Remembering: Miriam Makeba [1932 - 2008]
Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1932. This was a time when black people lived under the heavy yoke of white colonial rule. Her father was a teacher who passed away when she was only six years old and her mother was a traditional healer and domestic worker. The first few months of Miriam's existence were spent in prison. This is because soon after giving birth, her mother was imprisoned for six months for brewing illicit beer.
Her natural singing talent was discovered at a very young age when she used to sing at church. She performed her first solo during the 1947 Royal Visit and her professional career kicked off when she started performing with various bands during the 1950s. Her charisma also secured her appearances in two massive films at the time, Come Back Africa (1957) and King Kong (1959). Her reputation was cemented both at home and abroad and doors started to open for her to travel outside the country. She was invited to the Venice Film Festival in 1959 to personally receive an award for her role in Come Back Africa. She wasted no time using her platform to let the rest of the world know exactly what was going on in South Africa.
The hostile South African government was not pleased with the negative attention they received after their oppressive policies were exposed. They hastily revoked Miriam's passport while she was overseas and banned her records from being played in the country. She only discovered that her citizenship had been stripped when she tried to return to South Africa for her mother's funeral in 1960.
From Venice, she briefly took up refuge in London where she met American Jazz legend Harry Belafonte. He helped her move to the USA where American audiences instantly fell in love with her. She started mixing up with notable figures in entertainment and politics and some of her admirers included Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Bette Davis and Marlon Brando. Her popularity was such that she was invited to perform for former US president John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Despite the fame and success, she remained outspoken against the apartheid regime in South Africa and even testified at the United Nations in 1963. She also actively acquainted herself with the struggle of black people in America at the time.
Her internationally acclaimed song; 'Qongqothwane' (The 'Click' Song) was recorded during this period. In total, she managed to record four albums while exiled in the USA. She won a Grammy award for An Evening with Harry Belafonte in 1965 and became the first black woman to have a Top 10 international hit with the song 'Pata Pata'.
In 1968, Miriam married African American civil rights activist and Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael. They would be together for ten years but her association with him invited negative attention from US government authorities. The harassment forced her to flee the USA and she found residence in Guinea and Belgium for a few years. During this time, she toured and performed in other countries albeit on much smaller stages to smaller audiences. She remained critical of apartheid and received further opportunities to address the United Nations General Assembly.
The 1980s were particularly challenging for Miriam Makeba. She separated from Stokely, struggled with alcohol abuse, tragically lost her only daughter Bongi and was also diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, many other African countries had gained independence by now so there were more voices speaking against apartheid. South Africa was shunned internationally and the political situation in the country was becoming untenable. In 1987, Miriam participated in the hugely successful tour to newly independent Zimbabwe alongside American folk singer Paul Simon. The tour, dubbed 'Graceland', drew massive crowds and strengthened the resistance to brutality and oppression which were commonplace in South Africa at the time. The concert also catapulted Miriam back into the spotlight and she became even more in demand, going on to perform for various dignitaries including the Pope.
The release of Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years encouraged Miriam to return to South Africa in 1990. She had been in exile for more than 30 years. It took a while to settle in and find new collaborators but in a few years, she was touring again and selling out shows. She was featured in a number of films and documentaries especially about the power of music as an instrument for resistance. She also received many honours and accolades both at home and abroad for her contribution to the struggle against apartheid.
Interestingly, Miriam always insisted that neither she nor her music was consciously political. It was all about expressing the realities of everyday life in South Africa. In an interview with The Times of Britain, she said;
"I'm not a political singer, I don't know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us - especially the things that hurt us."
Miriam Makeba officially retired in 2005 but continued to make appearances and perform at smaller events. She also continued her humanitarian work through her Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation and supported campaigns against drug abuse and HIV/Aids awareness. Her official website provides detailed information about her foundation and offers an opportunity to buy her music directly.
At the age of 78, Miriam Makeba died of a heart attack in 2008 following a 30 minute performance at a concert in Italy.