Known as Mama Africa to many and the Empress of African Song. This queen was a woman of virtue whose vision saw far into the future, because she made sure to leave us with a rich and colorful history and a powerful legacy, that would not only be beneficial to her family but also to her culture, community, country and the world as a whole. Her music continues to heal our wounds and soothe our pain, her sangomic voice perfectly echoes wise teachings which till this day mould one’s view of themselves. I found a home in me through her music. This Lioness wasn’t nicknamed Mama Africa for nothing.
Her Early Life
In 1932 on the 4th of March, Mme Christina who was a Swati woman and her husband Tat’Caswell who was Xhosa, welcomed their baby girl into the world. In a place called Prospect, located in Johannesburg. They named her Zenzile Miriam Makeba and the name Zenzile was to provide her with support throughout her life and the difficulties that lay ahead. The name means, ‘blame no one but yourself, you birth your own reality’. The family then moved from Joburg to the Transvaal where her father worked for Shell as a clerk and Mme Christina was a spiritual healer who also worked as a housemaid. Tat’Caswell passed away, this meant that young Miriam would have to find a job so she couod help her mother take care of their home, she found work as a domestic worker but it would be for a short time, because she had this inner knowing, that her gift could recreate her reality, she knew and felt that her passion would pluck her out of the poverty stricken dungeon she had been exposed to. Mama was blessed with a beautiful singing voice, which she was praised for at the Methodist Training School in Tshwane. King George VI was set to pass by the school where she was ro perform for him but that did not happen, the special guest drove past the children who were waiting for him in the rain which was disappointing.
Mama did not lose hope, her passion and love for music prompted her to further her career and in the 1940’s it took off! She sang in the Kilwerton College school choir. In 1948 during the rollout of the evil apartheid regime in South Africa she witnessed the effects this new evil system had on her people, and also saw hoe the system suppressed Mme Dolly Rathebe who was her heroine stripping her of the advantages she once enjoyed. In 1950 at the age of 18, she and her husband Tat’James Kubay welcomed their little human into the world on the 20th of December. They named her Angela Sibongile Makeba and she was Mama’s only child. When Mama was diagnosed with breast cancer her mother treated her and was successful in doing so- Tat’James left shortly after.
The Making Of A Star
Mama then joined the Cuban Brothers singing group, this is where she was introduced into what was now the formal circuit. Her career continued to progress, this was during a time where American Jazz and ragtime were absorbed into South Africa and localised, sprinkled with the distinctive harmonic style known as the Mbube- practiced in many African countries around night time. After being with the Cuban brothers she joined the Manhattan Brothers in 1954, they were a top band with whose harmonies were modelled on the American Mills Brothers and Ink Spots, the Manhattan Brothers sang vernacular lyrics over a sound that was predominantly American swing & ragtime.
When the Manhattan Brothers traveled abroad, she stayed behind and formed part of an only-female singing group called the Skylarks. This was a group she founded with her partners in song: Mme Abigail Khubeka; Mme Mummy Girl Nketle; Mme Mary Rabatobi and at times Mme Dorothy Masuka who brought in that Zambian flavor because she infused music vocals that were inspired by her homeland. These Queens recorded 100 songs, most of them were major hits.
When things aligned, Mme Makeba went on tour for the first time with the Manhattan Brothers and they traveled to Zimbabwe and Congo. She was then cast in Alf Herbert’s African Jazz & Variety production which showcased African talent in its diversity. They toured the mother continent for a period of 18 months. Not long after mama landed a lead role in King Kong, a legendary South African musical that told the tale of a celebrated boxer. Unlike the first one this played to integrated audiences and it furthered her reputation within the liberal white community, this was also when she caught the eye and ears of Lionel Rogosin who was a film producer that did not waste any time, he asked if she could feature in his controversial documentary film ‘Come Back Africa’ Which depicted the harsh conditions the apartheid regime had natives subjected to. In this film she played as herself and sang two songs in a shebeen, despite this her appearance attracted a lot of people and it brought attention to the film- she was then invited to attend the premiere of the film in Italy. The screening took place at the Venice Film Festival where she became an instant celebrity.
Seeing that she was a shining star, the regime waited for an opportunity to present itself so it could frustrate her and dim her light. The system worked on revoking her passport and they so badly wanted to do to her what they did her heroine which was unfortunate. Because her calling is hers snd not the system’s! Mama was flown from London to New York and she made her appearance on television as she performed at the Village Vanguard Jazz Club.
Not long after the Sharpeville Marssacre of 1960, she learnt of her mother’s passing but she could not go home for her burial because the regime’s plan to frustrate her was in motion and they had revoked her South African passport and they stripped her of her citizenship. Despite the regime’s attempt to silence her, she kept on doing what she loved and while promoting the film in London, her paths crossed with African-American folk singer and activist Tat’Harry Belafonte who played a significant role, in her solo career abroad. The two won a grammy for their duet on their award winning album ‘An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba’.
