Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Africa and the Empress of African song, was a popular South African singer who introduced authentic Xhosa and Zulu songs to western audiences. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1932, Miriam Makeba attracted the attention of Harry Belafonte who then assisted her travel to the United States to begin her career in music. She became known for her belief in keeping the traditional folk music of her country alive by bringing it to the forefront of western populations. She is also known for her work as an activist. During the time of apartheid in South Africa, Miriam Makeba used her platform to bring attention to the injustices that native South Africans were suffering because of apartheid with her appearance in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. As punishment for revealing what had been occurring in South Africa, when she tried to return to attend her mother’s funeral in 1960, she realized she had been exiled from her country. She had become a woman without a country, but various nations of the world offered her international passports, making her a citizen of the world. Her marriage to civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused a major controversy in the United States which led to her shows being cancelled within the States. The couple then moved to Guinea and this became her home for the next fifteen years. Through her friendship with President Ahmed Sekou Toure and his wife, Makeba was appointed as Guinea’s official delegate to the United Nations, winning the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize in 1986. She continued to perform in Africa, Europe, and Asia and even with her exile and the US boycott of her music, her love for her country remained as fervent as ever and was evident in her music. Throughout her exile, she remained committed to helping her home country and the family she had left behind. Miriam Makeba is a true African queen- loyal, passionate, and regal.
For more information, watch Come Back, Africa directed by Lionel Rogosin and Mama Africa directed by Mika Kaurismaki.
Photo by Fabrizio Ruggiero.