Biography of Miriam Makeba by Narcy Negrete

Abstract

Miriam Makeba was a South African singer, daughter, mother, and an antiapartheid activist. After she was exiled from South Africa in 1960, she used her success to shine a light on the ugly truths of apartheid government. She utilised her voice to sing political songs and deliver two speeches at the United Nations.

Key Words

Miriam Makeba, music, Pata Pata, Soweto Blues, Graceland tour, United Nations Assembly

Introduction

Miriam Makeba was well known for her unforgettable voice, but no one can deny she played an even bigger part in the South African history. During her time in exile she became very outspoken about her stand against apartheid. She used her elevated position to address the United Nations and bring forth the issues occurring in South Africa. She demonstrated that there are different ways to fight an oppressive government; her songs and success proved to be a form of protest that the apartheid government tried to silence but failed. The success Makeba obtained internationally helped expose the suffering of Africans. While exiled in America and Guinea, Miriam Makeba contributed to the fight against the apartheid government through the messages of her songs, tours, and concerts that ended in political rallies and her anti-apartheid speeches at the United Nations.

Background

Miriam Zenzile Makeba was born in the township of Prospect, near Johannesburg, on 4 March 1932. Her mother was a Swazi sangoma – a traditional healer – and her father was a Xhosa coalminer. Makeba attended the Kimerton Training Institute in Pretoria. She started singing in her church choir. Her music career was put on pause when she discovered she was pregnant; she married her unborn child’s father, Gooli. In 1950, at the young age of eighteen, Makeba gave birth to her first daughter, Bongi.

In her early twenties, she lived in Sophiatown, where the music scene was very diverse. She began to receive national recognition when she joined the Manhattan Brothers as a backup vocalist in 1954. In 1959 she left the group to join an all-female group called the Skylarks. The success that followed her from the Skylarks awarded her the lead role in the show King Kong, which was a South African musical. This musical was based on the life of South African boxer Ezekiel Dlhmini, who was not allowed to compete outside of the country. Makeba played the girlfriend of Dlhmini and performed two songs. The boxer is sentenced to 14 years in jail for the murder of his girlfriend, who he suspected cheated on him. At the end of the musical he supposedly took his life by drowning himself, but the musical suggested there was foul play by the authorities[i] (Makeba, 1988).

Although Makeba’s fame was already on the rise in South Africa by the time she finished King Kong, her appearance in Come Back Africa, which was released in 1959 in South Africa and 1960 in America, caught the attention of European and American audiences [ii] (Feldstein, 2013). Makeba had finished recording her parts of Come Back Africa before she began King Kong, but the director continued to film until he finished in 1959. Lionel Rogosin directed this political film which was extremely critical of apartheid government; needless to say the South African government was not happy with this film, especially because it was filmed and smuggled out of the country without the consent of government officials.

Makeba is Exiled

Just as the film, Come Back Africa, was about to be released, Rogosin contacted Makeba to join him at the Venice Film Festival. In August 1959, Makeba left South Africa for the first time, leaving behind her eight-year old daughter. She spends the next year touring, performing, and appearing on talk shows. Makeba received a call from her mother to take Bongi; she made the arrangements and before long she was reunited with her now nine-year old daughter. In 1960 despite several attempts to communicate with her mother, she was unable to do so. She finally received a call from her brother who informed her that her mother had passed away. She rushed to the South African consulate in New York; the man at the desk took her passport and stamped the word “INVALID” on it[iii] (Makeba, 1988).

Even though Makeba had never spoken out against the South African government, she had been exiled from her home country because the apartheid saw her success as a threat; she could possibly lash out which made her dangerous. Her inability to say her final goodbyes to her mother left her with great pain and grief. She was banned from her home and everything she ever knew. Consequently, she would not step foot in South Africa for thirty-one years.

Makeba’s Music Career

In spite of being exiled, she focused her time and energy on her musical career. Makeba was one of the first artists to introduce international audiences to the South African culture with her music. She captivated everyone’s attention, excluding that of South Africans because her music was not allowed to be played there. International audiences loved the clicks in her songs, because it was unlike anything they had heard before.

