During the month of March, Sound celebrates Women’s History Month, placing a spotlight on the accomplishments of women throughout history who have made an impact on society. This week, we recognize “Mama Africa,” otherwise known as Miriam Makeba, an anti-Apartheid activist.
Known as Mama Africa, Zenzile Miriam Makeba was an artist, singer, activist, and a leading force in the anti-Apartheid and Pan-African movements in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Makeba wrote and performed music that dismantled and admonished the Apartheid government of South Africa, along with its stifling disenfranchisement, racism, and oppression of Africans.
A Formidable Musical Influence
In the mid-1950s, Makeba formed the all-female ensemble called Skylarks, conjuring up an intoxicating blend of traditional South African music that created a new genre of African-Jazz. Her powerful activist messages were flushed through her music and later, she would play a vital role in the creation of AfroPop and World Music. Makeba was also married to revered South African musician Hugh Masekela and Pan-African activist Kwame Touré (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), a major member of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s.
Makeba also performed in a 1959 anti-Apartheid documentary, Come Back, Africa, which introduced her to an international audience. She obtained a South African government visa to attend the Venice Film Festival and used the opportunity to go into exile. Not surprisingly, the South African government revoked her citizenship in 1963. In addition, many of her songs were banned in South Africa and distributed through underground networks.
During her career, Makeba performed with numerous recording artists including Harry Belafonte. Her album Homeland, released in 2000, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music category. Sadly, Makeba suffered a heart attack on November 9, 2008, while performing on stage in Italy, and died the next day. “Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us,” said South African President Nelson Mandela after her death.
In the discussion today about Colonialism, Makeba’s name must be included. Throughout her life, she called for unity between Black people of African descent across the world.
“Africans who live everywhere should fight everywhere. The struggle is no different in South Africa, the streets of Chicago, Trinidad or Canada,” she said. “The Black people are the victims of capitalism, racism and oppression, period.”