Mirium Makeba: South African singer and civil rights activist
Miriam Makeba was a South African singer and civil rights activist who put African music onto the international map in the 1960s.
Miriam Makeba was born on March 4, 1932, in Johannesburg. It was a time of severe economic depression in the country. Her father was a clerk with Shell Oil, and her mother was a domestic worker. When Makeba was just 18 days old, her mother was imprisoned for six months for illegally brewing beer to make ends meet. Makeba went to prison with her.
Makeba grew up in Nelspruit, where her father worked. Makeba's mother was also a Sangoma. Sangoma refers to a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling in traditional Zulu, Xhos, Ndebele and Swazi societies of Southern Africa. Her father died when she was five years old, and Makeba was sent to live with her grandmother at a compound in Riverside, Pretoria.
From her childhood, Makeba loved to sing at church. She performed her first solo song during the 1947 royal visit. She started her working life by helping her mother clean houses.
Miriam Makeba started her music career by singing for her cousin's band, the Cuban Brothers. However, she started gaining a reputation when she began to sing for Manhattan Brothers in 1954. Until 1957, she sang for Manhattan Brothers and toured various parts of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Congo. After this, she sang for the Skylarks, the all-women group which combined Jazz and traditional African melodies.
Makeba only learned about the South African government's decision to revoke her passport when she tried to get back to the country for her mother's funeral.
In 1957, Makeba appeared in the film Come Back Africa. Two years later, she played the female lead in Todd Matshikiza's King Kong in 1959. It cemented her reputation in the music industry both locally and abroad. She arrived in Venice in the same year to personally receive an award. The film was a documentary on South Africa by an American film director, Lionel Togosin. She was soon in trouble with South African authorities, who had received negative attention through their portrayal in the film. The government then revoked her passport and denied her the possibility of returning to South Africa. Makeba was the first black musician to leave South Africa because of apartheid.
Makeba took refuge in London after the Venice film festival. In London, she met Harry Belafonte, an American singer and activist who helped her to immigrate to the USA. She shot to fame overnight in the US in the early 1960s. In 1962m she performed for former US President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. Makeba had many admirers, including Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Nina Simone and Miles Davis.
Makeba only learned about the South African government's decision to revoke her passport when she tried to get back to the country for her mother's funeral. In 1963, she testified about apartheid at the United Nations. Her records were banned in South Africa.
In 1964, Makeba married her King Kong co-star Hugh Masekela. The couple got divorced later. In 1966, she won a Grammy award for An Evening with Harry Belafonte. In 1967, she became the first black woman to have a Top-Ten worldwide hit with Pata Pata. In 1968, she married militant African-American civil rights activist and Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael. They got separated in 1978. During this time, she faced harassment from the US government, which led her to move to Guinea.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Makeba toured Europe, South America and Africa. She mainly performed in trade union halls, cultural institutions, and other small stages. During this period, Makeba addressed the United Nations General Assembly twice, speaking out against apartheid as a Guinean delegate to the United Nations. In 1986, she was awarded the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize from the Diplomatic Academy for Peace.
In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from jail, Miriam Makeba returned to South Africa after 31 years of exile. In 1999, Nelson Mandela presented her with the Presidential Award. In 2005, Makeba announced her retirement from the mainstream music industry. Even though she quit mainstream, she continued to do smaller performances. She also continued her humanitarian work through her Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation, including the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for abused girls.
Miriam Makeba died in 2008, at the age of 76, after having a heart attack after a 30-minute performance at a concert for Roberto Saviano near the southern Italian town of Caserta.