Today we honor and celebrate the powerful singer and international social justice activist known to the world as Mama Africa. Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on this date in 1932. She began singing in a primary school choir. She married young and had her only child, Bongi Makeba, at the age of 18. Shortly after this, Miriam was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband left her.
After her recovery, she began pursuing music professionally, working with the local jazz group the Manhattan Brothers. She left the band to form her own all-female group, the Skylarks, who merged native music with jazz stylings. It was with the Skylarks that she recorded the first version of her best known hit, Pata Pata. She composed it herself (with rock writer Jerry Ragovoy), mostly in the Xhosa language.
Her first major break also caused her major problems. She eagerly participated in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. Audiences responded so well to her presence in the film that the director had her travel to festivals to help promote it. It was during this time that she met fellow South African performer and future husband Hugh Masakela. When she tried to return home for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that the South African government had cancelled her passport in retaliation for her anti-apartheid work. Guinea, Belgium, and Ghana issued her international passports in recognition of her situation.
Harry Belafonte helped introduce Makeba to U.S. audiences as part of the proto-World Beat movement of the mid-60s. She was very well received and began a promising career, including the U.S. release of Pata Pata which went to #12. After her marriage to Masakela ended, she met and married Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael. His status as a Black Panther concerned the more conservative power brokers in the American music industry, and she suddenly found herself without a record deal or a tour. She took advantage of her Guinean passport and moved there, where she lived happily for the next 15 years.
While in Guinea, Makeba served as a delegate to the United Nations, speaking on race relations in Africa. In addition to performing, she continued her activism, working on hunger in Africa and political unrest. She finally returned to South Africa in 1990 to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela. She spent the 90s recording with other luminaries (like the great Nina Simone, a true kindred spirit). She was also appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Ever irrepressible, she also collaborated with South African first lady Graça Machel-Mandela on combatting juvenile HIV and the use of children as soldiers.
Mama Africa was known for her passion and her infectious smile. She loved performing and never slowed down. During a fundraising concert in Italy in 2008, she suffered a heart attack. It is somehow fitting that she left this world doing the two things she loved best, singing and making it a better place. Happy Birthday, Miriam Makeba! You departed too young at 76, but your legacy is still felt by the millions whose lives you touched.