Celebrating Black Female Freedom Fighters: Zenzile Miriam Makeba

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To learn more about this freedom fighter, read Makeba: My Story, available at national booksellers.

Zenzile Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) aka Miriam Makeba aka Mama Africa was born in a township near Johannesburg, South Africa. Born into the racist, segregationist system of apartheid, Ms. Makeba used her immense singing talents to not only popularize African music throughout the world but to also raise awareness about the cruelty of apartheid. Her civil rights activism posed such a powerful threat to the South African status quo, that her South African passport was revoked and she was exiled from her home country for 31 years.

When Ms. Makeba was just 18 days old, she spent the next six months of her life in jail with her mother who was imprisoned simply for trying to supplement her low income by illegally brewing beer. Early on, it seemed that this young woman always had a song in her heart for she loved to sing and performed her first solo at age 15 during the British Family Royal Visit in 1947.

Ms. Makeba’s musical career launched in 1954 when she began singing with her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers and she soon built a reputation for herself when she later sang with the Manhattan Brothers. After touring throughout three countries with the latter band, she formed the Skylarks, an all-female group in 1957.

In 1959, Ms. Makeba appeared in Come Back, Africa, a documentary-style film highlighting the difficulties experienced by Black South Africans during apartheid. She also starred in King Kong which was a hugely successful musical throughout South Africa. She won an award for her appearance in Come Back, Africa and faced trouble from South African authorities because of the light the film shed on apartheid. These troubles, and the lack of payment she received from her work in the films, led Ms. Makeba to leave South Africa for London.

“Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa. I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can’t do anything about that.”  -Miriam Makeba

In London, the singer connected with Harry Belafonte who had noticed her work in Come Back, Africa. Belafonte helped Ms. Makeba moved to the US where she would gain great popularity, perform for President John F. Kennedy and earn the admiration of such greats as Miles Davis and Nina Simone. Many remember her for such songs as Pata Pata, the Click Song and Malaika but my personal favorite is Khawuleza (featured below, this song is a perfect example of how she used music as activism).  She also led the “Afro Look” style trend as she wore her hair naturally.

When Ms. Makeba attempted to return to South Africa in 1960 to attend her mother’s funeral, she discovered that her passport had been revoked. Three years later, after testifying at the United Nations about apartheid, her South African citizenship was also taken from her. Throughout the rest of the 60s, she lived in America. Her albums were banned in South Africa completely.

While in the US, she recorded four albums, won a Grammy award for An Evening with Harry Belafonte in 1965, and became the first Black woman ever to have a top ten worldwide hit with Pata Pata. Married and divorced several times before, she married Black Panther Stokely Carmichael in 1968. This union would cause her to fall out of favor with the US government and move to Guinea.

She continued to perform and tour throughout Europe, South Americn and Africa on into the 70s and 80s.  Meanwhile, she (as a Guinean delegate to the UN) addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly twice on the subject of apartheid and was awarded the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize from the Diplomatic Academy for Peace. During this same period, she lost her only daughter and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. In 1987, Ms. Makeba met and performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour which focused attention on apartheid. She also performed for the Pope and several heads of state.

Ms. Makeba was finally able to return to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. She became a goodwill ambassador for South Africa to the United Nations, produced her Homecoming album, launched her Farewell Tour and was featured in the movie Mama. She continued to tour and perform to sold out venues all over the world in 1998 and starred in the documentary Amandla in 2002. She received several honorary doctorates, the Presidential Award from Nelson Mandela and was given her own holiday (June 16-Miriam Makeba Day) by the city of Berkeley, CA. Ms. Makeba retired from music performance and production in 2005.

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