“I’m not a political singer. I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa… No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us…”
Miriam Makeba, affectionately known as “Mama Africa,” was a South African singer and civil rights activist who introduced Xhosa and Zulu songs to Western audiences. She is best known for the songs “Pata Pata,” “The Click Song” and “Malaika.”
Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born on the 4th of March 1932 in Johannesburg to a Xhosa father and a Swazi mother . When she was 18 days old, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi, (homemade beer). Her mother was sentenced to a 6 month prison term, so Miriam spent the first six months of life her life in jail. Makeba began singing in her school choir as a young girl, and by the mid-1950s, she was landing local gigs as a full-time professional singer. By the end of the decade, she had made a name for herself throughout South Africa.
Makeba first starred with the South African jazz band Manhattan Brothers. From there, she joined an all-woman group, The Skylarks, which combined jazz and South African melodies. In 1956, her first single “Pata Pata” catapulted her to fame. In 1959, Makeba’s global big break happened after she appeared in an anti-Apartheid documentary, “Come Back, Africa,” by filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. The cameo caught the attention of American viewers, which led to her attending a premiere of the film in Italy.
Her singing appearance in the documentary attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte. With his help; Makeba settled in the US. There she embarked on a successful singing and recording career. Blessed with striking looks, a gorgeous voice and an intense stage presence; she mesmerized audiences with her songs and poise.
Using her platform Makeba campaigned against the brutality of the apartheid regime. The then South African government responded by revoking her passport in 1960. She also became involved in the African-American civil rights movement. In 1962 she sang at President John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebration, and in July 1963 gave the first of two addresses that decade to the United Nations calling for action against apartheid. The South African government revoked her citizenship and right of return in 1963. In 1965, she and Belafonte won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording. She received renewed attention in the mid-1980s, after she met Paul Simon and joined Simon’s history-making Graceland tour. As the apartheid system crumbled she returned home for the first time in 1990. She continued making music and working as a civil rights activist until her death in 2008.