Goodbye to ‘Mama Africa’

Posted on November 13, 2008

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Remembering singer and activist Miriam Makeba.


Nov. 11, 2008–

Going on stage to sing is like stepping into a perfect world. The past means nothing. Worries about the future do not exist. All that matters is the music. I live for this…. My voice is heard by the people when I speak about the evils that are strangling South Africa. Every day there is more and more to say—there is more urgency and more tragedy. The concert stage: This is one place where I am most at home, where there is no exile.

Miriam Makeba, Makeba: My Story

In the end, Miriam Makeba got her wish: to take leave of this world right after taking her final bow on stage, the only place where she felt truly at home. It was a grandly operatic ending for a woman whose very life defined drama. She endured multiple marriages and divorces, domestic abuse, alcoholism and cancer. Then, too, there were the 11-plus car accidents, the plane crash, the murders of her two uncles in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960; the death of her only daughter, Bongi; the arrests, the banning of her records, the extended exile from her homeland, South Africa.

She spent six months of the first year of her life in jail, after her mother was arrested for making beer in their home. She was a teenager when apartheid became the law of the land, not that things were much better before. But under apartheid, she wrote, “things went from bad to worse. [Apartheid] would become one of the most hated words the world has ever known.”

Tragedy played front and center in Makeba’s life, always present, always threatening. She could’ve become a tragic figure, a Xhosa Billie Holiday. But Miriam Zenzi Makeba was beautiful and regal and radiant, and somehow, through all that grief, she managed to radiate a certain kind of fiercely triumphant joy. There was a reason why they called her Mama Africa. Through her music, through her activism, she was the ambassador for not just her own embattled country but an entire continent.

There was the music, rooted in the townships of Soweto, firmly tied to a people, a place, a particular brand of politics. And there was that voice: rich, resonant, clarion. She made political activism chic. Yeah, the beat was funky, and you could dance to it, but make no mistake, there was a message. “The Click Song,” sung in her native, Xhosa, made her famous. “It’s not a sound,” she would tell audiences. “It’s my language… a written language.” Before singing “Khawuleza,” she would break it down: “The children shout from the streets as they see police cars coming to raid their homes for one thing or another. They say, ‘Khawuleza mama!’ Which means, ‘Hurry mama! Please don’t let them get you.'”

Her outspokenness only brought her trouble, even as she was becoming a big star in Europe and the states, thanks to the mentorship and guidance of her “big brother,” Harry Belafonte. In 1960, when she was trying to make it home for her mother’s funeral, the South African government revoked her passport. In 1963, after she testified against apartheid before the United Nations, they revoked her citizenship. Later, they banned her records. They tried to render her invisible, but the world heard her anyway. It was hard to ignore the joy and the defiance of songs like “Pata Pata,” her first American hit, which broke out in the states in 1967, nearly a decade after it was released.

As her fame grew, she became a nomad, a woman without a home, drifting from marriage to marriage. She first married at 17, to a colored police officer who brutally beat her. There was a brief union with South African/Indian singer Sonny Pillay, followed by a marriage to trumpeter and fellow countryman Hugh Masekela and then to Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael. Her 1968 marriage to Carmichael meant the end of her music career in the states. Carmichael was seen as a menace to society, and by extension, so was she. Her record label pulled her contract. Concert halls canceled her appearances, one after another. They moved to Guinea at the invitation of Guinean president Sekou Toure. But their marriage was not to last.

Through it all, she made music, performing with Belafonte and Masekela, with Joe Sample and Nina Simone, with Odetta and Dizzy Gillespie, with Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There were awards: a Grammy shared with Belafonte for best folk recording in 1966, the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986, among others. Her music and her activism—from her work with the U.N., to the center she created in South Africa for abused girls—were inextricably bound. “In a sad world where so many are victims, I can take pride that I am also a fighter,” she wrote. “My life, my career, every song I sing and every appearance I make, are bound up with the plight of my people.”

In 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, she would finally make it back home to South Africa, where she was welcomed like the queen that she was.

Thirty years is a long, long time to be kept from the home that you love.

“There are three things I was born with in this world,” she wrote in her memoir, published in 1987. “And there are three things I will have until the day I die: hope, determination and song…. Who can keep us down as long as we have our music?”

Sunday night, at age 76, she died of a heart attack, shortly after performing in Castel Volturno, Italy. She’d been touring since 2005, in a long, extended “farewell tour,” visiting the countries where she’d performed over the decades. In typical style, Sunday’s concert was tied to a cause. It was in support of Italian writer Roberto Saviano, a crusader against organized crime.

She exited stage left, doing what she always did, marrying music with her message.

Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.

Also on The Root:

Paloma McGregor receives a gift from ‘Mama Africa.’

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