I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising.
Zenzile Miriam Makeba born on the 4th of March 1932 to Swazi and Xhosa parents, was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist. Makeba went to prison with her mother when she was only eighteen days old. Her mother a Sangoma or traditional healer,was imprisoned for 6 months for ‘ illegally’ brewing an African beer called Umqombothi,
Makeba’s brief first marriage at the age of 17 to James Kubay produced her only child Angela Sibongile ‘Bongi’ Makeba.
In an interview Miriam described that her love for music began at a very young age. She started her music career when she joined and sang with Cuban Brothers, a South African all-male band in 1952 before joining Manhattan Brothers a popular South African local Jazz band in 1954.
Miriam lived in Sophiatown in the early 1950s, a vibrant town that still allowed the mixing of all races before its destruction in 1956. It was the epicentre of politics, jazz and blues during the 1940s to 1950s. Miriam’s career took off gaining popularity, touring in South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Congo with the band until 1957.
In 1959 Makeba met an American independent filmaker Lionel Rogosin who was shooting a film Come Back, Africa. Lionel offered Miriam a brief role in the film singing two songs. This had a significant impact on her music career as she started to gain international exposure.
She subsequently left South Africa to perform in Venice, London, and New York City. Whilst in London,Makeba met Harry Belafonte , he was taken by her talent and he immediately took her under his wing as her mentor and colleague. Harry helped Makeba’s first solo recordings, these included famous songs like Pata, Pata and a version of the traditional Xhosa song Qongqothwane (The Click Song), which she had first performed with the Skylarks, an all women South African band she founded in the 1950s.
Miriam Makeba’s Life in Exile
Shortly after the Sharpevile Massacre in 1960, Miriam Makeba’s mother died, she tried to return to South Africa to mourn and bury her mother, but was unable to because her passport had been revoked. She had been banned by the South African Apartheid government because they didn’t like what she represented in the anti-apatheid film Come Back, Africa.
Miriam was banned a second time when she addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1963. To her amusement even though Makeba and her music were banned, South African Apartheid government still used her images for advertising. She particularly highlights the stupidity of the apartheid system in that ,they just heard of a book called Black Beauty and banned it without even knowing its about a horse.
She pled with world leaders to help stop the atrocities in apartheid South Africa. Millions of native black South Africans were being tortured, discriminated and killed simply because of the colour of their skin. In 1986, Makeba was awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize.
Miriam Makeba lived in exile for about 32 years.
Her life was fraught with pain, loss and a yearning for home.She found solace in her music which had also been banned in her home country in 1962. In the early 1960s, Miriam shot to fame in the USA quite quickly. She sang at the birthday party of former US President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. She received a Grammy award for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba in 1966. She had also been the first black female to enjoy a Top Ten worldwide hit with Pata Pata in 1967. In total, she recorded 4 albums in the USA. Some of her admirers included Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Nina Simone, Miles Davis among many others.
Miriam married famous South African Jazz musician Hugh Masekela in 1964 whom she had peformed with a Broadway- inspired South African jazz opera King Kong in 1959. They’re marriage however was not meant to be, lasting for only two years. They divorced in 1966. In 1968, she married militant African American civil rights activist as well as Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael .
Two days after her marriage to Stokely, Makeba sadly learnt that all her concerts had been cancelled. People believed by promoting her art as a musician the proceeds she earned would go towards funding the radical outspoken movement of her husband Stokely who was not liked by many. She and her husband eventually moved to Guineau, having been harrassed persistantly by the US government. They separated in 1978.
Guineau became Makeba’s home for the next 15 years. She toured Europe, Africa and America in the 1970s as well as 1980s. She was loved and well connected to most African leaders, the likes of former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, former Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, among many others. She was treated like royalty everywhere she travelled especially in Africa and gained favour among many influntetial people throughout the world.
Miriam spoke multiple languages, had an ethnic, authentic African look and carried herself with confidence and grace. Makeba said of individuals imitating her look’:”I see different black females imitate the style of mine, which happens to be no type at all, but simply letting our hair style be itself. They call it the “Afro Look.”
She became affectionately known as Mama Africa as she embraced Africa’s rich, diverse culture and identity. She truly believed in a United Africa and its said that it broke her heart that the cause she believed in and sacrified much for did not come to fruition in her time, Africa still struggles to unite. The leaders she knew had all gone and those that were coming into power were under neo-coloniasm, still doing the bidding for their colonial masters.
The 1980s were a tough time for Makeba. Her only child and daughter Bongi died in 1985 due to complications in child birth. Miriam was never the same again, she struggled with alcohol abuse throughout this particular period. Miram is also a surviver of both breast and cervical cancer.
In 1987, she joined American folk singer Paul Simon’s extremely effective Graceland tour to a newly independent Zimbabwe. The concert featured multicultural sounds & drew attention to racist policies still common in South Africa.
Following Graceland, Miriam was in great demand, peforming for heads of state, as well as the Pope.
In 1990, ANC leader Nelson Mandela was freed after twenty seven years in prison and urged Miriam Makeba to come back to South Africa.
She subsequently returned, after thirty two years in exile.
Following her return to South Africa, Makeba struggled to find collaborators, but 6 years later she created the album Homeland. In 1997, she embarked on her Farewell Tour and also appeared in the film Mama by Veronique Patte Doumbe. In 1998 she toured Africa, the USA as well as Europe and sold out theatres.In 1992, she starred in the film Sarafina!, which centred on students involved in the 1976 Soweto uprising. In 2002, Makeba starred in Lee Hirsch’s exciting and opulent documentary Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, regarding the effective part of music in the struggle against apartheid.
Makeba has received honorary doctorates from both local as well as international academic institutions. The city of Berkeley proclaimed the sixteenth of June to be Miriam Makeba Day and she’s been given probably the highest decoration from Tunisia. In 1999, Nelson Mandela presented her with the Presidential Award
In 2005, Makeba announced her retirement from mainstream music business though she continued to make appearances and also to do smaller performances. Throughout her career Miriam Makeba always insisted that she was not a political singer she didn’t understand what that meant, she simply sang the truth.
She continued her humanitarian work through her Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation, as well as the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for abused females. She also advocated against drug abuse as well as promoting HIV/Aids awareness. She became President Mbeki’s Goodwill Ambassador to the UN.
Makeba died on November 9th, in 2008, at the age seventy six. She suffered a heart attack during a concert in Castel Volturno, near Caserta, Italy following a peformance of her hit song “Pata Pata” , and was taken to the Pineta Grande clinic, where doctors were unable to revive her.
Zenzile Miriam Makeba still lives on through the rich legacy she left behind.
Aluta Continua Mama Africa!