Ever heard of Mama Africa? In Africa, “mama” means mother. So, Mama Africa refers to a figure seen as the mother of Africans. Miriam Makeba was not given this title for nothing. She not only brought African music to Western ears but also became a key figure in the fight against the oppression of black people in South Africa.
When Makeba was born (in 1932), she did not find herself in a place where she had the resources to make a difference in the world. In fact, she had to spend her first six months in the world in a prison cell.
You see, when her mother was pregnant with Makeba, she tried selling illegally brewed drinks to make ends meet. Consequently, the colonial government seized her and threw her in prison, where she gave birth to Makeba.
After coming from prison, Makeba went on to have a difficult childhood. Her father died when she was only five years old, leaving Makeba and her mother struggling even to raise money to purchase food and other essentials of life. This forced the little Makeba to move to Pretoria to live with her grandmother.
Amid the troubles of life, Makeba displayed one unique quality – she had an exceptional vocal talent. The little girl would move the masses every time she performed at churches and schools. During the royal visit of 1947, Makeba performed her first solo, which helped her gain attention locally.
In the 1950s, she would go ahead to become very popular in South Africa, singing Kwela and African jazz. She even got signed with the Manhattan Brothers, and through her association with them, Makeba was able to build a reputation not only in the country but also in surrounding countries. Apart from within the country, she toured the Congo, Zimbabwe, and other southern African countries.
From a young age, Makeba had experienced the hardships created by the colonial government, especially the discrimination against black Africans. Before, she did not have a platform to try and change things, but with entertainment, she had the platform.
Apart from singing about the injustice and impunity going on in the country, Miriam got into film. In 1957, she stared in Come Back Africa, a film that highlighted the evils that the colonial government was propagating, as well as the hardships black Africans were going through as a result.
After two years, Makeba was signed for a lead role in the famous musical King Kong. The musical reflected the Apartheid rule in full light, challenging the colonial government directly. King Kong was an instant success, gaining attention from both black and white audiences not just in South Africa but throughout the world as well. Renowned media houses, including The Star, dubbed King Kong “the greatest South African thriller of the century”.
Although King Kong gave Makeba international fame, it also got her into trouble with the South African colonial authorities. Consequently, when Makeba went to Venice to receive an award, the government refused to renew her passport. As a result, she couldn’t fly back to South Africa. Apparently, the colonial government wasn’t happy with Makeba’s actions of telling the world what was going on in South Africa.
Unable to move back to her motherland, Mama Africa took refuge in London. That’s where she met the renowned jazz and Afro-pop musician Harry Belafonte. Harry would go on to help Makeba immigrate to the USA.
In the US, Makeba didn’t stop her activities of promoting African beats and fighting for the liberation of her home country. She even went as far as meeting the then US president J.F. Kennedy in 1962 and performing for him at the Madison Square Garden. Kennedy was greatly amazed by Makeba’s exemplary performance.
And following the performance, Makeba became a sensation in the US, especially among African American audiences.
There was one thing that many people admired about Makeba – her natural looks. Unlike most other musicians, she was not drawn into the world of makeup. Makeba mostly maintained her natural looks, particularly keeping her hair in its natural form. People started imitating her hair style, calling it the Afro Look.
A little later, Makeba’s mother passed away in South Africa. Trying to fly back home for the burial, Makeba learned that the government had revoked her passport, and it was clear that they were not ready to allow her to fly back to the country. Thus, she missed her mother’s burial.
Around the same time, the colonial authorities in South Africa rounded up those fighting for independence in the country. Among them was Nelson Mandela, who they threw in prison to serve a life sentence.
Infuriated by the colonial government’s actions of injustice and impunity, Makeba decided to go a step further in her fight for liberation. One of the things she did was to testify at the United Nations about the harsh policy of Apartheid in South Africa. That caused her South African citizenship to be cancelled by the colonial authorities. She was banned from setting foot in South Africa, and even her music was banned in the country.
Meanwhile in the US, Mama Africa’s career continued to shine. She even won a Grammy in 1965. In 1967, Makeba became the first black woman to have a top 10 in the Billboard chart.
In 1990, with the disintegration of the Apartheid rule, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. One of the things he did was to fix Makeba’s situation. Makeba was granted her passport and allowed back into the country.
When Makeba moved back to her motherland, she became one of the key instruments of molding the newly freed republic. She served as South Africa’s Goodwill ambassador to the United Nations.
In the remaining years of her life, Makeba was a committed humanitarian, especially fighting for the rights of women and girls in Africa. She was the founder of the Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for Women and Girls.
Makeba died in 2008, after suffering cardiac arrest while performing at a concert in Italy. She left behind an immense legacy. She had released 28 albums, numerous TV appearances, incalculable accolades and honors, including a Grammy, and a sea of fans from all over the world. Not forgetting her activist efforts that brought to light the colonialists evil Apartheid rule.
The story of Makeba is that of an African girl born into desolation, but beating the odds to achieve the unthinkable. She was born in a prison cell, got into an abusive marriage at just 17, became exiled, and survived breast cancer. And in the midst of it all, she helped liberate her country from slavery and gave African music exposure.