🌐 WOMEN’S STORIES _ Miriam Makeba

, The Heroine Collective

Civil Rights Activist

Makeba was a celebrated South African singer and prominent civil rights activist.
During a long and remarkable career, she not only brought African music to
Western ears, but was also a vociferous opponent of South Africa’s apartheid
Miriam Makeba was born in a township suburb of Johannesburg in 1932. When she
was just eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for the selling of
homebrewed beer and she spent the first six months of her life in a prison.
Further hardship befell the family with the premature death of Miriam’s father
when she was still a child.
At the age
of eighteen, whilst in a short-lived marriage to an abusive husband, Miriam
gave birth to her only child, a daughter called Bongi.
She was
surrounded by music throughout her childhood, sang in her school choir and by
the mid-1950s Miriam was a full-time professional vocalist. She worked with
several different ensembles, singing a blend of American jazz and traditional
South African melodies. In 1956 she released her first single, Pata Pata, which
shot her to fame throughout South Africa.
appearance in the 1959 anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa brought
her to the attention of Harry Belafonte and he was instrumental in her move to
America. She achieved tremendous touring and recording success there during the
1960s, winning both popular and critical acclaim. In 1967 she released Pata
Pata for the United States and the song made her a star throughout the world.
She introduced African melodies to mainstream audiences and was the first African
singer to achieve international fame.

I kept my
culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became the voice and
image of Africa and the people without even realising.

had been old enough to understand the implications of apartheid when it was
first imposed in South Africa in 1948. Through music, she expressed her
opposition to this regime and spread a message of resistance. But her vocal
anti-apartheid stance had devastating consequences. In 1960 Miriam discovered
the South African government had cancelled her passport when she was prevented
from returning home for her mother’s funeral. Thus she began 30 years in exile.

In 1963,
having testified to the United Nations about the apartheid regime, Miriam’s
South African citizenship and right of return were revoked. However, she was
not short of adoptive nations and, throughout her life, held nine passports and
had honorary citizenship in ten countries.
In 1964
Miriam married fellow South African musician, Hugh Masekela, though the couple
divorced two years later. In 1968 Miriam married Black Panther leader, Stokely
Carmichael, a match deemed hugely controversial by the American establishment.
Consequently, her tours were cancelled and recording contracts withdrawn. The
couple moved to Guinea, Miriam’s home for the next fifteen years, where she
continued to record and to perform live.
and Miriam divorced in 1978 and she married again, to a Belgian airline
executive, in 1980. In 1985 Miriam’s daughter, Bongi, died following complications
of childbirth leaving Miriam devastated by grief.
following year Miriam worked with Paul Simon, performing as part of his hugely
successful Graceland tour. This did cause some controversy as it contravened
the UN cultural boycott which she had been instrumental in initiating.
In 1988
she performed at a concert held at Wembley Stadium to celebrate Nelson
Mandela’s 70th birthday. In 1990, with apartheid disintegrating, Mandela was
released from prison and he persuaded Miriam to return to South Africa. She was
welcomed home with open arms.
In the
years which followed, Miriam helped to mould the newly freed South Africa and
she served as a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN. She undertook humanitarian
causes, working closely with the first lady, Graca Machel-Mandela, and she
founded the Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for Women and Girls.
continued to record throughout the latter part of her career, producing a
collaboration album with Dizzie Gillespie, Hugh Masekela and Nina Simone and
winning a Grammy nomination for her 2000 solo album, Homeland. In 2005 she
announced her retirement but, despite suffering with severe arthritis,
continued to make public appearances. She died in November 2008 having suffered
a heart attack whilst performing at a benefit concert in Italy.
legacy is immense; she released 23 studio albums, 5 live albums and a host of
compilation albums and singles, made a variety of film and TV appearances,
delighted live audiences worldwide and won innumerable honours and accolades.
Loved and respected throughout the world, she was dubbed and remains Mama