Miriam Makeba was a change maker. Going down as one of the most influential women who sparked revolutionary change for the necessary end of the apartheid, she is most commonly known as the “Sound of South Africa”, or “Mama Africa” (TIME). Her career was on the move starting at a young age. As a powerful and hard working female icon, she embarked on a career that consisted of singing, songwriting, acting, and activism. Makeba’s global hit song, “Pata Pata” still inspires and touches the hearts of audiences around the world to this day. Today, we remember and embrace the life of Miriam Makeba as she was a musical and political leader who paved the way for peace in Africa (Allen 1).
Miriam Makeba had a difficult and troubling upbringing which ultimately drove her motivation to have great success later in life. She was born on March 4th, 1932 in Johannesburg, the chief industrialized city of South Africa (Britannica). Makeba lived at home in Johannesburg with both of her parents until her mother was caught brewing beer illegally and was instantly imprisoned for six months. Only at 18 days old, Miriam quickly called prison home and began to grow up alongside her mother in the jail cell due to financial reasons (South African History Outline). A few years later, her father dies when she is five years old and she is forced to move out and live with her grandmother where she suffers poverty and economic instability growing up (UNESCO). As for early education, she attended private school where she was a member of the choir and discovered that she had a gift for singing and performing. She soon took this singing to her Baptist church where she was baptized and began singing in the church choir (SAHO). She received great praise and recognition for her extraordinary talent at such a young age.
Miriam Makeba courtesy of IFC Center
Miriam’s career jump started at the age of seventeen when became singing for the Cuban Brothers, an African jazz group. This was the start of her professional career as a musician and lead-singer. Miriam became appealing and well-known to the public eye when the Manhattan Brothers took her in and launched her career at the age of twenty-one (Allen 1). Shortly after this widespread fame and publicity, Miriam joined an all female singing group known as the Skylarks. Signing with the Gallotene Record Company, the Skylarks began traveling and recording as a harmony group in 1956 (Allen 1). Makeba quickly lands the lead role in the hit musical King Kong in 1959 and makes a guest appearance in the film Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid film produced by American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin (Allen 1). From her fortunate experiences and opportunities with having membership within these groups, Miriam Makeba was off to great places. Makeba Mama Africa was born and the legacy of her music and success only kept moving forward from there.
Miriam Makeba courtesy of Priya Ramrakha
All of Makeba’s early career achievements stirred up her international breakthrough which brought her to the United States. She moved to New York and began a new wave of her life stationed in the United States where she would be for the next two decades to live out the show business dream. She even built connections with famous American icons such as Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy (The Guardian). Furthermore, Mama Africa appeared on television shows while continuing to perform, record, and travel around the United States.
Miriam Makeba courtesy of Harbourfront Centre
“In our struggle, songs are not simply entertainment for us. They are the way we communicate. A tool of activism. “
Her Fight for Rights
While her musical career flourished in the United States, the Sharpeville Massacre took place in 1960 and her mother and other family members were announced dead shortly after. She immediately tried to flee home to Johannesburg when she found out her South African passport privilege was revoked to return for her mother’s funeral, marking the beginning of 30 years of exile (The Guardian). Moving forward, she decided to use her fame and platform to spread awareness of the apartheid and white minority government. She felt it was her responsibility to bring her international audience together as she had a cross-racial appeal (TIME). Miriam became an activist for uniting African descent with people from around the world. She testified among the United Nations twice (1962 & 1964) to speak out against the apartheid government for stripping away her personal rights and citizenship in South Africa (SAHO). While she was in exile, she was involved heavily in and dedicated herself and her music to the Civil Rights movement taking place in the United States. Popular black music icons travelled together pushing and spreading awareness for Civil Rights and singing against the oppression (SAHO).
Civil Rights Movement courtesy of History.com
A Musical Icon
As Makeba moved towards hopes of inspiring peace and demanding justice for Africa, she continued to use her music as a platform to tell her stories and experiences to spread awareness of the anti-apartheid movement. She was able to return to South Africa in 1990 when the apartheid was dwindling and helped heal the country with her music (TIME). After achieving several awards and continuing to build a legacy worth remembering, her global hit song “Pata Pata” continues to touch the hearts of people around the world with the joyfully moving tone and theme of anti-apartheid theme. On November 9th, 2008 Miriam Makeba performed “Pata Pata” for the last time in Italy. She passed away from suffering a heart attack offstage shortly after that final concert.
Miriam Makeba was a remarkable, inspiring, and influential woman who made revolutionary changes that instilled a shift in music and politics for the better. She inspires the youth and women around the world to use their voice through the platforms that they are passionate. As someone who aspires to use creative outlets to make a difference, Miriam Makeba proves that this is possible and exemplifies the journey you go through to reach a destination.
In closing, Miriam Makeba is a musical and political icon who has left a lasting legacy for many generations to be inspires, motivated, and influenced by. For further knowledge on the life and details of Miriam Makeba, I encourage you to read her autobiography, “Makeba: The Miriam Makeba Story”.
Mama Africa courtesy of Moonlook Magazine
Featured cover photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives—Getty Images
Allen, Lara. “Remembering Miriam Makeba.” Journal of Musical Arts in Africa, vol. 5, no. 1, 2008, pp. 89–90.
“Biography.” Miriam Makeba Biography Women.
“Johannesburg.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
“Miriam Makeba.” Miriam Makeba South African History Online.
“Obituary: Miriam Makeba.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Nov. 2008.
Person. “Zenzile Miriam Makeba: 100 Women of the Year.” Time, Time, 5 Mar. 2020.