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Miriam Makeba Biography

Restricted by Her Government, Sang for Freedom, Turned Her Attention to AIDS, Selected works


Singer, writer, activist

South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba is a preeminent chronicler of the black South African experience. In a career spanning more than three decades, she has established herself as a powerful voice in the fight against apartheid—the practice of political, economic, and social oppression along racial lines. Often referred to as "Mother Africa" and "The Empress of African Song," Makeba is credited with bringing the rhythmic and spiritual sounds of Africa to the West. Her music is a soulful mix of jazz, blues, and traditional African folk songs shaded with potent political overtones. Using music as a primary forum for her social concerns, the singer became a lasting symbol in the fight for racial equality and a strong voice for the struggle against AIDS.

Restricted by Her Government

Makeba's first encounter with the severity of government rule in her native land came when she was just two-and-one-half weeks old: following her mother's arrest for the illegal sale of home-brewed beer, young Makeba served a six-month jail term with her. Makeba's formative years were equally difficult. As a teenager she performed backbreaking domestic work for white families and endured physical abuse from her first husband. She found solace and a sense of community, though, in music and religion. Singing first in a choir, Makeba soon showcased her talents with local bands, achieving success on the regional club circuit.

Makeba first captured international attention with her role in the pseudodocumentary Come Back, Africa, a controversial anti-apartheid film released in 1959. Following the film's showing at the Venice Film Festival, Makeba traveled to London, where she met respected American entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte. Impressed with her unique and profound renderings of native folksongs, he served as her mentor and promoter in the United States, arranging gigs for her in New York City clubs and a guest spot on The Steve Allen Show. The exposure brought her worldwide acclaim and launched a cross-cultural musical career of epic proportions.

The 1960s proved to be an especially tumultuous decade for Makeba. Her outspoken opposition to the repressive political climate in South Africa set the stage for harsh government retaliation. Makeba's call for an end to apartheid became increasingly powerful, and her recordings were subsequently banned in South Africa. More than three decades of exile began for the singer in 1960, when, seeking to return to her native land for her mother's funeral, her passport was invalidated by the government of Pretoria. Around the same time, Makeba endured additional turmoil in her personal life. Between 1959 and 1966, for instance, she experienced two failed marriages, one to singer Sonny Pilay, which lasted for only three months, and another to trumpeter Hugh Masekela. And in the early 1960s, she faced threats to her health, battling cervical cancer through radical surgery.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Makeba's career came with her 1968 marriage to American black activist Stokely Carmichael. A self-avowed revolutionary, Carmichael took a militant "Black Power" stance that was often perceived as divisive and threatening to the existing fabric of American society. Having long used song as a vehicle to raise social and political awareness, Makeba was stunned by the devastating effects of her marriage on her musical career. Her affiliation with Carmichael effectively eliminated her arena for social expression in the West. In her autobiography Makeba: My Story, she recalled the curtailment of her success in the United States: "My concerts are being canceled left and right. I learn that people are afraid that my shows will finance radical activities. I can only shake my head. What does Stokely have to do with my singing?" When her record label, Reprise, refused to honor her contract in the States, Makeba moved with Carmichael to Guinea.

Sang for Freedom

Although Makeba's marriage to Carmichael ended in 1978, she remained in Guinea for several years. She continued performing in Europe and parts of Africa, promoting freedom, unity, and social change. During the singer's time in Guinea, though, heartbreaking misfortune again touched her life. Her youngest grandson became fatally ill, and her only daughter, Bongi, died after delivering a stillborn child. Yet, through all of her trials, Makeba has derived consolation from her music and her undying faith in God.

In the spring of 1987, Makeba joined American folk-rock legend Paul Simon's phenomenal Graceland tour in newly independent, antiseparatist Zimbabwe. An unprecedented display of racial unity and multicultural sounds, the concert focused attention on the injustice of imperial racist policies in South Africa and showcased the talents of generations of South African musicians. Following the success and exposure afforded her by the Graceland tour, Makeba recorded her first American release in two decades, a tribal collection titled Sangoma, which means diviner-healer. Featuring African chants that the singer learned in her youth from her mother, the solo album casts a new light on the soulful, spiritual sounds of her native land. Makeba's follow-up album—the 1989 PolyGram debut Welela—blends traditional songs with newer pop pieces.

In a Chicago Tribune interview with Leigh Behrens, Makeba summarized her thoughts on her life in exile since 1959: "I have love, but I also have suffering. I am a South African. I left part of me there. I belong there." In June of 1990, Makeba finally reentered Johannesburg for the first time in 31 years, on the invitation of Nelson Mandela. The following year PolyGram released Eyes on Tomorrow, an upbeat protest album recorded in a Johannesburg studio. Featuring pioneering jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, rhythm and blues singer Nina Simone, and Masekela, Eyes on Tomorrow is generally considered a more commercial mix of pop, blues, and jazz than the singer's previous efforts.