Her hit “Pata Pata”, which is also referred to as “The Clicking Song”, was one of the first songs to introduce Western listeners to the clicks of the Zulu languages. In her autobiography she stated “the song that [boosted] my career higher than it has ever been… is also one of my most insignificant songs”[iv] (Makeba, 1988). She described the song as “insignificant” because there was no real message in the song. She originally wrote “Phatha Phatha” (the original spelling is Phatha which is a word in Zulu and Xhosa) in 1956 while she was still in South Africa. The song has a very upbeat rhythm and makes listeners want to get up and dance. The word Phatha means “touch” in both Zulu and Xhosa; she revealed that she wrote the song about a dance she would do while at home. Later on she decided to revise the song and add some English lyrics to “bring the song into context for an international audience” [v] (Allingham, 2009). The song entered Billboard’s Top 100 R&B Chart on 7 October 1967 and stayed there for 13 weeks. For the remainder of Miriam Makeba’s career “Pata Pata” (the spelling changed when she added English lyrics) would be her most popular song. Her style of music earned her the titles “Mama Africa” and “Empress of African Song.”

Makeba had a great passion and love for music. In an interview Makeba stated that “[her] music gave [her] the world”[vi] (Barnett, 2007). But at the same time that her music granted her the opportunity to visit many countries and learn about different cultures, it also took away just as much as it gave. Standing up to and “speaking against apartheid and singing about life in Africa gave [her] legions of fans but also some enemies”[vii] (Barnett, 2007). Although many South Africans struggled under the governance of apartheid and wished to leaving their home country, the people that were exiled always dreamt of returning home. Miriam Makeba was not the exception. She revealed:

“it is kind of painful to be away from everything that you've ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That's when it hurts”[viii] (Bordowitz, 2004).

Even though Makeba was far away from the rule of apartheid government, she continued to suffer because of it.

Furthermore, her songs not only revealed the culture and traditions of the South African people but the lyrics also contained political, controversial messages. Hugh Masekela, one of her five husbands, composed a song called Soweto Blues. It was performed by Makeba and released in 1977 in Masekela’s album “You Told Your Mama Not To Worry.” Soweto, which means South Western Townships, was the scene of a massacre in 1976. Soweto Blues described how apartheid government changed the language of the educational system to Afrikaan, a language most children did not speak. The song began: “The children got a letter from the master, It said: no more Xhosa, Sotho, no more Zulu;” these lyrics described the situation the students of South Africa were faced with [ix] (Soweto Blues, 1977). This abrupt change led a large number of students to gather in the streets of Soweto on 16 June 1976 to protest this injustice. Children who were passing their classes with high grades, were asked to learn a new language and pass the same courses; this proved to be an extremely difficult challenge.

Unfortunately, the demonstration of resistance in Soweto took a turn for the worst when police officers began to shoot at the crowds. It was reported that about 176 people died that day, but since then it has been estimated that about 700 people died that day while several hundred were injured. The South African government tried to cover up how many lives were lost during this massacre to avoid receiving negative attention. This scheme was also revealed in the chorus of the song, the news tried to play it off as “just a little atrocity, deep in the city”[x] (Soweto Blues, 1977). The song uncovered the many truths of the Soweto Uprising that led to a massacre. Without a doubt, this is one of the most controversial songs performed by Makeba.

Makeba and the cultural boycott

Additionally, Makeba also participated in a South African cultural boycott. In 1965 Makeba along with other artists vowed not to have any

“personal or professional association with the present Republic of South Africa… until all its people – black and white – shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of this rich and lovely land”[xi] (Boycott, 1965).

Despite the efforts of other nations of the world to change the oppressive ways of apartheid government, their attempts had fallen short of their expectations. The boycott was a public form of resistance made by many South African artists. The goal was to tighten the strains on the South African to force them to make the desired changes. Each signer of the boycott vowed to distance themselves from the South African government until the government recognized the equality of white and blacks

Makeba and the Graceland Tour

Makeba’s career became even more controversial when she joined Paul Simon during his Graceland tour. In 1986 Paul Simon entered South Africa to record his album “Graceland” with several local musicians. Many anti-apartheid activists claimed that this violated the cultural boycott of 1965 set by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee; thus Makeba’s involvement in his tour was also regarded as a violation of the boycott she promised to uphold. The scandals surrounding the 1987 tour ended in many scholarly debates that questioned how singing was helping put an end to apartheid government.

In Graceland Revisited, scholar, Charles Hamm, focuses on Makeba’s participation in Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. In 1987 Makeba and Hugh Masekela joined the stage in Harare, Zimbabwe to sing their political songs like Soweto Blues and Bring Him Back Home, Masekela’s song that demanded the release of Nelson Mandela. They performed two concerts at this location and it was recorded as a film: “Graceland: The African Concert.” Many artists came together for this event to raise awareness of the anti-apartheid movements and resistance. Hamm admits that to a certain degree the Graceland tour is strongly associated with South Africa, but he states the tour benefited the artists more than the movement itself.

