Miriam Makeba — nicknamed Mama Africa
On this journey that I have undertaken with the African continent, I find myself opening doors and encountering worlds heretofore unbeknownst to me. I discover histories, talents, personal journeys that move me profoundly and speak loudly and persistently of the limitless courage, rich talents, and absolute dedication of many Africans striving to have their own voice heard and effect change in their world and beyond.
The South African singer Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) is one of those gorgeous voices that enthralled the world during the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. Her songs like “Pata Pata” and Maleika are part of our collective memory. She was the first artist from Africa to popularize African music in the U.S and around the world. However, it is the story of her life in exile because she was an outspoken critic of apartheid politics and defender of civil rights that moved me deeply.
Mama Africa, a documentary of her life by Mika Kaurismaki can be seen at the Festival of African Film, which is being held at the Walter Read Theater at Lincoln Center. Her success and fame as a singer brought her great joy but it came at a price. She sang of her life and of her people in South Africa and her songs came to be seen as political. A successful recording artist by her mid twenties she was eager to leave South Africa to expand her career. Little did she know that her passport would not be renewed and that she would eventually be forbidden from coming back to South Africa. Soon discovered by Harry Belafonte she settled in the US where she became a great hit. Her deep, rich, and powerful voice, her songs, which fused African traditional rhythms and jazz, her charm and manner made her an instant favorite of the American public.
However, two events would change the course of her life and confirm her exile status. In 1962 she testified against apartheid at the United Nations, which led to her official excommunication by the South African government. I was mesmerized by her gentle voice as she spoke in front of all the delegates and deeply moved by her courage. A few years later she married Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader and by 1968 they had to both leave the US. Stokely was seen as a serious threat by the US government during the Civil Rights movement. They settled in Guinea, West Africa – they divorced eventually – and she continued to perform in Africa, Europe and Asia but not in the US. She was allowed to return to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was elected. She died performing on stage in 2008! Not being able to come back for so many years was a great sadness which she expressed in her songs.