Mama Africa: The Legacy of Miriam Makeba

Meet the South African singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist

By Google Arts & Culture

Miriam Makeba (1969) by Unidentified and Getty ImagesSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Zenzile Miriam Makeba was, and remains, one of the most iconic figures of the African music scene. Known for her outstanding vocal talent, the singer, songwriter, and activist was a fierce opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime and a lifelong freedom fighter.

Born in Johannesburg in 1932, Makeba started singing from a young age through her church. However, it wasn't until 1947 that she had her first solo performance during the Royal Visit. Her talent was quickly recognized and by the 1950s, Miriam was performing professionally.

Miriam Makeba by Banksalve and CoGoDown Arts Centre

Miriam began singing with a number of South African groups including the Manhattan Brothers, with whom she had her first hit ‘Lakutshn, Ilanga’ in 1953. This raised her profile and in 1956, she joined the all-female Skylarks, singing a mix of jazz and traditional African songs.

Miriam Makeba by Mohamed AminMohamed Amin Foundation

In 1959, Miriam had a short cameo in an anti-apartheid film called Come Back, Africa. The appearance catapulted her onto the global stage and brought her music international recognition. Soon after, she performed in New York and London and made her first solo recordings.

Miriam Makeba by Mohamed AminMohamed Amin Foundation

Miriam Makeba moved to New York in 1959 and began performing across the country and appearing on U.S TV. In 1960, shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre, Miriam discovered her South African passport had been cancelled, leaving her unable to return to her home and family.

Miriam Makeba - Principles of African Greatness Intro (2019) by Michael Briggs and Augustus (Gus) Casely-HayfordSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

As her fame grew, Miriam continued to criticize the regime in South Africa. She used her platform to draw worldwide attention to its racist policies and horrific treatment of black South Africans. As a result, her music was banned in the country and her citizenship revoked.

Harry Belafonte (1958) by Robert W KelleyLIFE Photo Collection

In 1966, Miriam Makeba and legendary singer Harry Belafonte won a Grammy for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. The album was strongly political and included lyrics in a number of African languages. In 1967, she released ‘Pata Pata’ one of her most famous tracks. 

Miriam Makeba (1969) by Unidentified and Getty ImagesSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Miriam had also become active in the U.S Civil Rights Movement and in 1968, she married Stokely Carmichael, a prominent member of the Black Panther Party. Her popularity among white Americans declined notably as a result, and the CIA began taking an interest in her activities. 

LIFE Photo Collection

While traveling in the Bahamas, Miriam had her U.S visa cancelled and was banned from returning to the country. She and her husband relocated to Conakry, Guinea, where she lived for the next 15 years.

Nelson Mandela released from prison (1990-11-02)Original Source: Graeme Williams / South Photos

In 1990, under huge international pressure, South Africa was forced to release Nelson Mandela and reverse many of its racist policies. Miriam was finally able to return to her homeland in June that year. Miriam Makeba died of a heart attack following a concert in Italy in 2008.

Miriam Makeba by Mohamed AminMohamed Amin Foundation

One of the most visible and outspoken opponents of apartheid, Miriam used her music and her profile to fight for the freedom of black South Africans. Her musical and political legacies can still be felt today, with many still affectionately referring to her as Mama Africa.

85199 (1970-09) by John OlsonLIFE Photo Collection

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