March 3, 1942 – Miriam Makeba
I was fascinated by the beautiful woman on the cover of An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965) that was part of my parental unit’s LP collection and I was entranced by her sound. An unusual choice for my folks in the mid-1960s, except that they loved Harry Belafonte. The album was very popular and won a Grammy Award, the first ever for an African woman.
She testified against the South African government at the United Nations and became involved in the American Civil Rights Movement. She married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party in 1968, losing support among her white American fans and she faced hostility from the U.S. government, leading her and Carmichael to move to Guinea.
That was when she wrote and performed music more explicitly anti-apartheid, including Soweto Blues (1977) about the Soweto uprising. After apartheid was dismantled in 1990, Makeba returned to South Africa. She continued recording and performing, including an album with Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie in 1991, and appearing in the 1992 film Sarafina! (1992). She was named a UN Goodwill Ambassador in 1999 and campaigned for Human Rights causes.
Makeba was one of the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition. She brought African music to a Western audience and popularized World Music and Afropop genres
Makeba’s career propelled her from a South African township singing group to a global celebrity, celebrated in many countries, but banned from others. She was a natural performer with a dynamic vocal range and an emotional awareness that could hit the back of a large auditorium. Yet, her personal life was an epic tragedy of injustice, domestic upheaval, exile and torment.
Born Zenzi Makeba outside of Johannesburg. Zenzi (from the Xhosai means “you have no one to blame but yourself”, a traditional name intended to provide support through life’s difficulties.
Her mother was a spiritual healer who also took jobs as a housemaid. After the early death of her father, Miriam was forced to work. She noticed that music was a type of magic that could elevate her from the poverty which surrounded her. As a young girl, her singing had been praised and she was chosen to sing What A Sad Life For A Black Man for the visit of King George VI, but stood waiting in the rain for her big moment, the King and entourage driven by without stopping to hear her.
When apartheid was introduced to South Africa in 1948, Makeba was old enough to grasp the consequences, and to see the limitations placed on the career.
Since the turn of the century, American Jazz had been absorbed into South African culture and morphed into local forms of music. Combined with Anglican church hymns, it led to a distinctive vocal style known as “Mbube”, practiced in many communities by “night” choirs of enthusiastic amateurs. Makeba had a big break in 1954 when she joined Manhattan Brothers, a top band whose vocal harmonies were modelled on the American The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots.
Next, she joined a female group called The Skylarks and recorded more than 100 songs, many of them big hits.She went on tour with The Manhattans. But playing back home, she experienced the heartless and shameful results of the apartheid system.
She landed the female lead role in King Kong, a popular South African musical about the life of a celebrated boxer that played to integrated audiences and spread her reputation among the liberal white community.
She was in the documentary film Come Back Africa (1958), playing herself and singing two songs. She attended a screening at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, where she became an instant celebrity. She was flown to New York City to appear on television and played at the famed Village Vanguard night club.
Belafonte guided her through her first solo recordings. African standards such as Pata Pata and Click Song, which she first performed with the Skylarks, were the start of her repertoire and remained the most popular songs throughout her career. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where white police shot 249 black protesters including 29 children, many shot in the back, Makeba learned that her mother had died, and her own South African passport had been revoked to prevent her from returning for the funeral. She wouldn’t return for 30 years.
In the USA she became woke up in a showbiz dream: recording and touring, appearing on television and meeting movie stars. New to the country and finding herself appearing with Marilyn Monroe at the famous Madison Square Garden birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy.
Her first return to Africa was a visit to Kenya in 1962. In 1963, she gave the first of several addresses to the U.N. about apartheid. South Africa banned her records. But she was soon asked to be the only performer to be invited by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellassie I to perform in Addis Ababa for the start of the new Organization of African Unity.
Increasingly involved in, and identified with, black consciousness, Makeba was branded a radical, not just against apartheid but also in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Her husband Stokely Carmichael, changed his name to Kwame Touré and she went with him to Guinea, the West African Marxist country where dictator Sekou Touré, harbored enemies of the capitalist world. In that polygamous country, she turned down a proposal by the despot, but she became the second wife to a prominent Guinean. When she suffered a miscarriage, Makeba said that she succumbed to “spiritual madness” that she believed she had inherited from her mother.
Makeba became a double exile: unable to return home in South Africa and unwelcome in many western countries. She was banned from France, but she was welcomed to visit sympathetic African states where she performed at many events. She put together a pan-African band who were on call to accompany her on frequent foreign trips.
In Denmark, where she had solid support, she once failed to appear for a show. She returned some years later only to be jailed for a night until the outstanding financial penalty had been paid. There was also controversy in Tanzania over the authorship of her song Malaika, which several Africans had claimed to have written (the ownership of this very popular song is still controversial).
When Makeba played at the Royal Festival Hall, London in 1985, it was her first appearance in Britain for 11 years, and her 53rd birthday. She answered criticism that she had turned her back on the west and had insulted the sensitive white people:
People have accused me of being a racist, but I am just a person for justice and humanity. People say I sing politics but what I sing is not politics, it is the truth. I’m going to go on singing, telling the truth.
In 1986 she was awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize. Hammarskjöld was the gay Swedish economist diplomat who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. He died in a mysterious plane crash while on his way to cease-fire negotiations during the Congo Crisis. He is one of only four people to be awarded a posthumous Nobel Prize, which has nothing to do with Makeba, I was having a moment.
Makeba led the cultural boycott of South Africa, yet she herself was accused of breaking the boycott by collaborating with Paul Simon on his controversial masterpiece Graceland (1986). Simon was being protested for not conferring with African exile groups prior to his hiring South African session players. Makeba welcomed the controversy because it brought her issues into discussion and made cultural activity even more potent there for a while in the late-1980s.
She performed at music festivals as euphoria built up before and after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the realization that apartheid was nearly dead. After 30 years away, Makeba returned to South Africa.
But the music biz had moved on while she was gone, and despite working with the best producers and musicians, her concerts were not well-attended and opportunities dried up. She put together a series of farewell tours that continued till her death in Naples, apparently from a heart attack after singing for 30 minutes in a concert supporting the movement against organized crime.
Makeba released more than 30 albums during her career and she was able to appeal to audiences from many political, racial, and national backgrounds. I dug her music and I really dug her style. Makeba is a true Style Icon, helping establish a style that came to be known as the “Afro look”, a liberated African beauty aesthetic. She was an icon for South African schoolgirls, who were forced to shorten their hair by the apartheid government. Makeba wore African jewelry and fabrics and disapproved of skin-lighteners, refusing predominantly white standards of beauty.