Henceforth, Hamm identifies the “reception of Graceland in South Africa itself [as] a first suggestion that the venture had nothing to do with the on-going struggle for liberation in that country”[xii] (Hamm,1989). The Graceland songs were even allowed to be played on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) another violation of the cultural boycott. Hamm is very critical of Makeba and the involvement of others asserting “they benefited handsomely from the collaboration with the SABC and South Africa’s internal domestic recording industry” [xiii] (Hamm, 1989). He questions Makeba’s true desire to participate in the Graceland Tour but at the same time he admits “unlike Simon she has a long history of anti-apartheid activity, dating back to a dramatic appearance before the UN in 1963” [xiv] (Hamm, 1989). In the conclusion of his work Hamm continues to insist the artists who were a part of this tour were motivated by selfish reasons and they used the media attention “as a means to enhance their own careers as entertainers”[xv] (Hamm, 1989).

While Hamm saw the tour as a way for artists to earn more money and fame, scholar Dave Laing saw it as a form of resistance. There is more than one way to fight the apartheid government; in fact, the “struggle against apartheid can take many forms”[xvi] (Laing, 1990). Laing argues music can be a form to combat oppressors. Hamm claimed the music, even though it was criticizing the South African government, was only making the artists richer. Music has a power of its own. As demonstrated by Miriam Makeba who utilised her instrument, her voice, to popularize the South African culture and expose apartheid government. Thus Hamm was only focusing on the monetary aspect of the tour. By all means Makeba was being paid for her performances but it is understandable; she humbly admitted that she was “led into poor business deals”[xvii] during the peak of her career (Barnett, 2007). This resulted in her depending on performances for her income. Nevertheless, this fact does not take away from her desire to put an end to the apartheid; these concerts, which are considered political rallies, was her form of resisting.

Makeba at the United Nations Assembly

Notably Makeba took an even stronger stand against the apartheid government when she delivered a speech at the United Nations. The African National Congress exile leaders asked her to speak at United Nations General Assembly because of her popularity and her ability to read and write [xviii] (Miller, 2000). She made it her mission to reveal and bring awareness to the issues faced by the people of South Africa. She addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly two times. In 1963 Makeba sat across from eleven members of the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid and implored, “I appeal to the UN to use its influence to open the doors of all prisons and concentration camps in South Africa, where thousands of our people – men, women, and children – are now in jail”[xix] (Makeba, 1988). She asked the leaders of other countries to put themselves in the place of the Africans, who were under the apartheid. As a result of her previous statement, she made the point that it was only natural that people in South Africa were rebelling; it’s not natural to want to be oppressed. In her speech she also urged other countries to “stop the shipments of arms… [that] will be used against African women and children”[xx] (Makeba, 1988).

After her first appearance at the UN, Makeba considered herself more than an African singer she had become a “spokesperson for [her] people”[xxi] (Makeba, 1988). Makeba addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the second time in 1976 during the International Year Against Apartheid. She strongly urged other countries to stop “the tragedy” occurring in South Africa. Miriam Makeba was calling the nations of the world to action; she wanted them to intervene in South Africa. Makeba strongly believed that intervention from other countries was the only way to end the apartheid government.

Conclusion

Miriam Makeba was an activist against the apartheid government. She made these issues known two times in the United Nations’ General Assembly. Another way she voiced these political, controversial problems was in her songs. Miriam Makeba did not use a conventional tactic in her anti-apartheid activism. She took a different approach to combat the apartheid government in South Africa. On top of the usual rallies or protests, Makeba used her vocal chords and sung melodies to reveal the inequalities suffered in South Africa. “Mama Africa” passed away in 2008 at the age of 76, but she will forever live on through her music and in South African history as one of the most powerful, influential activist.

Bibliography

Allingham, Rob, (2009). ‘From ‘Noma Kumnyama’ to ‘Pata Pata’: A History’ in African Music 8 no 3, pp. 117-131. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 16, 2016] 

Feldstein, Ruth, (2013). ‘Screening Antiapartheid: Miriam Makeba, ‘Come Back, Africa,’’ in Feminist Studies 39, no 1 pp. 12-39. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 16, 2016]

Hamm, Charles (1989). ‘Graceland Revisited’ in Popular Music, Vol 8, no 3 pp. 299–304. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 25, 2016]

Laing, Dave (1990). ‘Call and Response’ in Popular Music, Vol 9, no 1 pp. 137–138. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 25, 2016]

Makeba, M., (1963). Miriam Makeba’s Speech at the United Nations, 1963. Available at https://www.youtube.com [Accessed October 16, 2016]

Makeba, M. interview with Barnett, L., (2007). I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 26 October. 

