The Story of Miriam Makeba aka Mama Africa

“I look at an ant and I see myself, a native South African endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit. I look at a bird and I see myself, a native South African soaring above the injustices of apartheid on the wings of pride, the pride of a beautiful people. I look at a stream, and I see myself, a native South African flowing irresistibly over hard obstacles until they have become smooth and one day, disappear – flowing from an origin that has been forgotten toward an end that will never be.”

These powerful words are from Miriam Makeba’s autobiographical book, Makeba: My Story. It embodies the strength, humility, and grace that she carried and shone in her music. Miriam Makeba was a South African Grammy award-winner and activist who faced a 30-year exile from South Africa because of her criticism of the Apartheid Government. Dubbed as Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba let her love for her people, motherland, and hopes for the future seep into her music. She stayed true to herself and sang in both English and Xhosa, her strong voice bringing warmth to those who heard her. Miriam Makeba had not set out to be an activist, but through her music, she came to represent that and more.

Photo: Miriam Makeba

Makeba was born in a township near Johannesburg in March 1932. From an early age, she had a gift for singing and started singing for her choir at the Kilnerton Training Institute, an all-black Methodist primary school. Miriam began her professional career performing with the Cuban Brothers, then joined the Manhattan Brothers, an all-male jazzy group at the age of 21. It was at that time she started building a national reputation. In 1956, while the Manhattan Brothers were abroad she joined an all-female group, The Skylarks, where she sang a mix of jazz and traditional South African melodies. Her reputation started to grow even more and landed a lead role in a South African Jazz Opera, King Kong. It was here that she met Hugh Masekela, a great South African musician who would later become her husband, and write noted anti-apartheid songs for her such as ‘Soweto Blues’.

Her rise to international stardom came when she guest-starred in the 1959 anti-apartheid film, ‘Come Back, Africa’. In the film, one of the songs she performs is, ‘Into the Yam’, and her performance garnered international critical acclaim. When performing ‘Into the Yam’, she starts out singing rather softly, a big yet nervous smile across her face. As the song goes on, she starts to get into the rhythm and stands up swaying her shoulders as she belts out the song. Her cameo was short but undoubtedly a stand out performance. Her performance was so powerful that the director helped her get a visa so that she could see the premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The film’s success propelled her into the international limelight resulting in her traveling much more. While in London, she met Harry Belafonte who became her mentor. It was in that same year that she moved to New York and made her US Television debut in December on the Steve Allen show. Her life was however set to take a drastic turn.

Into the Yam: Come Back, Africa

On March 21, 1960, in a township called Sharpsville, the Pan-Africanist Congress organized an Anti-Apartheid protest. Under Apartheid, Black people had to carry a pass when they were in white areas. The protest was in front of the police station and officers fired into the unarmed crowd continuing to shoot as people turned to run. Several protestors were shot in the back as they ran for their lives. 69 people lost their lives and 180 more were injured. The brutality of the incident garnered worldwide criticism. Makeba learned that two of her family members were killed in the Massacre. Her mother passed away soon after. Makeba was still abroad and when she tried to fly back to South Africa after her mother died, she found out that the South African government had cancelled her passport. The Massacre and heartbreak that came from losing family as well as the right to enter back into her home molded Makeba into an even stauncher Anti-Apartheid activist.

Despite being unable to go back home, she was welcome almost everywhere else. In 1962, she performed at the famous birthday party for President JFK and continued to make music and perform. Her role as an activist was also growing. Makeba appeared in front of the United Nations in 1963 to talk against the Apartheid government. Her speech was passionate, unquivering, and moving and would once again cement her role as an activist. Shortly after the speech, however, the South African government took away her Citizenship. Once again, Makeba rose above these injustices and continued making music.

“Miss Makeba is seen as she exchanged views with Mr. Karseno Sasmojo, of Indonesia’s Permanent Mission to the UN, shortly before the meeting opened.” Photo Source: ,,United Nations. Flickr

Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie invited Makeba to perform at the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity and she went on to perform at several of the inauguration parties for countries including Kenya and Zambia to name a few. Her music continued to focus on the plight of Black people under Apartheid. Her album with Belafonte, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, focused on the Black struggle in South Africa and won a Grammy in 1965. Her popularity in the US started to decline a few years later, however, because of her marriage to Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael). Kwame Ture was a vital figure in the Black power movement in the United States as well as the Pan-African movement worldwide. Their marriage meant that she was no longer welcome in the United States and she found herself being tapped and followed by both the CIA and FBI. Makeba and Ture moved to Guinea as the President was offering a haven to political exiles. While they were only together until 1973 and divorced in 1979, she continued to have ties with Guinea becoming an Ambassador to the United States and living in Guinea for 15 years in total.

Her music always pointed out the injustices happening in South Africa. ‘Soweto Blues’, a song written for her by Hugh Masekela is a perfect example of that. The song was about the Soweto Uprisings which occurred after the South African government passed a law that changed the language used in schools from English to Afrikaans in 1976. Thousands of students went out in protest ending with the police firing at the students. Hundreds of children were killed.

Miriam Makeba was in exile for almost 30 years until the Apartheid government fell in the 1990s. Upon Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he persuaded her to come back to South Africa. While back in South Africa, she continued to perform and take part in several movies, she also established the Makeba Home for Girls: a home for orphans. Makeba tragically passed away on November 9, 2008, due to a heart attack while performing in Italy.

Makeba built a legacy and will forever be remembered for her fearlessness and the embodiment of African pride and strength.

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