One of the many great figures that fought against the apartheid system in South Africa and advocated for black consciousness, was Miriam Makeba.
At a young age, Miriam Makeba discovered the power of music and was able to wield it as a weapon using her voice to pierce injustic, and becoming one of the most influential women of her era within and beyond the borders of Africa.
MIRIAM MAKEBA’S EARLY BEGINNINGS
Miriam Makeba was born “Zenzile” on 4 March 1932 in a township suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. On the eighteenth day after birth, her mother was arrested and imprisoned for selling alcohol, a locally produced beer known as umqombothi which was made from cornmeal and malt.
Umqombothi brought men together from different angles of the community to enjoy the homemade beer. Since the family was unable to afford bail for her mother, little Miriam spent the first six months of her life in jail. But greatness lay ahead despite starting life behind bars.
Miriam later learnt how to sing in English before she learnt how to speak the language with ease. As a child, she sang in church choirs, and showcased her talent in schools. She also sang in Swahili, Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu and was highly praised for her multilingual singing skills.
She however wasn’t born holding a microphone. She was greatly inspired by her family with a good taste in music as well. Her elder brother trained her to sing, collecting songs from legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.
Her father played piano while her mother focused on traditional instruments. With a good foundation laid, Miriam improved in music beyond imagination. What would have turned out to become a stepping stone at an early age in life, became a sad moment. She was part of some kids selected to perform “What a Sad Life for a Black Man” for King George VI when he visited. Drenched in the rain, the royal envoy drove out without stopping to hear them sing.
After her father’s death, she was forced to look for a job as a nanny. At the age of 17, after marrying a policeman in training, she gave birth to her only child, Bongi Makeba. After two years, the marriage hit the rocks. A decade after, Miriam survived breast cancer treated unconventionally by her mother.
Miriam never gave up on her dreams. She joined Sunbeams, later called Skylarks, a female band, and recorded over 100 songs. In 1954, she was discovered and came onboard with the Manhattan Brothers, a talk-of-the-town band whose vocal harmonies were modeled on the American Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. She went on her first tour with the band getting her first taste of the outside world. They visited Congo and Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia).
Five years later in 1959, Miriam played a brief role in the anti-apartheid movie titled “Come Back, Africa”. This attracted the globe to her as she performed in Venice, London, and New York City. In London, she met Harry Belafonte, an American musician who made her his protege.
She later moved to New York City, and in no time her name was all over the place. Miriam recorded her first solo album in 1960. Back at home, she experienced the unspeakable practice of the apartheid system, and her music became the sword she fought with.
Miriam deeply spoke against corrupt politics in her songs. And while people would mistake her songs for being political, she would always say:
“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 the same 1960, her mother and two other family members were killed during Sharpeville Massacre. Her attempt to return home for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the South African government. And so, her 30 years of exile began.
MIRIAM MAKEBA: ACTIVISM AND FIGHT AGAINST OPPRESSION
In 1962, she travelled to Kenya supporting the country’s independence from the British colonial rule, and contributed financially to strengthen the new government. She also testified before the United Nations Special Committee against the negative effects of the apartheid system, requesting for economic sanctions against South Africa’s National Party government.
She requested an arms embargo against South Africa, saying weapons sold to the government would likely be used against black women and children. The South African government responded by banning her songs and rendered her stateless.
But other governments still craved hearing her sing. She became the only performer Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor, invited at the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa.
She received citizenship invitations from different countries around the world. She was issued passports by Algeria, Guinea, Belgium and Ghana. In her life, she had 9 passports, and was issued honorary citizenship in 10 countries.
Mama Africa as she was called became the first African artist to win a Grammy Award in collaboration with Belafonte on 15 March 1966. Miriam graced more African lands with songs of hope, and as more African countries became free from external influence she appeared to sing at independence ceremonies including Angola, Zambia, Tanganyika, and Mozambique.
She promoted African music such as Afro pop, jazz, and world music. Despite several divorces and losing her only daughter who died after a traumatic miscarriage, Miriam kept her focus.
At FESTAC 77 also labelled as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, Miriam was on everyone’s lips. She was awarded Dag Hammarskjöld peace prize in 1986.
By 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he persuaded her to return home. She was named UN Goodwill Ambassador in 1999. Her fight also extended to protecting white-minority in South Africa.
She was a symbol of fairness and justice, and an African brand in every sense. Africa or overseas, she performed wearing round hair, African jewelries with no makeup which established a style that came to be known internationally as “Afro look”. She also rejected skin-lighteners and turned down advertisement offers.
The world lost Mama Africa on stage in Italy, as she embarked on farewell tours. She died of cardiac arrest after performing her number-hit-one-song “Pata Pata” on 9 November 2008.
By Elijah Christopher
Elijah Christopher is a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.