All That’s Black: Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba, Singer and Activist:

“I look at an ant and I see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit.”

Miriam Makeba or “Mama Africa,” was a South African singer and civil rights activist, known for denouncing apartheid on the world stage and campaigning abroad for the end of the oppressive policy. After her father’s death, Miriam was forced to find work as a child.

While working, she met her first husband, whom she married at 17. After years of abuse, Miriam left her husband and, using singing talent that had been recognized for years, moved to New York City, where she met Harry Belafonte. Her singing career flourished among both White and Black audiences in the United States, and she released several songs and albums, the most popular being “Pata Pata.”

As her star rose, so did her voice when it came to discussing the rampant apartheid in South Africa, she even testified against the South African government in front of the United Nations. Her loud actions led to the South African government revoking her passport in 1960 and banning her from returning in 1963. Despite this, Guinea, Belgium and Ghana all issue her international passports, believing the message she was trying to share was necessary. In 1968, Miriam married Stokey Carmichael, a leader in the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the civil rights movement.

This marriage caused her popularity amongst White audiences to decrease, and she began to face hostility from the US government, causing the couple to move to Guinea. Her record deals and tours were cancelled, but Mama Africa still spoke. She gave concerts in other African countries, including independence celebrations, to bring awareness to apartheid and began to write and perform music more openly critical of the practice. After apartheid was dismantled in 1990, Miriam and her husband, Stokey, returned to South Africa for the first time in 30 years.

She continued recording and performing, including a 1991 album with Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, and appeared in the 1992 film Sarafina!. She was named a UN goodwill ambassador in 1999 and campaigned for humanitarian causes. Mama Africa was one of the first African artists to receive international acclaim, bringing African music to a Western audience and popularizing the Afropop genre. She died of a heart attack during a 2008 concert in Italy.

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