The singer who was known as ‘Mama Africa’
“I don’t sing politics,” Miriam Makeba once said. “I merely sing the truth.” But for Makeba, who sang movingly of her life in segregated South Africa, the personal was very much the political. Banned from her homeland for 30 years because of her anti-apartheid activism, she fused native melodies with jazz and pop to produce a joyous, hopeful sound that helped pioneer world music and earned her the nickname “Mama Africa.”
“Makeba started performing in the ’50s in Sophiatown, then the heart of black culture in Johannesburg,” said the London Guardian. She starred in the hit musical King Kong; “an appearance in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa saw Makeba travel to the Venice Film Festival in 1959. But when she tried to return home for her mother’s funeral she found that her passport had been revoked.” Thanks to Harry Belafonte, though, she got a recording contract and was performing for such figures as President Kennedy, as well as appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. She became the first African woman to win a Grammy, for a 1966 album with Belafonte “describing black people’s plight under minority rule.”
Though a popular success, thanks especially to her internationally acclaimed novelty number “The Click Song,” Makeba was controversial, said the Associated Press. “She fell briefly out of favor when she married black power activist Stokely Carmichael.” She also suffered a backlash for accepting refuge from Guinea’s President Ahmed Sékou Touré, “who was accused in the slaughtering of 10 percent of the population.” But her return to South Africa in 1990 was triumphant. “It was like a revival,” she said. “My music having been banned for so long, that people still felt the same way about me was too much for me. I just went home and cried.”
Makeba died of a heart attack in Italy, collapsing at a concert to support author Roberto Saviano, who had received death threats for writing about organized crime.