Makeba had held nine different passports and honorary citizenship in 10 countries.
In 1966, she won the Grammy Award – alongside Harry Belafonte – for her album (An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba) depicting the struggles of black South Africans under the apartheid regime. It is one of the first American albums in which Zulu, Sotho and Swahili songs feature prominently. It was also the year she divorced Hugh Masekela.
However, her stay in the US was not perfect. Her marriage to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael was a blow to her popularity there, and she moved to Guinea, where she would spend the next 15 years of her life. There, she befriended President Ahmed Sekou Toure and his wife. In 1986, she represented Guinea at the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize. In 1978, she divorced Carmichael and married an airline executive two years later.
Her powerful voice and heart-warming smile conquered millions of audiences around Africa, Europe & Asia (America had lost their liking for her after her marriage to a member of an aggressive minority group – the Black Panthers).
She sang to a worldwide audience of 600 million people in her efforts to get Nelson Mandela out of jail on the 11th of June, 1988 (a musical concert organized to free Mandela from Robben Island). She was signed by Warner Bros to sing around the world.
Almost 2 years to the day, she took her French passport and finally returned to her motherland, a heroine returning from exile.
In 1992, her talents wowed audiences in “Sarafina!”, a movie that is now part of African pop culture.
7 years later, she was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the UN’S FAO, and she worked closely with Graça Machel in her quest to protect child soldiers, aid victims and the physically handicapped.
In the 2000s, she won the Sweden’s top musical honour – the Polar Music Prize – and the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold. She was voted 38th in the list of Greatest South Africans, and by 2005 she held a farewell tour in all of the countries she had visited – a sort of thank you for their unwavering support of her musical talent.
On the 9th of November 2008, she became ill whilst participating in a concert to support author Roberto Saviano in his campaign against an organized crime syndicate – the Camora. She suffered a heart-attack after singing her hit song “Pata Pata”, and passed away in the Pineta Grande Clinic near Caserta, Italy.
Miriam Makeba, the songbird who lived in exile, is an inspirational example of how a woman can use her natural talents to take on event the cruellest regimes. Despite their persecution of her, her voice won over millions, and her message managed to change her nation forever.