Miriam Makeba, Singer and Anti-Apartheid Activist

Miriam Makeba, widely known as “Mama Africa,” was exiled from her home of South Africa for her revolutionary words and songs, but was widely respected for speaking—and singing—the truth about racism in the country. Among other accomplishments, including acting as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, she continued performing into her 70s and exposed many Westerners to African music.

Miriam Makeba’s Early Days

Miriam Makeba was born on March 4, 1932, near Johannesburg, South Africa. She was nicknamed “Zenzi,” from a Xhosa phrase meaning “you have no one to blame but yourself.” She spent much of the first six months of her life in prison with her mother, a domestic worker and spiritual healer who was arrested for selling home-made beer when Miriam was just 18 days old.

Makeba lost her father at a young age and she was sent to live with her grandmother so her mother could continue working. But the tragedy led to positive developments in the child’s life; her grandmother’s was a musical household. Makeba learned traditional African songs and explored other musical styles, such as jazz, by listening to the radio and records. Makeba gave her first solo performance at the age of 13, when her high school choir sang for King George VI of England.

Makeba joined a popular group, the Manhattan Brothers, in 1954 and recorded one of her best-known songs, “Pata Pata.” She branched out and began performing throughout South Africa and in other nations.

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Makeba’s Notable Accomplishments

During her early performances in the 1950s, Makeba began to devote songs to the South Africa’s struggles under apartheid, which had been implemented in 1948. She was only 27 when she was exiled from South Africa after appearing in a documentary that criticized apartheid during a tour of the United States. She would not see her native country for over 30 years.

Makeba set out to make a permanent home for herself in the United States. She told NPR in 2006, “Mostly it was painful that I couldn’t come home to bury my mother.” She also said about her decision to sing about South Africa: “From then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics.”

But her success only grew in the face of adversity. A performance on the Steve Allen show in 1959 during her early days in New York gained her wider American attention. Singer Harry Belafonte aided Makeba as she made her way in the United States. The duo later won Grammy Award for their collaboration, “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba”.

Makeba also released several solo albums. Her most well-known works are “The Click Song,” a traditional wedding song, and “Wimoweh,” a lion-hunting song for Zulu tribesmen. She continued incorporating elements of jazz and folk, as well as Portuguese and Yiddish tunes long before people talked about “world music.”

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Makeba, who continued to perform into her 70s, also pursued other work, including becoming a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and setting up a school for destitute young girls in South Africa.

She died November 10, 2008, after performing in a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an Italian Journalist who received death threats after publishing his book about organized crime. She suffered a heart attack following the performance and was taken to a hospital in nearby Naples.

Makeba’s passing was profoundly felt in South Africa. Arts and Culture Ministry spokesman Sandile Memela said, “It’s a monumental loss not only to South African society in general but for humanity.”

This article was originally written by Cara McDonough; it was updated January 13, 2017.