Born Zensi Miriam Makeba, March 4, 1932, in Prospect (near Johannesburg), South Africa; immigrated to United States, 1959; daughter of a Xhosa teacher and a Swazi domestic worker; married Sonny Pilay (a singer), 1959 (divorced, 1959); married Hugh Masekela (a musician), 1964 (divorced, 1966); married Stokely Carmichael (a civil rights activist), 1968 (divorced, 1978); married fifth husband, Bageot Bah (an airline executive); children: (first marriage) Bongi (daughter; deceased). Education: Attended Kimerton Training Institute, Pretoria, South Africa. Addresses: Record company-- Polydor Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019.

South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba is chief among those who have proclaimed the experiences of black South Africans. Throughout a career spanning more than three decades, she has established herself as a powerful voice in the fight against apartheid--the South African practice of institutional political, economic, and social oppression along racial lines. Often referred to as "Mother Africa" and "The Empress of African Song," Makeba is credited with bringing the rhythmic and spiritual sounds of Africa to the West. Her music is a soulful mix of jazz, blues, and traditional African folk songs shaded with potent political overtones. Using music as a primary forum for her social concerns, the singer has become a lasting symbol in the fight for racial equality and has come to represent the pain of all South Africans living in exile.

Makeba's first encounter with the severity of government rule in her native land came when she was just two and a half weeks old: Following her mother's arrest for the illegal sale of home-brewed beer, the infant served a six-month jail term with her. Makeba's formative years were equally difficult; as a teenager she performed backbreaking domestic work for white families and endured physical abuse from her first husband. She found solace and a sense of community in music and religion. Singing first in a choir, Makeba soon showcased her talents with local bands, achieving success on the regional club circuit.

Makeba captured international attention with her role in the film Come Back, Africa, a controversial anti-apartheid statement released in 1959. Following the film's debut at the Venice Film Festival, Makeba traveled to London, where she met respected American entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte. Impressed by her unique and profound renderings of African folk songs, he served as her mentor and promoter in the United States, arranging performances for her in New York City clubs and a guest spot on The Steve Allen Show. This exposure brought Makeba worldwide acclaim and launched a cross-cultural music career of uncommon proportions.

The 1960s proved an especially tumultuous decade for Makeba. Her outspoken opposition to the repressive political climate in South Africa set the stage for harsh government retaliation. Makeba's call for an end to apartheid became increasingly powerful, and her recordings were subsequently banned in South Africa. More than three decades of exile began for the singer in 1960, when, seeking to return to her native land for her mother's funeral, her passport was invalidated by the South African government. Makeba also endured turmoil in her personal life. Between 1959 and 1966 she suffered two failed marriages, one to singer Sonny Pilay and another to trumpeter Hugh Masekela. In the early 1960s she faced a serious threat to her health, battling cervical cancer through radical surgery.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Makeba's career, however, came with her 1968 marriage to American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. A self-avowed revolutionary, Carmichael took a militant "Black Power" stance that was often perceived as divisive and threatening to the fabric of American society. Having long used song as a vehicle to raise social and political awareness, Makeba was stunned by the devastating effect of her marriage on her career; her relationship with Carmichael effectively eliminated her arena for social expression in the West. In her autobiography Makeba: My Story, she recalled her suddenly unwelcome status in the United States: "My concerts are being canceled left and right. I learn that people are afraid that my shows will finance radical activities. I can only shake my head. What does Stokely have to do with my singing?" When her record label, Reprise, refused to honor her contract in the States, Makeba moved with Carmichael to Guinea, West Africa.

Although Makeba's marriage to Carmichael ended in 1978, she remained in Guinea for several years. She continued performing in Europe and parts of Africa, promoting freedom, unity, and social change. During the singer's time in Guinea, though, heartbreaking misfortune again touched her life. Her youngest grandson became fatally ill, and her only daughter, Bongi, died after delivering a stillborn child. Yet, through all of her trials, Makeba has derived consolation from her music and her undying faith in God.

In the spring of 1987 Makeba joined American folk-rock legend Paul Simon's phenomenal Graceland tour in the newly independent black nation of Zimbabwe. An unprecedented display of multicultural music and racial unity, the concert focused attention on the injustice of imperial racist policies in South Africa and displayed the talents of generations of South African musicians. Following the success and exposure afforded her by the Graceland tour, Makeba recorded her first American release in two decades, a tribal collection titled Sangoma, which means diviner-healer. Featuring African chants that the singer learned in her youth from her mother, the solo album cast a new light on the soulful, spiritual sounds of her native land. Makeba's follow-up album--the 1989 Polydor debut Welela-- blended traditional songs with popular compositions.

In a Chicago Tribune interview, Makeba summarized her thoughts on life in exile: "I have love, but I also have suffering. I am a South African. I left part of me there. I belong there." In June of 1990 Makeba was finally allowed to go home; she visited Johannesburg for the first time in 31 years. The following year Polydor released Eyes on Tomorrow, an upbeat protest album recorded in a Johannesburg studio. Featuring pioneering jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, rhythm and blues singer Nina Simone, and Hugh Masekela, Eyes on Tomorrow is generally considered a more commercial mix of pop, blues, and jazz than Makeba's previous efforts.

A spokesperson for civil rights throughout the world, Makeba continues to stand as the embodiment of the black South African experience. As New York Times contributor Robert Farris Thompson put it: "She is a symbol of the emergence of Afro-Atlantic art and a voice for her people. Her life in multiple cultural and political settings--and her rich musical career, drawing on traditional and contemporary sources--have resonance for us all."

by Barbara Carlisle Bigelow

Miriam Makeba's Career

Domestic worker in Johannesburg, South Africa; vocalist; toured South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) with the Black Mountain Brothers, 1954-57; performed throughout Africa, the U.S., England, France, Denmark, and Italy, 1957--; recording artist; performed with singer Paul Simon's Graceland tour of Africa, 1987, and the U.S., 1988. Appeared in film Come Back, Africa, 1959. Former United Nations delegate from Guinea, West Africa.

Miriam Makeba's Awards

Grammy Award for best folk recording, 1965, for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba; Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize, 1986.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 14 years ago

Great article, very accurate and straight forward. Thanks for the post.

over 15 years ago

Mirriam Makeba deserves a state funeral.