This week kicked off the beginning of Women’s History Month, a month long celebration of the plethora of women who have influenced our being in any and every way. Yesterday, March 4, marked the birthday of the late, Grammy Award-winning, South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, also known as ‘Mama Africa’ or the ‘Empress of African Song’.
Makeba is best known for bringing African music to an international platform, but her journey wasn’t an easy one.
She was born in Johannesburg to her mother, a domestic worker who was put in jail for illegally brewing beer in order to make enough money to survive, and a father who also went to prison when Makeba was less than a month old. Being a revolutionary was in her blood.
At a young age she began singing in church, which is where she discovered her love of music. In the 1950s she moved to Sophiatown which was said to be very vibrant, as it was one of the few areas where all races could mix. This is where she became interested in kwela music, marabi and African jazz; this was also where she rose to superstardom.
She started out singing in her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers, but four years later she got her big break singing for the Manhattan Brothers. Soon after, she traveled to South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Congo with the Manhattan Brothers for the next three years. She then transitioned to an all-women group, the Skylarks, which combined both jazz and traditional African melodies.
In 1959 Makeba was cast as the female lead in Todd Matshikiza’s musical King Kong. While the musical became wildly popular in South Africa, the cast often had to perform at universities to avoid the apartheid laws that separated the public.
After being cast for a small role in Come Back Africa Makeba was requested to appear at the Venice Film Festival the very same year and given an award for her role in the film, which didn’t sit well with South African authorities who didn’t appreciate the negative attention that the film cast on South Africa’s apartheid policies. Enraged by her “antics”, the South African government revoked her passport and denied her access to South Africa. Makeba was the first black musician to leave the country due to apartheid, and she paved the way for others to follow her.
Years later, Makeba moved to London and met singer/activist Harry Belafonte who helped get her to the US, where she quickly rose to international fame, enabling her to perform for President John F Kennedy in 1962 and gain respect from the likes of Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Nina Simone and Miles Davis. She went on to win a Grammy for An Evening with Harry Belafonte, become the first black woman to have a top-ten worldwide hit, and record four albums in the US but after intense harassment from the US government for her association with the so-called “Black radicals”, she was forced to move to Guinea.
In 1986, she was awarded the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize from the Diplomatic Academy for Peace after addressing the United Nations’ General Assembly twice, speaking out against apartheid.
In a sad turn of events, Makeba died in 2008 at the age 76, after having a of a heart attack prior to a 30 minute performance at a concert for Roberto Saviano near the southern Italian town of Caserta.
If it wasn’t for ‘Mama Africa’ many of our favorite music artists wouldn’t exist today. Her important contributions to society will remain ingrained in our history, and that is why we must keep her story alive and strong.
“I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realizing.” – Miriam Makeba