Biography of Miriam Makeba
South African musician, actress, UN goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist
Born: MARCH 4, 1952
Died: NOVEMBER 9, 2008
Known as the Empress of African song and Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba was a leading figure in 50s – 80s Afropop, Jazz, and World music. She was known for her dynamic vocal range, as well as the depths of emotion that she conveyed as she sang. With her songs and her voice as weapons, she fought against black oppression in the white-minority government in South Africa.
Born Zenzile Miriam Makeba in a segregated black town, Makeba faced the harsh reality of apartheid. Witnessing racist policies of segregation and inequality of opportunity, Makeba’s music began to reflect the poverty and injustice that native Africans faced.
She received acclaim for her role in the film Come Back Africa – a role that led to her troubles with the South African government. Her passport was revoked, and she lived the next thirty years of her life in exile.
While in exile, Makeba achieved fame and recognition in the USA for her music. She earned a Grammy award in 1966 for an album that included songs critical of the African government. Her song Pata Pata was the first song by a black woman to ever reach the top ten charts. However, most of her songs were regarded as subversive and banned in South Africa.
The following decades, she toured the USA, South America, Europe and Africa, her music bringing the sounds and culture of Africa to the western world.
Not forgetting her advocacies, Makeba addressed the United Nations twice – speaking out against apartheid. She asked for economic sanctions, but more importantly, an arms embargo against South Africa – saying that those weapons would likely be used against black women and children.
Makeba was a staunch advocate for civil rights. She became the voice of Africans living in oppressive governments. Her popularity made her an icon of African beauty and pride. Her songs became symbols of resistance to the oppressive government.
In the US, Makeba called for unity among black people of African descent. She was involved in black-centered political movements calling for civil rights and an end to apartheid. She used her popularity to advocate civil rights, as well as equal rights for women. Makeba was one of the most dedicated voices of social justice, calling for an end to both racial and gender disparities.
For her commitment and advocacies, she was awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986, and the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold in 2001. She received multiple honorary doctorates from various universities in Africa, as well as in various parts of the world.
Following Nelson Mandela’s release in 1991, Makeba returned to South Africa. She established the Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation and the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre, a refuge for abused young women. She also lent her voice and influence in support of anti-drug and HIV awareness campaigns.
She died of a cardiac arrest in Italy, after performing her most famous song Pata Pata.