Zenzile Miriam Makeba (b. March 4, 1932 – d.11/9/08,) nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, and civil rights activist. Associated with musical genres including Afropop, jazz, and world music, she was an advocate against apartheid and white-minority government in South Africa.
Born in Johannesburg to Swazi and Xhosa parents, Makeba was forced to find employment as a child after the death of her father. She had a brief and allegedly abusive first marriage at the age of 17, gave birth to her only child in 1950, and survived breast cancer. Her vocal talent had been recognized when she was a child, and she began singing professionally in the 1950s, with the Cuban Brothers, the Manhattan Brothers, and an all-woman group, the Skylarks, performing a mixture of jazz, traditional African melodies, and Western popular music. In 1959, Makeba had a brief role in the anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa, which brought her international attention, and led to her performing in Venice, London, and New York City. In London, she met the American singer Harry Belafonte, who became a mentor and colleague. She moved to New York City, where she became immediately popular, and recorded her first solo album in 1960. Her attempt to return to South Africa that year for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the country’s government.
Makeba’s career flourished in the United States, and she released several albums and songs, her most popular being “Pata Pata” (1967). Along with Belafonte she received a Grammy Award for her 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. She testified against the South African government at the United Nations and became involved in the civil rights movement. She married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party, in 1968. As a result, she lost support among white Americans. The US government cancelled her visa while she was travelling abroad, leading her and Carmichael to move to Guinea. She continued to perform, mostly in African countries, including at several independence celebrations. She began to write and perform music more explicitly critical of apartheid; the 1977 song “Soweto Blues“, written by her former husband Hugh Masekela, was about the Soweto uprising. After apartheid was dismantled in 1990, Makeba returned to South Africa. She continued recording and performing, including a 1991 album with Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, and appeared in the 1992 film Sarafina!. She was named a UN goodwill ambassador in 1999, and campaigned for humanitarian causes. She died of a heart attack during a 2008 concert in Italy.
Makeba’s daughter Bongi, who was a singer in her own right and had often accompanied her mother on stage, died in childbirth in 1985. Makeba was left responsible for her two grandchildren, and decided to move out of Guinea. She settled in the Woluwe-Saint-Lambert district of the Belgian capital Brussels. In the following year, Masekela introduced Makeba to Paul Simon, and a few months later she embarked on Simon’s very successful Graceland Tour. The tour concluded with two concerts held in Harare, Zimbabwe, which were filmed in 1987 for release as Graceland: The African Concert. After touring the world with Simon, Warner Bros. Records signed Makeba and she released Sangoma (“Healer”), an album of healing chants named in honour of her sangoma mother. Her involvement with Simon caused controversy: Graceland had been recorded in South Africa, breaking the cultural boycott of the country, and thus Makeba’s participation in the tour was regarded as contravening the boycott (which Makeba herself endorsed.)
In preparation for the Graceland tour, she worked with journalist James Hall to write an autobiography titled Makeba: My Story. The book contained descriptions of her experience with apartheid, and was also critical of the commodification and consumerism she experienced in the US. The book was translated into five languages.
Makeba was among the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition. She brought African music to a Western audience, and popularized the world music and Afropop genres. She also made popular several songs critical of apartheid, and became a symbol of opposition to the system, particularly after her right to return was revoked. Upon her death, former South African President Nelson Mandela said that “her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”
Miriam Makeba (1960)
The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba (1962)
An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965)
Comme une symphonie d’amour (1979)
The Queen of African Music (1987)
Eyes on Tomorrow (1991)
“Lakutshn, Ilanga”/Lovely Lies” (1956)
“Sophiatown is Gone”
“The Click Song” / “Mbube” (1963)
“Pata Pata” (1967)
“Malcolm X” (1974)
“Soweto Blues” (1977)
“Thula Sizwe/I Shall Be Released” (1991)
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Makeba was described as a style icon, both in her home country and the US. She wore no makeup and refused to straighten her hair for shows, thus helping establish a style that came to be known internationally as the “Afro look”. According to music scholar Tanisha Ford, her hairstyle represented a “liberated African beauty aesthetic”. She was seen as a beauty icon by South African schoolgirls, who were compelled to shorten their hair by the apartheid government. Makeba stuck to wearing African jewelry; she disapproved of the skin-lighteners commonly used by South African women at the time, and refused to appear in advertisements for them. Her self-presentation has been characterized by scholars as a rejection of the predominantly white standards of beauty that women in the US were held to, which allowed Makeba to partially escape the sexualization directed at women performers during this period.
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