Yesterday marked nine years since Miriam Makeba passed away.
More fondly known as Mama Africa, Makeba was a legendary singer who became an iconic voice in 1950s Sophiatown and a staunch opponent to Apartheid South Africa, internationally recognised as a cultural ambassador against the racist regime.
Born in Prospect Township, east of Johannesburg, South Africa on 4 March 1932, Zenzile Miriam Makeba was the daughter of a Swazi woman, Christina, and a Xhosa man, Caswell. She was the youngest of five children, including three sisters and one brother.
To generate extra income, Makeba’s mother Christina brewed and sold her own beer, an illegal activity that led to police raids and a six-month jail sentence. Makeba was only a few weeks old when her mother was sent to prison. She later moved and lived with her grandparents, in an environment where church was highly valued. It was at church where Makeba was exposed to and found her love of singing.
Makeba started singing professionally in 1954. In her first show as a professional singer, Makeba joined her cousin and his friends in their group, the Cuban Brothers, a South African all-male close harmony group, with whom she sang covers of popular American songs.
After performing at church, community and fundraising events with them, Makeba soon gained recognition as a talented singer. Due to Makeba’s popularity, the Manhattan Brothers, a famous local singing group, asked her to join their jazz band. Although they were able to tour the neighbouring countries of Southern and Northern Rhodesia in 1954, the group faced constant harassment by police at numerous checkpoints due to their race.
Round about the following year Makeba joined a women’s quartet called Skylarks, a women’s quartet that combined jazz and traditional African melodies.
Makeba started recording her own songs during these years, unfortunately at a time when the government began censoring music that was thought to be against the government. It was also around this time Makeba started performing African jazz in front of a white audience, an opportunity that led to her being offered an overseas performance in 1959. Before she left South Africa, Makeba recorded a song called Goodbye Mother, Goodbye Father, and to my little baby goodbye, until we meet again, a song that effectively marked the beginning of her years in exile.
Makeba became a popular singer in England. While recoding some of her music, she met American singer and songwriter Harry Belafonte, who played a pivotal role in the development of her career. He helped Makeba obtain a United States (U.S.) visa which led her to move to New York. While there, Makeba released two albums, in 1960 and 1963. Both albums made the billboard 200 in the U.S.
Despite having a successful career in the U.S., Makeba used her fame to start sharing her concerns about Apartheid. In 1963 Makeba took a stand at the United Nations (U.N.) to testify against Apartheid and asked the U.N. to try and free South Africa’s wrongfully jailed leaders. The South African government responded by revoking Makeba’s citizenship and passport. Unaware of her invalid citizenship and passport, Makeba tried to re-enter the country for her mother’s funeral, only to find she could not enter her home country South Africa. Makeba lived in exile for the next 30 years.
It was in the 1965 album titled An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, that Makeba first expressed her views on the Apartheid regime. This album spoke about the oppression of black South Africans and also informed listeners of Apartheid atrocities. One of the songs included in this album was Beware, Verwoerd!, a popular song amongst black South Africans talking about the founder of Apartheid, Hendrik Frensch (H.F.) Verwoerd. Although the song was not popular amongst white South Africans, it did inspire black South Africans to defy unjust Apartheid laws. Following the popularity of the subversive song, the South African government arrested anyone they caught singing it. Two years after Beware Verwoerd!, Makeba released another popular hit, the internationally renowned Pata Pata.
In 1983 Makeba released another successful album titled Mama Africa, as she was publicly recognised as ‘Mama Africa’ during this time. This album contained the song Sophiatown is Gone, which focused on the 1950s forced removals in Sophiatown, a suburb just outside Melville in Johannesburg. Many black South Africans who were forcibly removed from Sophiatown found solace in Makeba’s song, which drew the world’s attention to the inhumane treatment of ordinary South Africans by the Apartheid government.
Although Makeba fought for the rights of black South Africans during her exile, she also became involved in fighting for Civil Rights in America as black pop culture and arts became increasingly popular in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s. Singers such as Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Miriam Makeba performed in New York and various neighbouring cities to fight for civil rights.
Makeba also married Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968. Although they shared the same views on civil rights, Makeba’s records and tours were cancelled in the U.S. due to her marriage to the prominent member of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organisation in the U.S.
In 1968 Makeba and Stokely moved to Guinea, Africa, to fight for civil rights from there. Although both continued to fight for civil rights, Makeba and Stokely divorced in Guinea after separating in 1978. After the divorce, Makeba was still an active figure in the struggle movement, both in South Africa and America. In recognition of her efforts, she was awarded the Dag Hammerkjold Peace Prize by the Diplomatic Academy for Peace in 1968.
It was only in 1990 that Makeba was allowed to return to South Africa. Although hesitant at first, she returned to South Africa after 31 years of exile, following Mandela urging her to do so. In 1991 she worked with other South African artists to produce and release the album Eyes on Tomorrow. This album focused on the future of South Africa and gave hope to South Africans for a new tomorrow.
Makeba played a vital role in the struggle for freedom in both the anti-Apartheid movement and the Civil Rights movement. Her career as a singer helped her reach audiences and inform them of the atrocities of the Apartheid regime. Her cultural activism is being honoured in our #LongMarchtoFreedom, where she is celebrated as a struggle icon and local artist turned international celebrity during the darkest periods of South Africa’s racist regime.