Miriam Makeba aka Mama Africa

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Miriam Makeba aka Mama Africa

Miriam “Zenzi” Makeba was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1932 to parents Caswell and Christina makeba. During the time of her birth the country was facing an economic depression and apartheid. At the age of 18 days Miriam and her mother were imprisoned for illegally brewing beer; her mother was only trying to make sure her children had food to eat. In 1948 South African Prime Minister Daniel Malan made segregation legal, which was oppressive to the South Africans in their own land. Makeba’s father moved their family to Prospect Township which is located just outside of Johannesburg. The Township was rundown without electricity and mostly populated with poor people.

Makeba’s father died and she began working to help her mother support the family; shortly after she was sent to live with her grandmother in Riverside, Pretoria. Music was Makeba’s love from a young age, singing is what she used to escape her harsh living conditions; music was also her ticket out of poverty forever. She was first known for singing at the Methodist Training school in Pretoria. Makeba and other children her age were slated to sing for King George VI of the United Kingdom. It is said that King George VI drove by the children standing in the rain causing them to miss their chance to sing.

In 1950 at the age of seventeen Makeba gave birth to her only child, a little girl name Bongi with her first husband James Kubay. Shortly after becoming a mother Makeba was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband left her. She survived the cancer diagnosis through treatment from her mother, and later that year her life would change forever. Het musical career began as a singer with the Cuban Brothers, and in 1954 she began singing with the Manhattan Brothers, a popular jazz group in South Africa. She also appeared on a poster for the first time in her career which helped to boost her popularity. She later began singing with an all-female group called the Skylarks and recorded over one hundred songs with the group. 1956 was the year Makeba released her song “Pata Pata” which became a hit and made her a household name.

In 1957 Makeba embarked on an 18 month tour as a solo artist throughout Africa and in 1959 she married South African singer Sonny Pillay. That same year she made a cameo in the South African anti-apartheid documentary film Come Back, Africa, which was directed by independent film maker Lionel Rogosin. The film made its debut at the Venice Film Festival in Italy and won the Critics Award. The film and the award helped Makeba not only become a star in South Africa, but she was becoming an international star. Later that year she would gain the lead role in the musical King Kong, and she made her American debut on The Steve Allen Show.

Makeba traveled to London to work with Harry Belafonte who mentored her early in her solo career. Belafonte helped Makeba enter into the United States and become successful singer. In 1960 Makeba returned to South Africa to attend her mother’s funeral, she also learned that her passport was no longer valid and she was placed in exile.  Later in 1960 Makeba released her first studio album Miriam Makeba, two years later she and Harry Belafonte sang for President John Kennedy at his birthday party in Madison Square Garden. In 1963 she released her second studio album The World of Miriam Makeba which reached number eighty-six on the Billboard top 200 chart. Later in 1960 Makeba testified in front of the United Nations against apartheid in South Africa. To show that they disapproved of her actions the South African Government revoked Makeba’s citizenship from her homeland.  Guinea, Belgium and Ghana quickly offered Makeba international passports along with seven other countries, where she became a citizen of those countries.

In 1966 Makeba and Harry Belafonte received a Grammy Award for their socially conscious anti-apartheid album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. She was known for not wearing makeup and wearing her hair “natural” which would make her one of the celebrity predecessor of the “natural or the afro look.” In 1967 her song “Pata Pata” became a hit in the United States ten years after its release in South Africa. She married former Black Panther and Civil Rights leader Stokley Carmichael in 1968, this caused much controversy with Makeba’s record labels in the U.S. Record deals and tour dates were cancelled; this was her record labels showing her they disapproved of her marriage. They moved to Guinea where Makeba would live for the next fifteen years and was appointed Guinea’s delegate to the nations; she also received the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986.

In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison for his 70th birthday and South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk reversed the ban on the National African Congress. Mandela would convince Makeba to return to using her French passport. She would later record her album Eyes on Tomorrow with Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and Masakela. Gillespie and Makeba traveled the world promoting the album. Makeba appeared on The Cosby Show, “Olivia Comes Out of the Closet”, as well as the movie Sarafina!  In 1999 Makeba was nominated for the Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In 2000 her album Homeland was nominated for a Grammy Award. She also worked with Graça Machel-Mandela South Africa’s first lady, to combat HIV/AIDS, child soldiers and to advocate for the physically handicapped.  In 2008 after a performance in Italy, Makeba suffered a heart attack and never recovered. In 2009 singer and songwriter Angélique Kidjo honored her with a show titled “Hommage à Miriam Makeba. From the time she was a little girl she left her mark on anyone she came into contact with. She used her platform to help fight apartheid and injustice against the people in South Africa. Miriam Makeba aka “Mama Africa,” we proudly stand on your shoulders.


J.A. Ward.

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