Miriam Makeba – Mama Africa’s Story

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Miriam Makeba born on 3rd March 1932, was a South African woman whose story tells how life can bring one to great heights regardless of how low on the chain we begin. Makeba who was born in Johannesburg, was born to poor black parents and experience the time of the apartheid. Her mother was a traditional healer/herbalist and her father died when she was only six years old. Miriam spent her first time in jail already at the age of 18 days old (yes, days), her mother was arrested for selling home-made beer and sentence to prison for six months. Makeba’s humble beginnings could not tell of the great women she would grow into. Crowned as the empress of African music and known internationally as Mama Africa, Makeba not only turned the international spotlight to shine on African music for the first time internationally. She was also an actress, anti-apartheid activist, exiled from South Africa and offered residence by many other countries due to her fame.

Earlier Life in South Africa

As a child, she sang in the choir of the Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria and also in her town singing groups. Due to the early death of her father Miriam began working quite young, however, it was not long before she was recognised for her musical talents which she would elevate her from poverty and grant her dream of traveling around the world. At the age of 17 Miriam had both the best and the worst news of her life, her first and only daughter Bongi was born but she was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Thanks to her mothers African healing methods Miriam was successfully treated and cured.

Around 1950 she sang with her cousin’s Cuban Brothers, then from 1954 until 1957 with the popular Manhattan Brothers and finally with a female vocal group called The Skylarks. In 1959 Miriam’s career rockets, first she took over the female lead in the musical “King Kong” and became well known all over South Africa and secondly she gained a short role in the movie “Come Back Africa”, which was an anti-apartheid film, demonstrating the negative and brutal effects of the apartheid that had begun in 1948. This role that was of Miriam playing herself and singing two songs in Shebeen and that also earned her even more fame was unfortunately a double edge sword. For the first time Miriam had the opportunity to travel outside of Africa, when Lionel Rogosin the Venice film festival director had her flown in to receive her award in person. The double edge came as Miriam became publicly an open anti-apartheid supporter, which would endanger her life if she returned to South Africa. Never being able to exercise the choice to return due to being official banned from South Africa Miriam would begin her 31 year of exile and citizenship to the world.

Life in Exile

“Come Back Africa” made Miriam a celebrity over night and a special treat to westerns who had heard little of African music let alone to be confronted with the powerful and majestic voice of Miriam. After her trip to Venice she was then flown to New York where she appeared on television and played at the Village Vanguard Jazz club. She was taken under the wing of Harry Belafonte who saw that she recorded her first solo recordings ‘Pata Pata’ and the Click Song that were both sensations that swept the US overnight making Miriam the most renowned female artist in America at that time. Adored by white Americans for the refreshing style that she brought to America glamorous music industry she also was loved by black Americans who saw her success as uplifting to the black community that was deep in struggle of civil rights whilst reinforcing their African roots. It goes without saying that Miriam was as unique to the American industry as spotting a black panther, she was graceful, shy and meek in character but carried slender beauty with such defying eloquence with a  voice that would shake up even the most stubborn of souls. Miriam also refused to wear make-up or curl her hair for shows, preferring to be naturally herself.

It wasn’t until Miriam tried to return home for her mother’s funeral in 1960 that she realised that she had become an exile from her homeland. In the same year Miriam signed with RCA Records and released her first studio album under her name Miriam Makeba.

Marilyn Monroe was not the only lady to sing for the president despite common misconception, in 1962 Miriam sung at President J. F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden. As she could not attend the after party due to being sick President Kennedy sent a car to pick her up as he insisted on meeting with her.

In 1963 Miriam released her second album ‘The World of Miriam Makeba’, that same year Miriam also testified against the apartheid to the United Nations which ensure that she would not receive a revocation on her exile. Though other countries such as Belgium and Guinea and Ghana offered Miriam citizenship, she would remain in the US for a few more years. In 1966 Miriam won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording for her album with Harry Belafonte called Evening with Belafonte/Makeba which dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under the apartheid.

Miriam did not only find fame in America but also romance, she married Trinidad-born civil rights activist and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, due to her husbands Black Power profile Miriam became a persona non grata in the US bringing a slow death to her blemishless career in the US, her record deals and concerts were cancelled. Miriam and Carmichael moved to Guinea which would be her home for the next 15 years despite her later separation with her husband.

After the death of her only daughter in 1985, Miriam moved to Brussels, sometime after she met Hugh Masekela and Paul Simon, and began the very successful Graceland Tours that were documented on music video. 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. Shortly after her autobiography ‘Makeba: My Story’ was released. Miriam continued to make prestigious public appearances around the world, including Nelson Madela’s 70th Birthday Tribute. 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.

Miriam’s return to South Africa

On 10th June 1990 Miriam returned to South Africa on her French passport. In 1991, Makeba, with Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone and Masekela, recorded and released her studio album, Eyes on Tomorrow. 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!.

On 16 October 1999, Miriam Makeba was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). She also 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.


Awards and Achievements

In 2001 Miriam 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.  In 2004, Makeba was voted 38th in the Top 100 Great South Africans.

Later Years

In 2005 Miriam announced her retirement from music but as she still remained popular abroad she found that many were requesting that she performed a goodbye concert, so Miriam began her farewell tour which lead up to her death. Retirement did not mean that Miriam would become inactive in fact she began to concentrate even more on humanitarian endeavours, she kept on taking care of her Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation, including the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre For (abused, ed.) Girls.

Miriam Makeba died on the 9th November 2008, whilst performing 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. She suffered a heart-attack whilst performing her hit song ‘Pata Pata’.

“Masakhane”, one of her songs, means: “Let’s build together!” That’s what she has been standing for as an artist and as a person for her entire life, and this is how the world will remember one of the greatest and most endearing Lady singers of the 20th century.


Pata Pata 

The Click Song

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