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 realizing.
Mama Africa, the empress of African songs and South Africa’s first lady of songs Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in a township suburb of Johannesburg in 1932 to Swazi and Xhosa parents. When she was just eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for the selling of home brewed 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. And at the age of eighteen, whilst in a short-lived marriage to an abusive husband James Kubay with whom she had a Daughter Angela Sibongile Makeba also known as Bongi in 1950. She later married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party, in 1968 and they moved to the West African Country of Guinea but later split. She was divorced four times.
She was raised under traditional African customs as her mother was a sangoma practitioner of herbal medicines and counseling within the Nguni tradition. After her father died, Miriam was sent to live with her grandmother at a compound in Riverside, Pretoria. From a young age, Makeba loved to sing at church, and performed her first solo during the 1947 Royal Visit.
She was surrounded by music throughout her childhood singing in her school choir. She began singing professionally in the 1950s, with the Cuban Brothers, the Manhattan Brothers, and an all-woman group, the Skylarks, performing a mixture of jazz, traditional African melodies, and Western popular music. In 1959, 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. Makeba was the first black South African to gain international fame and be recognized as an anti-apartheid icon.
Miriam’s appearance in the 1959 anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa brought her to the attention of Harry Belafonte who was instrumental in her move to America where achieved tremendous touring and recording success 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 which led to her performing in Venice, London, and New York City. In London, she met the American singer Harry Belafonte, who became a mentor and colleague For her small part in Come Back Africa (as a ‘shebeen’ singer singing the titles ‘Lakutshon Ilanga’ and ‘Saduva’), Makeba was flown to the Venice film festival in 1959 so that she could personally receive an award for the movie. The film was a documentary on South Africa made by an American film director, Lionel Togosin.
Makeba ran into trouble with the South African authorities, who had received negative attention through the presentation of the film. She therefore, Makeba decided not to return to South Africa from where she got little or nothing in terms of payment for her performances.
The South African Government revoked her passport and denied her the possibility of returning to South Africa.
She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others followed.
She moved to New York City, where she became immediately popular, and recorded her first solo album in 1960. Her attempt to return to South Africa that year for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the country’s Government.
Makeba’s career flourished in the United States, and she released several albums and songs with the most popular being “Pata Pata” in 1967. Along with Belafonte she received a Grammy Award for her 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. She testified against the South African Government at the United Nations and became involved in the civil rights movement.
Miriam Makeba passed away aged 76 in Italy as a result of heart attack after finishing a performance near Caserta.