At a Glance …

Born Zensi Miriam Makeba on March 4, 1932, in Prospect, near Johannesburg, South Africa; immigrated to United States, 1959; daughter of a Xhosa teacher and a Swazi domestic worker; married Sonny Pilay (a singer), 1959 (divorced, 1959); married Hugh Masekela (a musician), 1964 (divorced, 1966); married Stokely Carmichael (a civil rights leader), 1968 (divorced, 1978); married fifth husband, Bageot Bah (an airline executive); children: (first marriage) Bongi (daughter; deceased). Education: Attended Kimerton Training Institute in Pretoria, South Africa.

Career: Domestic worker in Johannesburg, South Africa; vocalist touring in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) with the Black Mountain Brothers, 1954-57; singer in Africa, the United States, England, France, Denmark, and Italy, 1957–; United Nations delegate from Guinea, West Africa, 1963; Goodwill Ambassador for South Africa to the United Nations, 2000s(?).

Memberships: American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.

Awards: Grammy Award for best folk recording, 1965, for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba; Dag Hammer-skjoeld Peace Prize, 1986; Swedish Polar Music Prize, 2002; French government.

Addresses: Home—South Africa.

Turned Her Attention to AIDS

Makeba continued her musical career as well as her activist efforts around the world. As Robert Farris Thompson put it in the New York Times, "She is a symbol of the emergence of Afro-Atlantic art and a voice for her people. Her life in multiple cultural and political settings—and her rich musical career, drawing on traditional and contemporary sources—have resonance for us all." During her nearly 30 years in exile, Makeba took her message around the world, performing for some of the most powerful leaders, including John F. Kennedy, former French president Francois Mitterrand, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. But with the end of apartheid in 1994, Makeba found new reasons to sing, continuing her activism by turning her attention to the AIDS epidemic in Africa. "In our society, we have always passed messages and expressed ourselves through song. This is why the former government was so scared of musicians," she told the UNESCO Courier. "I'm trying to see how I can fit in [to the fight against AIDS]. I have asked all those who write songs for me to compose a short song or poem to broadcast to try to broaden the whole thing. I feel this thing very personally. I have lost many friends to AIDS," she explained to Newsweek:

Even as Makeba aged critics reveled in her charisma and talent. Variety remarked at 68-year-old Makeba's "majestic dominance," calling her a "natural wonder." She released her album Homeland in 2000 and it was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2001. Time called Homeland a "musical love letter" to Africa. Marking the tenth year anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa, Makeba released Reflections in 2004. The album is a collection of some of her most well-known songs over the past 50 years, including of "Pata Pata," and "Click Song." Billboard called the album "wondrous," and Makeba remarked to the magazine that "These are some of the songs most associated with me from different times in my life, and it was a joy to sing and record them again."

In 2005 mentions of Makeba's impending retirement stirred through the media. She announced her intentions while on tour in Zambia in late 2004. But reviewers were quick to note that she certainly had not lost any of her appeal: "Every bit as delightful as her singing was her natural warm rapport with the audience. More than once she playfully lamented the travails of growing old—none of which she exhibits. Instead, she imbued her big joyful international hit 'Pata Pata' with the same impish charm as she did 40 years ago. In contrasting style, the stunning a-cappella encore involving the whole band was the model of integrity and sincerity, sealing the impression that Miriam Makeba is not just a wonderful singer, but an extraordinary human being," reported The Scotsman. Although she has continued to perform in occasional concerts, Makeba has refocused her efforts as a "spokeswoman" for African culture, politics and social responsibility. She spent a great deal of time with the Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for Girls in Midrand, South Africa, which she founded in 1997 to help abused children. She also worked as the Goodwill Ambassador for South Africa to the United Nations

Selected works


"Pata Pata," 1967.


Miriam Makeba Sings, RCA, 1960.

The World of Miriam Makeba, RCA, 1963.

Back of the Moon, Kapp.

An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba, RCA, 1965.

Sangoma, Warner Bros., 1988.

Welela, PolyGram, 1989.

Eyes on Tomorrow, PolyGram, 1991.

Homeland, Putumayo, 2000.

Reflections, Heads Up International, 2004.


The World of African Song, edited by Jonas Gwangwa and E. John Miller, Jr., Time Books, 1971.

(With James Hall) Makeba: My Story (autobiography), New American Library, 1987.


Come Back, Africa, 1959.



Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall, Makeba: My Story, New American Library, 1987.


Africa Report, January 1977.

Billboard, May 22, 1993; April 15, 2000; June 12, 2004; July 3, 2004.

Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1988.

Down Beat, April 2001.

Ebony, April 1963; July 1968.

Interview, May 2001.

Jet, April 18, 1994.

Ms. , May 1988.

Nation, March 12, 1988.

Newsweek, July 17, 2000.

New York Times, February 28, 1960; February 15, 1987; January 27, 1988; January 31, 1988; March 8, 1988; March 13, 1988; June 11, 1990.

Playboy, October 1991.

Rolling Stone, July 2, 1987.

Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), October 25, 2004.

Time, February 1, 1960; May 1, 2000.

Times Literary Supplement, March 11, 1988.

Tribune Books (Chicago), January 24, 1988.

UNESCO Courier, July 2000.

Variety, July 24, 2000.

Washington Post, April 19, 1988.

—Barbara Carlisle Bigelow and

Sara Pendergast

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