Miriam Makeba - Mama Africa

Singer-songwriter and advocate for the rights of Black people across the world

by
Marijke Everts (Europeana Foundation)

South African musician Miriam Makeba was born in a township near Johannesburg in 1932, becoming known through the 1960s as a world famous singer-songwriter and advocate for the rights of Black people across the world.

Throughout the 1960s, Makeba and her music reinforced her involvement with various black political movements like Black Power, anti-apartheid, the civil rights and Black Consciousness.

After early musical success in South Africa, 1959 saw the beginning of Makeba’s international career.

Her small guest appearance in the anti-apartheid film Come back, Africa and her role as the female lead in Todd Matshikiza’s musical King Kong, both in 1959, kickstarted her career abroad.

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She performed in London, where she met the Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte, who became her mentor, helping her with her first solo recordings. In November 1959, she made her debut on television in the USA, and moved to New York.

In 1952, the white-minority South African government introduced pass laws, an internal segregative passport system. During protests against these laws in 1960, 69 people were killed and 180 injured in what is known as the Sharpeville massacre. Those killed included two members of Makeba's family.

Shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, she learned that her mother had died - as her passport had been cancelled, she was not allowed to return to South Africa for her mother's funeral. Feeling that she had a responsibility as someone who had been able to leave the country while others couldn't, she became increasingly outspoken about apartheid and the white-minority government.

Her music appealled to people of different backgrounds especially Black Americans who related her struggles against apartheid to their own struggle against racial segregation which she also faced while living in the US.

'There wasn't much difference in America; it was a country that had abolished slavery but there was apartheid in its own way.'

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In 1962, she testified against the apartheid system before the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid. This led to her South African citizenship and her right to return being revoked as well as her music being banned.

As a result of this, she was given passports by Algeria, Ghana, Belgium and Guinea, and would later hold nine passports in her life as well as citizenship to ten countries. She would later testify again in 1964 calling for actions against the South African government.

She married the Trinidadian-American civil rights activist and prominent Black Panther figure Stokely Carmichael in 1968. This resulted in her being labeled an extremist by Conservatives while the CIA kept a close eye on her movements as well as setting up recording devices in her apartment.

Due to her marriage to Carmchichael, her popularity in the US declined specifically with her White audience. When she was banned from returning to the country after a trip to the Bahamas, she moved to Guinea along with her husband and did not return to the US until 1987.

Makeba and her husband developed a close frienship with Guinea's president Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife Andrée. Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture in honour of the exiled president of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah and Touré who had both become his mentors.

As more African countries gained their independence from European colonial powers she was invited to perform at independence ceremonies. She toured Europe and Asia as well but her performances in Africa were extremely popular, she became the highlight of festivals with ‘Pata Pata’ bringing the Liberian crowd to hysterics to the point that she could not finish the song. Makeba later recalled that it was during this period she accepted being referred to as 'Mama Africa'.

By 1978 Makeba and Ture divorced, and after her daughter Bongi's death during childbirth in 1985, she decided to move to Belgium with her grandchildren. Three years later, she took part in the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert in London which was used to raise awareness of apartheid. A survery after the concert found that support for Mandela's release from prison grew.

In 1990, with increasing international and domestic pressure from the Anti-appartheid movement, South African State President Frederik Willem de Klerk reversed the ban on anti-appartheid organisations and released Mandela from prison.

Makeba was an anti-colonialist that called for 'Africans who live everywhere should fight everywhere. The struggle is no different in South Africa, the streets of Chicago, Trinidad or Canada. The Black people are the victims of capitalism, racism and oppression, period'.

With the end of the South African apartheid system in the 1990s, Mandela persuaded Makeba to return. She live there until her death while on tour in Italy in 2008 aged 78. Makeba is credited for bringing African music to a global audience and for being a pioneer of the emerging genre of world music.

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