How Mama Africa touched us

Thandisizwe Mgudlwa December 11, 2021
Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela - Soweto Blues (Live 1988). Image via YouTube

Miriam Makeba rocked international audiences until they could no longer ignore the tyranny of apartheid. She dazzled crowds indoors and outdoors with her African style of doing things. One moment, she would entertain the rich and famous in various Capitals across the globe, educating and presenting them with African lifestyle, politics and cultural heritage she displayed through her unique African collection of clothing and dresses.

She would heal them through mixing her melody between English and her native Xhosa language telling the story of oppression and the Struggle for freedom while tapping and moving her body, supporting her rhythmic sounds in true African style.

In another moment, she would be doing the very same with the downtrodden world. Later in her career, Mama Africa used lyrics in Swahili, Xhosa, and Sotho. This led to Mama Africa being seen as a representation of an “authentic” Africa by American audiences.

Mama Africa, as she was affectionately called, became a true ambassador for what was good, great and best about Africa. She taught the world the virtues of Ubuntu and that ‘African Ideas’, as fellow singer legendary South African group, Juluka, would sing, ‘make the future’.

Mama Africa became a symbol of oneness, unity and set the tone for what would be considered humane and noble through her work as a singer, songwriter, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist without losing the African touch.

There are many great artists that have come and gone who made their mark, but Mama Africa stands out as you could say she was destined for her fate, to play the role she played and commit her life into resembling the uniqueness of Africa that the world still longs for.

Through her creativity, she not only promoted the brand ‘Miriam Makeba’ but elevated the musical genres including Afropop, jazz, Marabi, township flavor and world music to new heights.

As an advocate against apartheid oppression and white-minority government in South Africa, Mama Africa told the world mostly through music how injustices and oppression are equally if not more toxic and harmful even to the perpetrators who carried out those inhuman acts.

“Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the color of your skin is different to that of the rulers and if you were punished for even asking for equality?” — Miriam Makeba

Born Zenzile Miriam Makeba in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932, Mama Africa was forced to find employment as a child after the death of her father. Her father died when the young Makeba was only six years of age.

At the age of 17, Makeba had already encountered the ups and downs of life as she had a brief and allegedly abusive first marriage, but as the world would later experience, she proved her survivalist instincts and responded with an internationally acclaimed career.

The upside of the marriage was the birth of her only child in 1950. At this time again her spiritual resilience ensured that she would survive breast cancer.

Mama Africa is truly blessed in that as a child, her vocal talent had been recognized already. And in the 1950s, she began singing professionally with the Cuban Brothers, the Manhattan Brothers, and an all-woman group, The Skylarks, performing a mixture of jazz, traditional African melodies. Add to that, Western popular music.

One of Mama Africa’s career highs came in 1959 when she had a brief role in the anti-apartheid film, Come Back, Africa. This role would bring her instant international recognition, leading to Mama Africa performing at glittering events in Venice, London, and New York City.

And in 1960, Mama recorded her first solo album. While in London, Mama Africa met the legendary American singer, Harry Belafonte. Belafonte became a mentor and colleague to Mama Africa.

In 1962, Mama Africa and Belafonte sang at the birthday party for US President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. But Mama Africa did not go to the party afterwards because she was ill. Nevertheless, Kennedy insisted on meeting her, so Belafonte sent a car to pick her up.

Mama Africa then moved to New York City. This move would prove to be of great benefit to her as she immediately became a popular star.

Another painful moment in the precious life of Mama Africa, this time coming from the cruelty of the apartheid regime, was when her attempt to return to South Africa that year, 1960, for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the government.

“I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That’s when it hurts.” — Miriam Makeba.

Nevertheless, her career would exponentially flourish in the United States, and Mama Africa released several albums and songs, her most popular being “Pata Pata” in 1967. Along with Belafonte, Mama Africa received a Grammy Award for her 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.

Mama Africa testified against the apartheid government at the United Nations and became part and parcel of the American civil rights movement. In 1968, Mama Africa married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party, an American radical black nationalist movement. And as a result of being married to Carmichael, Mama Africa lost support among white Americans.

The US government took it further and canceled her visa while Mama Africa was traveling abroad. This move would lead Mama Africa and Carmichael to move to Africa and settle in Guinea.

“I’d already lived in exile for 10 years, and the world is free, even if some of the countries in it aren’t, so I packed my bags and left.”— Miriam Makeba

The talent and spirit in Mama Africa led her to continue to perform, mostly in African countries. Mama Africa was truly blessed as she would also perform at several independence celebrations. Mama Africa began to write and perform music more critical of apartheid. 

In the 1977 song “Soweto Blues”, which was written by her former husband Hugh Masekela, she kept the story of the Soweto Uprisings alive globally. The massacre of students would become the turning point against apartheid and uprisings that broke out on June 16, 1976, leading to hundreds of students being killed by apartheid police.

The students were against the oppressors’ language of Afrikaans and the quality of education black people had been accustomed to.

In 1990, apartheid was dismantled, this was Mama Africa returning to South Africa.

“I look at an ant and 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. I look at a bird and I see myself: a native South African, soaring above the injustices of apartheid on wings of pride, the pride of a beautiful people.” —Miriam Makeba

Back in South Africa, Mama Africa continued recording and performing. This would include a 1991 album with Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie. She went further and appeared in the 1992 film Sarafina, which exposed the Struggle against apartheid in the form of film.

Mama Africa was named a UN goodwill ambassador in 1999. By all accounts, this would motivate her even more to campaign for humanitarian causes.

Mama Africa was among the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition, in an era of other great globally recognized musical icons and artists like Jonas Gwangwa, Letta Mbuli, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Bloke Modisane among others.

Mama Africa will forever be remembered for bringing African music to a Western audience and anybody that was moved by her talent elsewhere in the world. She also, from an African angle, popularized the world music and Afropop genres.

Mama Africa also made popular several songs critical of apartheid. In this process, she became a symbol of opposition to the apartheid system, particularly after her right to return was revoked. This beautiful soul from the inside and outside was named by Time magazine as the “most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years” while Newsweek compared her voice to “the smoky tones and delicate phrasing” of Ella Fitzgerald and the “intimate warmth” of Frank Sinatra.

Upon Mama’s death, former president Nelson Mandela remarked, “her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”

How many people do we know of that have held nine passports, and were granted honorary citizenship in 10 countries? Mama Africa achieved so much that her honors, awards and accomplishments need a supplement dedicated to her. Among the numerous philanthropic works Mama Africa established, the Makeba Centre for Girls, a home for orphans, was described in an obituary as her most personal project.

Mama Africa departed this world, in clinical artistic fashion, doing what she loved best, performing and expressing her calling for God’s children. 

The heart attack, assigned to her passing, could also be viewed as her release of her loving spirit to the world. This happened while on stage performing during a 2008 concert in Italy at age 76.

But the truth is, people like Mama Africa will never die, they multiply.

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