While the African continent was battling for independence from Europeans, prominent musicians began to emerge. The tunes from these musical artistes brought hope to Africans that their struggles for Independence will soon materialize. Among the faces that shaped African music: Miriam Makeba was one female who stood out among the rest.
Full names: Zenzile Miriam Makeba
Date/Place of Birth: 4 March 1932 – Prospect Township, Johannesburg, Union of South Africa
Date/Place of Death: 9 November 2008 (aged 76) – Castel Volturno, Italy
Genre: Marabi; Afropop; Jazz
Miriam Makeba was born to a Swazi mother and a Xhosa father, and was forced to find employment as a child after the death of her father. Miriam was only eighteen days old when she was sent to prison with her mother for six months. Her mother was jailed for brewing and selling umquobothi which was an illegal beer to try and help make money.
When Makeba was about five years old her father died, forcing her and her siblings to go live with her grandma in Pretoria. There, she had to do domestic work to take care of the family because the younger siblings depended on her and her mother. Besides, the tight grip apartheid still affected the country. Her mother had to stay back in Johannesburg to work for white families which was hard since she had to live away from her own.
Miriam had a brief and allegedly abusive first marriage at the age of 17, and gave birth to her only child, Bongi, in 1950 at the age of 18. In that same year, she fought ans beat breast cancer; about a decade later she contracted and beat cervical cancer as well. She want on to marry her co-star from the King Kong Muscial, Hugh Masekela, who was also a musician in African and an activist at the time of apartheid. She also had a short marriage with American “black power” Stokely Carmichael in 1968 ans split a few years after.
Miriam Makeba with her ex-husband Hugh Masakela
Makeba’s vocal talent had been recognized when she was a child, according to Wikipedia. She began singing professionally in the 1950s, with the Cuban Brothers, the Manhattan Brothers, and an all-woman group, the Skylarks. She performed a mixture of jazz, traditional African melodies, and Western popular music.
In 1959, Makeba had a brief role in the anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa, which brought her international attention, and 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. She moved to New York City, where she became immediately popular, and recorded her first solo album in 1960.
Makeba’s career flourished in the United States, and she released several albums and songs, her most popular being “Pata Pata” (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. Because of her marriage to Stokely Carmichael, she lost support among white Americans and faced hostility from the US government. This lead to her and Carmichael to move to Guinea. She continued to perform, mostly in African countries, including at several independence celebrations.
‘Mama Africa‘ began to write and perform music more explicitly critical of apartheid; the 1977 song “Soweto Blues”, written by her former husband Hugh Masekela, was about the Soweto uprising. After apartheid was dismantled in 1990, Makeba returned to South Africa. She was named a UN goodwill ambassador in 1999, and campaigned for humanitarian causes. She died of a heart attack during a 2008 concert in Italy.
Makeba was among the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition. She brought African music to a Western audience, and popularized the world music and Afropop genres. Upon her death, former South African President Nelson Mandela said that “her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”
Indeed, among the faces that shaped African music: Miriam Makeba really stood out among the rest!