Zenzile Miriam Makeba
March 4, 1932 – November 9, 2008
Nationality: South African
Notable: Musician & Activist
Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in a segregated township outside of Johannesburg to a Swazi mother and Xhosa father. Her father, Caswell, worked for Shell while her mother, Christina, earned a living as both a spiritual healer and housemaid. Makeba began singing in a school choir at a young age and spent eight years studying music in Pretoria. She had to begin working when her father died but clung to music as a way of escaping poverty.
When the South African government implemented apartheid in 1948, Miriam Makeba was 16-years-old. A year later she gave birth to her first child, a daughter she named Bongi. Unfortunately, soon after Makeba was diagnosed with breast cancer which her mother was able to successfully treat. She experienced another blow when her first husband left her around this time.
At the age of 22, Makeba launched her professional singing career by joining the Manhattan Brothers and later forming an all-female group which she named Skylarks. By the end of the decade, Miriam Makeba was quite popular in South Africa. Skylarks had recorded a music catalog that combined jazz with traditional South African music. In addition to recording and touring with Skylarks, Makeba also appeared in the South African musical “King Kong”.
In 1959, Makeba appeared in “Come Back, Africa”, an anti-Apartheid documentary that promoted Makeba to the world beyond South Africa. During that same year, Makeba left South Africa to appear at the film’s screening in Venice and also traveled to London and New York. While in America she met Harry Belafonte who became a mentor and helped her get settled in America while also guiding the launch of her solo career. Makeba continued singing African Jazz, pop songs, and traditional songs from various African tribes in addition to anti-apartheid songs.
Her television appearances and tour brought her a great deal of success in America but also garnered unwelcome attention from the South African government. Makeba’s mother died in 1960 and she attempted to return home to attend the funeral. But the South African government revoked her passport and refused her re-entry into the country. Thus began Makeba’s 30-year exile from South Africa. Beginning in 1963 Makeba made appearances before the UN Committee on Apartheid to which the South African government retaliated by banning her records.
As the 1960s progressed Makeba’s involvement with activism expanded beyond apartheid to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965 Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte released the collaboration album, “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba” for which they won a Best Folk Recording Grammy. Three years later Makeba married Stokely Carmichael, the former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and originator of the term “Black Power”.
By the time the two met and married, Carmichael had shifted from the non-violent Civil Rights Movement to the militancy of the Black Power Movement. Many people were uncomfortable with this new ideology and the marriage to Carmichael negatively impacted Makeba’s career. Makeba’s tour dates and record deals were canceled and the couple relocated to Guinea. This was effectively a second exile as in addition to being unable to return to South Africa Makeba was also barred from entering several western countries such as France though she was welcomed in several independent African countries.
After five years of marriage, the couple separated and Makeba resumed her career. The marriage officially ended in divorce in 1978, marking the end of Makeba’s fourth marriage. Despite the end of her relationship with Carmichael, Makeba continued to experience inconsistent support due to her continuing to speak out against apartheid and injustices which some interpreted as her being racist. During this period Makeba also had to deal with the unexpected death of her daughter.
Despite the personal difficulties, Miriam Makeba remained one of the leaders in the movement to boycott South Africa as a means of protesting apartheid and came to be known affectionately as “Mama Africa”. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, signaling the death rattle of apartheid, he encouraged Makeba to return to South Africa. In 1991, Miriam Makeba returned to South Africa and was welcomed home with a reception. But after spending three decades in exile, many young South Africans were unaware of Makeba and her music.
Makeba continued to tour the world until she embarked on a farewell tour in 2005. While performing on stage in Castel Volturno, Italy, Miriam Makeba suffered a heart attack and passed away shortly after at the age of 76.
- Cowell, Alan. 2008. “Miriam Makeba, 76, Singer and Activist, Dies.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. November 10, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/11/world/africa/11makeba.html.
- Ewens, Graeme. 2008. “Obituary: Miriam Makeba.” The Guardian. Guardian News & Media Limited. November 11, 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/nov/11/miriam-makeba-obituary.
- Snethen, Jessica. 2019. “Miriam Makeba (1932-2008).” BlackPast.org. July 25, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/makeba-miriam-1932-2008/.
- Tikkanen, Amy, ed. 2020. “Miriam Makeba.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. February 29, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Miriam-Makeba.
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