Makeba, M. interview with Bordowitz, H., (2004). Noise of the World: Non-Western Artists in Their Own World, Soft Skull Press, 20 January. 

Makeba, M. and Miller, L., (2000). ‘Miriam Makeba’ in BOMB, no 72, pp. 90-95. Available at http://www.jstor.org/[Accessed October 16, 2016]

Masekela, Hugh, (1977). Soweto Blues, Performed by Makeba, Miriam. On You Told Your Mama Not To Worry. Casablanca Records.

(1965). ‘Artists Pledge South African Boycott’ in Africa Today, Vol 12, no 4 pp. 20–20. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 25, 2016]

Bibliography

Allingham, Rob, (2009). ‘From ‘Noma Kumnyama’ to ‘Pata Pata’: A History’ in African Music 8 no 3, pp. 117-131. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 16, 2016] 

Feldstein, Ruth, (2013). ‘Screening Antiapartheid: Miriam Makeba, ‘Come Back, Africa,’’ in Feminist Studies 39, no 1 pp. 12-39. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 16, 2016]

Hamm, Charles (1989). ‘Graceland Revisited’ in Popular Music, Vol 8, no 3 pp. 299–304. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 25, 2016]

Laing, Dave (1990). ‘Call and Response’ in Popular Music, Vol 9, no 1 pp. 137–138. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 25, 2016]

Makeba, M., (1963). Miriam Makeba’s Speech at the United Nations, 1963. Available at https://www.youtube.com [Accessed October 16, 2016]

Makeba, M. interview with Barnett, L., (2007). I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 26 October. 

Makeba, M. interview with Bordowitz, H., (2004). Noise of the World: Non-Western Artists in Their Own World, Soft Skull Press, 20 January. 

Makeba, M. and Miller, L., (2000). ‘Miriam Makeba’ in BOMB, no 72, pp. 90-95. Available at http://www.jstor.org/[Accessed October 16, 2016]

Masekela, Hugh, (1977). Soweto Blues, Performed by Makeba, Miriam. On You Told Your Mama Not To Worry. Casablanca Records.

(1965). ‘Artists Pledge South African Boycott’ in Africa Today, Vol 12, no 4 pp. 20–20. Available at http://www.jstor.org/ [Accessed October 25, 2016]

End Notes

[i] Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library, 1988, 68.

[ii] Feldstein, Ruth. "Screening Antiapartheid: Miriam Makeba, "Come Back, Africa," and the Transnational Circulation of Black Culture and Politics." Feminist Studies 39, no. 1 (2013): 13. http://www.jstor.org/.

[iii] Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library, 1988, 98.

[iv] Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library, 1988, 140.

[v] Allingham, Rob. "From "Noma Kumnyama" to "Pata Pata": A History." African Music: Journal of the International Library of African Music 8, no. 3 (2009): 126. http://www.jstor.org/

[vi] Barnett, LaShonda K. I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft. New       York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007, 126.

[vii] Barnett, LaShonda K. I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007, 126.

[viii] Bordowitz, Hank. Noise of the World: Non-western Musicians in Their Own Words. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2004, 248.

[ix] Masekela, Hugh. Soweto Blues. Casablanca.

[x] Masekela, Hugh. Soweto Blues. Casablanca.

[xi] "Artists Pledge South African Boycott." Africa Today 12, no. 4 (1965): 20. http://www.jstor.org/.

[xii] Hamm, Charles. "Graceland Revisited." Popular Music 8, no. 03 (1989): 299. http://www.jstor.org/

[xiii] Hamm, Charles. "Graceland Revisited." Popular Music 8, no. 03 (1989): 300. http://www.jstor.org/.

[xiv] Hamm, Charles. "Graceland Revisited." Popular Music 8, no. 03 (1989): 303. http://www.jstor.org/.

[xv] Hamm, Charles. "Graceland Revisited." Popular Music 8, no. 03 (1989): 304. http://www.jstor.org/

[xvi] Laing, Dave. "Call and Response." Popular Music 9, no. 01 (1990): 137. http://www.jstor.org/.

[xvii] Barnett, LaShonda K. I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007, 126.

[xviii] Makeba, Miriam and Lisa Miller. “Miriam Makeba.” Bomb, no. 72 (2000): 92. http://www.jstor.org/.  

[xix] Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library, 1988, 111.

[xx] Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library, 1988, 113.

[xxi] Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library, 1988, 113.

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project