Due to her resilience and fearlessness this queen remained strong and she continued do what she loved – the regime could not take this away from her because she was walking in her truth, her light was never meant for them to blow out. She continued making music in the United States and traveled as she did this, she crossed paths with all the stars from Bing Crosby, to Marlon Brando. She was living her dream and it was an exciting experience that left her in awe because she found herself making appearances in spaces Marilyn Monroe was in, like at the famous John F Kennedy Celebration.
About The Bing Crosby Show
In 1962 she came back home visiting Kenya this time around. In 1963 she testified before the United Nations and she spoke about the apartheid regime and the evils she fell victim of because she was a native South African woman, she told them about how they stripped her of her citizenship and about the living conditions her people were subjected to under that evil regime and its rule. This infuriated the regime and they banned her music from being played or sold. Which was wrong to do because they robbed natives the right of knowing who they were so they could not walk in their power. She lived her life in exile and lived in numerous countries. She also went on to become the only artist who was invited by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, where she performed in Addis Ababa at the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity.
In 1965 Mama tied the knot with her long time friend Tat’Hugh Masekela before flying to Algeria for a performance and then to Ghana where the OAU Conference was held in Accra.
Art As Activism
Mama has always been an activist, she was always involved and she used her art to spread the word. She identified with Black Consciousness and was a strong associate of radical activism, she never caged herself and her activism was in sync with the civil rights movement and the Black Panther. These movements had something in common with the struggle for freedom that her people were fighting for back at home: they were victims of constant abuse by the system, they suffered injustuces, marginalisation, racism and inequality. Her craft was informed by the circumstances in South Africa, she used her voice and platform to speak up and speak out and to encourage the affected ones to not lose hope. Mama would detail how life was back at home when introducing her songs and she addressed inequality whenever the opportunity was presented. Her work encouraged Africanism and it resisted the apartheid regime and the system’s goal to erase Africans from Africa.
Native Americans saw in her possibilities of what they could bevome, through song, dance, dress, language and ideology. She was in the same league as Mama Nina Simone and others alike.
Before Her Return
While in Guinea, in 1967 Mama met Stockley Carmichael who became her next husband. He then changed his name to Kwame Touré and the two stayed together in his place of exile in Guinea. Guinea was a West-African Marxist State that was led by Tat’Sekou Touré who gave sanctuary to enemies of the Capitalist West. Mama then left her husband and turned down a proposal from the president, she did however end up being a second wife to a prominent Guinean. When her daughter passed away from a truamatic miscarriage, mama fell ‘Ill’ with an illness she believed she inherited from her mother.
She buried her daughter there and became a double exile who was now unable to go back home or return to the countries of the West, despite having a collection of diplomatic passports from African states that sympathised with her.
She put together a Pan-African team of top musicians who were on call to accompany her on foreign trips that were frequent. Mama like every other human endured the tricky part of showbiz, when she missed an appearance for the people of Denmark who were firm in supporting her. When she was able to go and right this wrong, she was jailed for a night and someone paid her outstanding penalty on her behalf. Controversy followed her into the land of Sankara where there was confusion over the provenance of Malaika, which was claimed by several East-Africans. That time she was taught this song by a little somebody who may have misrepresented it unknowingly. She then moved from Guinea to Switzerland where she tied the knot for the fifth time.
Her Final Years
On the 4th of March 1985, Mama played at the Royal Festival Hall in London. This was her first appearance in 11 years and it was her 53rd birthday, she then responded to the criticism that made it’s rounds about her turning her bavk on the West when in actual fact she didn’t, in her own words:
In 1986 she was awarded the Dag Hammarskold Peace Prize for her efforts.
After 30 years of living in exile, Mme Makeba came back home to a respectful reception and she put on a show!
The younger generation had no clue on who this remarkable woman was, duebto the apartheid regime’s attempt at removing her from the consciousness of her people, but those who knee her gave her the flowers she deserved and she was awarded with an honorary degree by the University of Durban who declared her to be a culture ambassador for the country.
In 2005 when she announced that she would be retiring from the scene, her children weren’t ready to let her go without saying goodbye properly and so she continued with her fairwell tour until she took her final breath. Mama passed on in Naples after singing for 30 minutes at a concert that supported the movement against organised crime, which was inspired by Roberto Saviano who was an Italian writer. It is said that Mama suffered a heart attack.
The Empress of African Song’s legacy is bigger than what you may have been told by those who drink from the poisoned well of the system. It is unfair for us to confine her to just her speeches when she healed us through her work and taught us through her craft. Her style of delivering melodies that were not only joyful but tunes meant for the soul was mind-blowing it still is! Her lyrics and artistic thought pieces disguised as songs are one of the gifts she left for us children of the soil and we are forever grateful to her and her family for sharing her with us.
Mama’s work and legacy can never be erased because her flame continues to grow stronger and it remains unfazed by the system and its broadcasts.
Her authenticity and refusal to disconnect from her roots and truth should inspire us to shine brighter than we were made to believe we can, and embrace our African-ness with pride not fear or shame!
We are Because she was and still is! Know Your Legends!
One thought on “Celebrating Mme Miriam Makeba”
Nono uyayibhetha into yakho!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Comments are closed.