Makeba, Miriam (1932—)

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Makeba, Miriam (1932—)

South African Xosa singer and activist, one of Africa's greatest vocalists, who lived in exile for 30 years, before being welcomed back to her homeland in the post-apartheid era. Name variations: (nickname) Mama Africa; (African name) Zenzile Makeba Qgwashu Nguvama Yiketheli Nxgowa Bantana Balomzi Xa Ufun Ubajabulisa Ubaphekeli, Mbiza Yotshwala Sithi Xa Saku Qgiba Ukutja Sithathe Izitsha Sizi Khabe Singama Lawu Singama Qgwashu Singama Nqamla Nqgithi (every child takes the first name of all male ancestors, which is then often followed with a descriptive word or two, telling about the character of the person, "making a true African name somewhat of a story," says Makeba). Born on March 4, 1932, in Prospect, South Africa; daughter of a teacher and a domestic worker; attended Kimerton Training Institute in Pretoria, South Africa; married James Kubay; married singer Sonny Pillay (divorced); married Hugh Masekela (a trumpeter and bandleader), in 1964 (divorced 1968); married Stokely Carmichael (a Black Panther activist), in 1968 (divorced); married Bageot Bah (an airline executive, divorced); children: (first marriage) daughter Bongi (died at age 35).

Was a domestic worker in Johannesburg, South Africa; toured South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the Belgian Congo (now Republic of Congo) with the Black Mountain Brothers (1954–57); came toU.S. (1959); put African music on the international map (1960s); was UN delegate from Guinea, West Africa; won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize for her work against apartheid (1986); appeared with Paul Simon on his Graceland tour (1987); released CD Homeland for Putumayo records (2000).

Life as an entertainer in South Africa during the era of apartheid was difficult. Black entertainers were often prohibited from traveling and from entertaining in white clubs. Always suspect, they were punished at the first hint of dissension. Despite these overwhelming odds, a great many talented musicians and performers emerged in South Africa. Among the first to gain international recognition was Miriam Makeba. In the mid-1950s, she joined the Black Mountain Brothers, a leading touring group in the 1950s and 1960s. The group appeared in variety shows and on radio broadcasts and made several recordings. Gaining increasing recognition as a vocalist, Makeba was recruited as a star attraction in African Jazz and Variety. She went on to perform in other shows which toured Africa. Despite the fact that she was one of South Africa's most successful performers, Makeba received only a few dollars for each recording session, since there were no provisions for royalties.

In 1959, Makeba starred in the semi-documentary Come Back Africa, which was about the system of apartheid. When she went to the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1959, she decided not to return, which was fortunate because the film caused such an uproar that the South African government invalidated her passport, making a return impossible. While performing with the Black Mountain Brothers, Makeba had met Hugh Masekela, a trumpeter and bandleader. He, too, was anxious to leave South Africa, as it was very difficult for bands to make a living. The Sharpeville massacres in 1960 extended the Group Areas Act, banning black musicians from the inner city, and they

could no longer appear on government-controlled radio or travel. With the help of Trevor Huddlestone and Harry Belafonte, Makeba and Masekela obtained permission to enter the United States. They would marry in 1964.

In America, Makeba's career prospered along with Masekela's. Belafonte secured her a guest spot on the "Steve Allen Show" in 1959 as well as an engagement at the Village Vanguard, the prestigious Manhattan jazz club. Within a few months, she had become a nationally feted performer. In May 1963, she performed at a birthday celebration for President John F. Kennedy (the same night that Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday"), and her 1965 collaboration with Belafonte earned a Grammy. Makeba continued to speak out against apartheid; in 1963, all her recordings were banned from South Africa. "When I came [to the U.S.], I wasn't even aware that people would think I was a politician or I was talking or singing politics," she said. "To me, I was just telling the truth about where I come from."

In 1968, Makeba divorced Masekela and married Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther activist. This second marriage greatly damaged her recording career, as the entertainment industry was reluctant to be involved with "radical performers." "My marriage to Stokely Carmichael didn't change my life," she told Leigh Behrens in a Chicago Tribune interview, "it just made my career disappear." To find work, she and Carmichael moved to Guinea in West Africa where Makeba continued to perform on the international circuit. She did not stop speaking out against apartheid, and served as the Guinean delegate to the United Nations. In 1986, Miriam Makeba won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize for her work. The following year, she was a guest artist on Paul Simon's Graceland tour. When apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, Miriam Makeba returned to her country after 30 years in exile; she was determined to be on hand to celebrate the new freedom. In 2000, Makeba released a new CD, Homeland. Wrote Christopher Farley: "You can hear her homeland in her voice. As she lags behind a beat, drawing out emotion, one feels the weight of apartheid bearing down. Caught up in one of her forceful, husky glissandos, it's hard not to imagine soaring above the lush expanse of the African veld." She began a worldwide tour that year, and was scheduled to act in November 2000 as master of ceremonies in South Africa's first major benefit concert, "One Billion Against AIDS." In an interview in New York City during the tour, after noting that she still needed to perform for financial reasons, Makeba said: "I feel very lucky that at my age I can still get up on that stage and hold my own. I've always been singing, and I will die singing."


Behrens, Leigh. Chicago Tribune. March 20, 1988.

Farley, Christopher. "Voice from the Veld," in Time. May 1, 2000.

"Makeba, Miriam," in The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Edited by Colin Larkin. London: Guinness Publishing, 1990.

The New York Times. June 18, 2000, p. AR28.

suggested reading:

Makeba, Miriam, with James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New American Library, 1987.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia