Miriam Makeba was a celebrated South African singer and prominent civil rights activist. During a long and remarkable career, she not only brought African music to Western ears, but was also a vociferous opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Zensi Miriam Makeba was born in a township suburb of Johannesburg in 1932. When she was just eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for the selling of homebrewed beer and she spent the first six months of her life in a prison. Further hardship befell the family with the premature death of Miriam’s father when she was still a child.
At the age of eighteen, whilst in a short-lived marriage to an abusive husband, Miriam gave birth to her only child, a daughter called Bongi.
She was surrounded by music throughout her childhood, sang in her school choir and by the mid-1950s Miriam was a full-time professional vocalist. She worked with several different ensembles, singing a blend of American jazz and traditional South African melodies. In 1956 she released her first single, Pata Pata, which shot her to fame throughout South Africa.
Miriam’s appearance in the 1959 anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa brought her to the attention of Harry Belafonte and he was instrumental in her move to America. She achieved tremendous touring and recording success there during the 1960s, winning both popular and critical acclaim. In 1967 she released Pata Pata for the United States and the song made her a star throughout the world. She introduced African melodies to mainstream audiences and was the first African singer to achieve international fame.
I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became the voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising.
Miriam had been old enough to understand the implications of apartheid when it was first imposed in South Africa in 1948. Through music, she expressed her opposition to this regime and spread a message of resistance. But her vocal anti-apartheid stance had devastating consequences. In 1960 Miriam discovered the South African government had cancelled her passport when she was prevented from returning home for her mother’s funeral. Thus she began 30 years in exile.
In 1963, having testified to the United Nations about the apartheid regime, Miriam’s South African citizenship and right of return were revoked. However, she was not short of adoptive nations and, throughout her life, held nine passports and had honorary citizenship in ten countries.
In 1964 Miriam married fellow South African musician, Hugh Masekela, though the couple divorced two years later. In 1968 Miriam married Black Panther leader, Stokely Carmichael, a match deemed hugely controversial by the American establishment. Consequently, her tours were cancelled and recording contracts withdrawn. The couple moved to Guinea, Miriam’s home for the next fifteen years, where she continued to record and to perform live.
Carmichael and Miriam divorced in 1978 and she married again, to a Belgian airline executive, in 1980. In 1985 Miriam’s daughter, Bongi, died following complications of childbirth leaving Miriam devastated by grief.
The following year Miriam worked with Paul Simon, performing as part of his hugely successful Graceland tour. This did cause some controversy as it contravened the UN cultural boycott which she had been instrumental in initiating.
In 1988 she performed at a concert held at Wembley Stadium to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. In 1990, with apartheid disintegrating, Mandela was released from prison and he persuaded Miriam to return to South Africa. She was welcomed home with open arms.
In the years which followed, Miriam helped to mould the newly freed South Africa and she served as a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN. She undertook humanitarian causes, working closely with the first lady, Graca Machel-Mandela, and she founded the Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for Women and Girls.
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 2005 she announced her retirement but, despite suffering with severe arthritis, continued to make public appearances. She died in November 2008 having suffered a heart attack whilst performing at a benefit concert in Italy.
Her legacy is immense; she released 23 studio albums, 5 live albums and a host of compilation albums and singles, made a variety of film and TV appearances, delighted live audiences worldwide and won innumerable honours and accolades. Loved and respected throughout the world, she was dubbed and remains Mama Africa.