The Queen of African Music: Miriam Makeba

Don’t you know that home is
Where my heart lies
Across the ocean
Into the African Skies
Through the hills and Vallies
Over the mountains            
Africa, is where my heart lies

These words of Miriam Makeba in her song ‘Africa is where my heart lies’ echo the heartbeat of most exiled Africans, who can’t walk on the soil of their homelands due to their political convictions.

Miriam Makeba always claimed she would sing until her last breath. And she did! The seventy six years old African music legend was performing in a small town near Naples during her last hours of her life, where she collapsed and rushed to a hospital.  Mostly referred as ‘Mama Africa’, Miriam Makeba was an icon in African music and activism. Born in 1932 in South Africa, Mama Africa wasn’t only a singer, but also an activist and a humanitarian.

Early in her career years, her mesmerising voice easily wowed her audience not only in South Africa, but on international stages. In the 1950s, she managed to join top bands like the Cuban Brothers, Manhattan Brothers and a female group called the Skylarks, which presented her with opportunities of performing outside South Africa. After taking part in ‘King Kong’-a movie that shows the calamities of black South Africans under the apartheid regime and ‘Come Back Africa’, a movie in which she took a small part as a singer; her fame had picked up in London and US. Meeting Harry Belafonte led her way to US, where she had the chance to record her works, which in turn granted her a celebrity status there. Her classic hits at that time were ‘Pata Pata’ and ‘The click song’.

As she never ceased voicing her cry against apartheid, shortly she was banned from entering her country, followed by three decades of life in exile. Describing her life in exile in her autobiography published in 1988 Miriam: My Story, she wrote ‘I look at an ant and l see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit’. It is after a long time she had the chance to go back to Africa, where she learned the Kenyan traditional song ‘Malaika’ and popularized it as one of the best African songs.

In US, where she carefully avoided taking part in race politics, she recorded her albums and performed for highly prestigious crowds. However, her marriage to a black panther activist- Stokely Carmichael- cost her welcome in US and many of her coming records and concerts were annulled. She moved to Guinea where the then President Sekou Toure granted her a diplomat passport. From there, she toured to different places carrying her banner against racism through her music. She became groundbreaking in blending traditional South Africans songs with modern beats like jazz and pop. In her stay in Guinea, she reinforced her role as an activist in addressing the issue of Apartheid and racism in UN meetings and many other gatherings, which of course resulted in the banning of her works from some countries. As a result of her role in the black consciousness movement at the time, she was honoured by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who invited her to perform at the inauguration of the OAU (Organization of African Union) in Addis Ababa.

Makeba was married four times, all her marriages ending up with bitter divorces. The death of her daughter,who was a singer as well, was also one of the harsh realities that she had to deal with. Miriam also suffered other personal loses including her mother’s death whose funeral she couldn’t attend when her South African passport was invalidated.

After the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, The Empress of African Music returned to her homeland, which was celebrated triumphantly by all Africans.  Her albums after her return include ‘Homeland’ and ‘Eyes on tomorrow’. She also acted in the award-winning musical ‘Sarafina’- a movie that narrates students’ struggle during the Soweto riot under apartheid. Mama Africa was showered with various honours and awards, including best female artist and an honorary doctorate in music. Her album in collaboration with Harry Belafonte -‘An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba’– also earned her the Grammy Award for best folk recording.

Miriam Makeba died at the age of 76 on November 10, 2008, after collapsing on a stage in Italy where she was singing ‘Pata Pata’. Even her last stage appearance was directed to a political cause, honouring an anti-mafia journalist who lives in hiding against mafia threats.

Her life has inspired many and she will continue to be Mama Africa for generations to come. May eternal rest be granted unto her!

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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