Miriam Makeba, known to many as Mama Afrika, rose from a local singer in her township to a world-renowned musician. But more than just a beautiful singer, Makeba used her celebrity status to promote human rights and fight the Apartheid rule of South Africa.
Born in Johannesburg in 1932, Makeba sang in small community groups in her township. She later joined The Manhattan Boys, where she got her first taste of touring, and formed her own group The Skylarks. Her music combined traditional African melodies with jazz, ragtime, and swing.
Makeba’s voice landed her a role in the major film Come Back Africa, for which she received international acclaim and flew to Venice for its premiere. The film was a documentary about African politics and shed light on the brutal Apartheid regime. When she left Venice she learned the South African Government had revoked her passport for participating in the film and she was unable to return home.
Makeba used this as an opportunity to fight the Apartheid system. She was the first musician to put African music on the international scene, which not only drew attention to South Africa’s vibrant musical culture but also to its political turmoil. Makeba testified before the United National’s General Assembly against the injustices of Apartheid and became a recognizable icon for the movement.
While in exile, Makeba immigrated to America where her music career skyrocketed. She performed for President Kennedy, won a Grammy, and took part in Paul Simon’s Graceland Tour in 1987. Through her music she became the voice of Africa, performing her hits Pata Pata and The Click Song to sold-out theaters across the world.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1991 he invited Makeba back to her home, where she returned after 31 years of exile. Though she retired from singing in 2005, Makeba remained active in politics as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations until her death in 2008. Makeba’s talents led to a great musical career, but it was her vibrant persona and dedication to Africa that earned her a place in history.