Miriam Makeba: Singer banned from her native South Africa for fighting apartheid

'Retire? I will sing till the day I die" declared Miriam Makeba in her 2004 biography Makeba. True to her word, the most famous African woman of her generation – popularly known as "Mama Africa" – had just taken part in a concert in Italy in support of the writer Roberto Saviano on Sunday when she was taken ill.

Exiled from South Africa for 31 years, she lived a peripatetic life and was showered in awards and accolades, but at times became a fugitive because of her stance on apartheid, as well as for affiliations that others found awkward. In response, she would tell audiences, "I don't sing about politics; I sing the truth."

At the dawn of the 1960s, Makeba was the first African singer to become a worldwide household name. She sang in many languages but always took pride in her musical roots, having realised at the start of her career that this would the basis of her appeal. So she became best known for the likes of "Pata Pata" and "The Click Song", which featured the distinctive clicking sounds of Xhosa, the first language of her father, who died when she was six.

Makeba's first name, Zenzile, means "you have no one to blame but yourself" or "you have done it to yourself", which seems unfair, considering how much her life was governed by external forces. In her time, she survived cancer, plane and car crashes, political coups and jailings.

The youngest of six childen, Makeba was only 18 days old when she was imprisoned with her mother Nomkomendelo, whose "crime" was brewing and selling beer, which was illegal at the time for Africans. This was before apartheid, which would make life even more difficult when it became the state system in 1948.

Makeba enjoyed singing from as early as she could remember. Her mother played traditional instruments and her father had a singing group called The Mississippi 12. Although she hated church, Makeba enjoyed the singing, and at home she learned traditional songs as well as those of Ella Fitzgerald from her brother, Joseph.

After the death of her father, she moved with her mother to Riverside in Pretoria, where, after sneaking repeatedly into rehearsals by the choir her sister Mizpha sang with, she was eventually allowed to join. She won a missionary school talent show at 13 and soon began singing at weddings and other celebrations, although she was also forced to make a living as a servant for white families.

At 17 she became pregnant to James Kubali and had her first and only child, Sibongile ("Bongi"), but Kubali's infidelity and violence ended the partnership, leaving her dependent once again on her mother, who had become an isangoma, or traditional healer. Her house resonated with traditional singing, drumming and dancing, which further inspired Miriam.

The following year, leaving her daughter with her mother, she left for Johannesburg, where she joined a group called the Cuban Boys. They were inspired by another vocal group popular in South Africa, the Manhattan Brothers, and three years later (by which time Makeba was developing a reputation around the townships) they needed a replacement for the smokey-voiced Emily Kwenane, and recruited Makeba. In 1953 she recorded her first hit "Laku Tshoni Ilanga" with them. She soon became a national star, earning the nickname "the Nightingale".

In 1956 Gallotone Records formed a new girl group featuring Makeba called the Sunbeams, which eventually became the Skylarks. Over the next three years they made around 100 recordings of gospel, marabi jazz, traditional tunes and Sangoma songs which have since become recognised as some of Makeba's best work. All this without a mention of royalties, management or intellectual property – something Makeba would come to rue.

In 1958, Makeba joined African Jazz and Variety, where she met and became romantically involved with the trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. She also took part in the documentary Come Back Africa, about life under apartheid. She won the lead female role in the hugely popular musical King Kong, but it was the premiere of Come Back Africa that precipitated her departure from South Africa in 1959.

The film won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, and from there Makeba travelled on to London. When she appeared on the BBC programme In Town Tonight she met the singer Harry Belafonte, who set her up on her next big step – America. With his contacts, on 30 November 1959 she got a spot on The Steve Allen Show, with its audience of around 60 million. She was literally an overnight sensation, and was soon singing in New York jazz clubs and Las Vegas. Time magazine covered her story and she met her idols such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

But the sweetness of success was short-lived: in South Africa the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 claimed the lives of two of her relatives. Her brief marriage to Shunna Pillay ended shortly after her arrival in the US, and her daughter Bongi joined her in New York. But Makeba became an exile when the South African government made her passport invalid.

Her first album, Miriam Makeba, in 1960, was backed by Belafonte's band, although the deal with RCA buying her out of her Gallotone contract meant she never saw any royalties. It was followed by The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba, and there were appearances at Carnegie Hall (alongside Nina Simone) and The Newport Jazz Festival as well as tours abroad which made her aware of her iconic status and its political significance.

She also became involved in African-American politics. In 1962 she sang at President John F. Kennedy's 45th birthday celebration, and in July 1963 gave the first of two addresses that decade to the United Nations calling for action against apartheid. Her citizenship was revoked. In the same year, after collapsing onstage, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, surviving only by having a hysterectomy. She married Masekela, but the pressure she was under (and Masekela's addictions) meant their marriage lasted only two years.

In 1966, the album An Evening With Belafonte and Miriam Makeba (1965) won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording. However, things began to unravel professionally in America when she married the Trinidadian civil rights activist and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. The couple were harassed by the FBI, record deals and contracts for shows were cancelled. The couple moved to Guinea in 1969.

Makeba continued to tour internationally, enjoying the patronage of the dictator President Sekou Touré, relishing the vibrant artistic revival he had initiated. Her marriage to Carmichael lasted till 1973, after which she stayed on in Guinea, where her career went into a relative decline.

In 1974 she sang at the festival that accompanied "The Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and made two more appearances before the UN, in 1975 and 1976. That same year, she recorded Masekela's "Soweto Blues", about the Sharpeville massacre.

In 1984 Sekou Touré died and when Makeba's daughter Bongi passed away the following year, she left for Belgium. In 1986 her fortunes revived when she joined Paul Simon's Graceland World Tour. However, it landed her in hot water, as it did Simon, since it contravened the UN cultural boycott she had been instrumental in instigating.

The late 1980s saw the last of Makeba's great recordings, the return-to-roots albums Sangoma (1988) and Welela (1989). In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and in June she returned to South Africa to a heroine's welcome. In 1992 she starred in the film Sarafina! about the Soweto uprisings and was reinstated as a South African citizen. In 2000, her album Homeland received a Grammy nomination, and she appeared in the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony in 2002.

Makeba had decided to retire in 2005 when she embarked on a world tour, but it was a long goodbye, perhaps exacerbated by continuing financial problems as well as struggles with alcohol and arthritis. Her most recent UK appearance was in Trafalgar Square for Africa Day on 28 May 2007, when she gave a feisty performance.

Jon Lusk



Zenzile Miriam Makeba, singer, songwriter and activist: born Prospect Township, Johannesburg 4 March, 1932; married four times (one child, deceased); died Castel Volturno, Italy 9 November 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick