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Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, was a black South African civil rights activist and singer. She helped introduce African music to the entire world with her “Pata Pata” song in the late 1960s. She toured globally with famous singers and advocated for the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Personal Life

Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born on March 4, 1932, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her father, Caswell, was a Xhosa and died when she was six. Her mother, Christina, worked as a Swazi sangoma, or a traditional herbalist and healer.[1]

Despite her personal tribulations, Miriam Makeba’s singing career moved forward effortlessly.

Authorities arrested Makeba’s mother 18 days after giving birth for selling umqombothi, a homemade beer of cornmeal and malt. Makeba spent the first 6 months of her life in prison with her mother. [2] She attended the Kilnerton Training Institute, a primary school in Pretoria, where she sang in the choir.[3]

Makeba married a man named James Kubay and gave birth to their first child in 1950 named Bongi Makeba. She was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after giving birth, which her mother treated unconventionally and successfully. Kubay left her and the newborn soon after. South African music felt the influence of ragtime and jazz from the United States and combined these with Christian hymnody to form a unique vocal style based on harmony called mbube. She first toured with the Cuban Brothers. Then in 1954, she joined the jazz group the Manhattan Brothers who emulated artists like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers.[4]

Career Beginnings

Prior to actually touring with The Manhattans, Miriam Makeba sang in the all female Skylarks with Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Tabatobi, Abigail Kubeka, and occasionally Dorothy Masuka. They recorded over 100 songs and had several hits.[5] Miriam Makeba first performed her famous “Pata Pata” song with the Skylarks.[6] Once with the Manhattans she went on tour to the Congo and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The African Jazz and Variety Review offered her a position in 1957 and she toured with them for 18 months. In 1959, she briefly married the South African singer, Sonny Pillay.

The same year, Miriam Makeba secured the female lead in the legendary musical, King Kong, about the life of a South African boxer in front of an integrated audience. [7] Her popularity skyrocketed after she sang two songs in the documentary dramatizing black life in apartheid by Lionel Rogosin called Come Back, Africa. He invited Makeba to fly to the 24th Venice Film Festival in Italy. Come Back, Africa won the Critics’ Award for 1959.[8] Miriam Makeba then went to London where she met Harry Belafonte who assisted her first solo records like “Pata Pata”. He took her to New York where she played at the Village Vanguard, a jazz club, and appeared on The Steve Allen Show.[9]

The Exile of Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba learned her mother died just after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. When she tried to return home for the funeral, she discovered the government revoked her South African passport. [10] It was after this that Harry Belafonte helped her immigrate to the U.S. and she began recording albums and starring in feature films immediately.

No matter where Miriam Makeba performed in the world, she called for the end of South African apartheid.

She even performed for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden alongside Marilyn Monroe in 1962. Throughout her successful career in the U.S., Makeba worked with well-known stars like Bette Davis, Marlon Brandon, Miles Davis, and Nina Simone.[11]

Makeba returned to Africa for the first time in 1962 when she visited Kenya. In 1963, she addressed the United Nations (UN) advocating for the end of apartheid and the South Africa government banned sales of her albums. She married again in 1964 to Hugh Masekela, a trumpeter also from South Africa. She won a Grammy in 1966 with Belafonte. Masekela and she divorced and she married again in 1968 to Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther she met in Guinea. They divorced in 1978 and Makeba kept advocating against apartheid. She married a final time and moved to Brussels in 1980. In 1985, she performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall. She continued to draw attention to the anti-apartheid cause through different controversies in the late 1980s. [12]

Returning to South Africa, Later Career, and Death

After international pressure succeed, and the South African government released Mandela on February 11, 1990, he encouraged Miriam Makeba to return to South Africa. She arrived on June 10, 1990, using her French passport. [13] She could not find collaborators as readily as in the U.S. and finally released a new album, Homecoming, in 1996. The following year, she began her Farewell Tour and starred in Veronique Patte Doumbe’s movie, Mama. She started a tour of Africa, Europe, the U.S. in 1998 while continuing to sell out theaters in every country. Lee Hirsch cast her in his documentary Amandla in 2002 showcasing the role of music in fighting apartheid. Nelson Mandela granted her the Presidential Award of South Africa in 1999.

Makeba continued to tour and perform on television until her retirement in 2005. She still made small appearances, but mostly focused on humanitarian work. She established the Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation, created a refuge for abused young women called the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre, supported anti-drug and HIV awareness campaigns, and became the UN Goodwill Ambassador for President Mbeki.[14]

Miriam Makeba, Mama Africa, died from a heart attack on November 9, 2008, just after performing the “Pata Pata” song at a concert near Caserta, Italy in Castel Volturno.[15]



Bordowitz, H. (2006). Miriam Makeba. In A. Kaufman (Ed.), The Outlaw Bible of American Essays. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.

Ewens, G. (2008, November 11). Miriam Makeba. The Guardian.

Nkrumah, G. (2001, January 1). Mama Africa. Al-Ahram Weekly. 

Schwarz-Bart, S., & Schwarz-Bart, A. (2003). In Praise of Black Women, Volume 3: Modern African Women (3rd ed.). Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

South African History Online. (2011, February 17). Miriam Makeba. South African History Online.


  1. Ewens, 2008
  2. Nkrumah, 2001
  3. Bordowitz, 2006
  4. Ewens, 2008
  5. Ewens, 2008
  6. Schwarz-Bart & Schwarz-Bart, 2003
  7. Ewens, 2008
  8. Schwarz-Bart & Schwarz-Bart, 2003
  9. Bordowitz, 2006
  10. Ewens, 2008
  11. South African History Online, 2011
  12. Ewens, 2008
  13. Nkrumah, 2001
  14. South African History Online, 2011
  15. BBC (2008, November 10). S African icon Miriam Makeba dies. BBC Africa.

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