Miriam Makeba: Mama Africa

A recent song by the singer Jain describes Miriam Makeba as “the real beauty of human rights” (Jain, Makeba). This is not an understatement. With her music, words, actions, and writings, Miriam Makeba lived a life dedicated to art and bringing justice during the time of South African apartheid. However, her life did not begin surrounded by beauty; her mother was imprisoned when Makeba was 17 days old, so her first weeks of life were spent in jail. Her father died when she was six, and also in her childhood she saw a relative killed by a wild cat. At 17, Makeba got pregnant, and spent a full week in labor delivering her daughter, Bongi. Shortly after, Makeba developed an abscess in her breast, which was cured by her mother’s traditional medicinal practices (Nelson, 1988).

Makeba’s adulthood was also marked by trauma. She witnessed the devastating effects of institutionalized racism in South Africa when she and her bandmates were involved in a car crash, and only the white victims in the other car were rescued, resulting in the death of three of her bandmates. She was also in an abusive relationship with her first husband, whom she eventually divorced, and followed with 5 marriages–her third nearly ruining her career. Furthermore, Makeba’s daughter died at 35, giving birth to a stillborn child (BBC News, 2008).

While Makeba faced many hardships in her life, she is primarily known for her musicianship and activism. She toured with multiple bands in South Africa, and in 1959 came to the US to play a lead in the musical King Kong. Notably, she sang in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back Africa; this appearance was noted by the South African government, and resulted in her exile from the country for 30 years. During this time, her career in the United States skyrocketed, due in part to Harry Belafonte scouting her and helping her navigate the music industry. Her enormous fame included singing at John F Kennedy’s famous birthday party (the same one where Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday), winning a grammy and other accolades, and becoming the first black women to have a top-ten worldwide hit. Initially, she rejected the label “political singer,” but later embraced her role as a political figure; she spoke at the UN twice, once specifically against apartheid in South Africa, sang at the independence ceremonies of many African nations, and used to her music to communicate political messages. She was also critical of the racialized structures in the US, comparing the treatment of African Americans to that of black Africans in South Africa. Makeba was also a trendsetter; she kept her hair natural, which helped inspired the “Afro Look” which became popular among black women in the US. Unfortunately, her career in the US was effectively dismantled when she married the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe, Stokely Carmichael. She had a falling out with Bellafonte on account of her marriage, and was followed and harassed by the FBI. So, she moved to Guinea and made her living performing there and in Europe, remaining immensely popular (Nelson, 1988). In 1987, she came back to the US for the Graceland tour with Paul Simon, and returned to South Africa in 1990, persuaded by Nelson Mandela. Makeba dedicated herself to art and justice up to her final moments; she died in 2008 from a heart attack during a concert in Italy (BBC News, 2008). Today, she remains a cultural icon, a musical genius, and the beauty of human rights.


Featured Image: nytimes.com

Works Cited:

BBC News. “Obituary: Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba.” BBC News. BBC, 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

TheSoulAlmighty.. “Miriam Makeba – Click Song (Qongqothwane)” Online video clip. Youtube.com. May 23, 2012. Web. Accessed February 8th, 2017.

Nelson, J. (1988, Apr 01). Makeba’s tormented melody; A daughter of apartheid dons the mantle of the struggle. The Washington Post (Pre-1997 Fulltext)Retrieved from http://ezproxy.westmont.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/306997469?accountid=14990

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