It is by conveying the inherent strengths and positive, uplifting messages found in a true love of music that Miriam Makeba has played an active role in the struggle against injustice and oppression. Her greatness can perhaps be best summed up in her own words, “I don’t sing about politics. I sing the truth.” The presence of Miriam Makeba on the global music scene lights candles in the darkness and brings the hope of a better world.

“I don’t sing about politics. I sing the truth.”

Miriam Makeba
Chapter: Manhattan Brothers to Skylarks

From Manhattan Brothers to Skylarks

Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932. She made her official singing debuts as a new member in the vocal group the Manhattan Brothers in 1953, one of the most influential groups in the history of South Africa’s music, mostly active during the late ’40s and ’50s. She left the band in 1958 to form successful The Skylarks, and reunited with the Manhattan Brothers for the musical King Kong, that told the tragic story of boxer Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamani, in 1959.

The Skylarks – South African Memorabilia Store, use rationale

Johannesburg in 1896 (Photo: Wikimedia commons)
Johannesburg in the 2000s. (Photo: By de:user:Zakysant, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: International breakthrough

International breakthrough

After successes in musicals King Kong and the African Jazz and Variety, Makeba was invited to perform in Europe and the US. She there got embraced by the African American community. “Pata Pata,” Makeba’s signature tune, was written by Dorothy Masuka and recorded already in 1956 before eventually becoming a major hit in the U.S. ten years after its first release in South Africa.

Rare poster from the 1964 Forest Hills Music Festival, where the Beatles also performed.

She started a long-lasting collaboration with Harry Belafonte after having performed with him at his groundbreaking concerts in Carnegie Hall, a performance that was recorded and released as an album in 1960.

Chapter: Political engagement

Political engagement

In 1960, the government of South Africa revoked Makeba’s citizenship due to her outspoken opposition against the Apartheid reigme. She would then live outside her country of birth during 30 years. 1964 and 1975, she addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on the horrors of apartheid. Her records were banned in South Africa. She married Stokely Carmichael in 1969, activist within the Black Panther Party. She then got radicalised also in the US, with cancelled shows and disagreements with her record company.

Stokely Carmichael as a senior in high school, 1960. Source: Wikimedia commons

The couple Makeba/Carmichael relocated to Guinea where she agreed to serve as Guinea’s delegate to the United Nations.

Flag of the United Nations (crop) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
"Kilimanjaro", Live performance at Berns, Stockholm, 1966
Chapter: Mama Africa

Mama Africa

Makeba remained active as a musician over the years, while also speaking for the sake of South Africa and human rights. In 1975, she recorded A Promise, with Joe Sample, Stix Hooper, Arthur Adams, and David T. Walker of the Crusaders. Makeba also joined Paul Simon and South Africa ‘s Ladysmith Black Mambazo during their worldwide Graceland tour in 1987 and 1988.

Nina Simone on stage in Morlaix, France, May 1982. By Roland Godefroy, via Wikimedia Commons

Two years later, she joined Odetta and Nina Simone for the One Nation tour. The whole time she brought awareness to the South African issues of apartheid and segregation through her activism and music.

With Paul Simon performing "Under African Skies", 1987
Chapter: Going home

Going home

Following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, Makeba returned to South Africa in December 1990. She performed her first concert in her homeland in 30 years in April 1991.

Nelson Mandela, leader of ANC and president of South Africa 1994-1999. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States

In 1995, Makeba formed a charity organization to raise funds to help protect the women of South Africa. Makeba’s first studio album in a decade, Homeland, was released in 2000.

Nina Simone & Miriam Makeba - "Thulasizwe / I Shall Be Released"
Miriam Makeba and Dizzy Gillespie performing together in Deauville, France, 1991. (Photo: By Roland Godefroy)
Chapter: Polar music prize ceremony
Zinfa & Sotonga Choir (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)

Stockholm May 2002

Miriam Makeba received the prize together with composer Sofia Gubaidulina. South African social rights activist and bishop Desmond Tutu read the citation.

Desmond Tutu arriving to Berwaldhallen © Polar Music Prize
Graham Tainton salutes his childhood friend Miriam Makeba at the Polar Music Prize ceremony
Miriam Makeba arriving at Berwaldhallen (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Sofia Gubaidulina and Miriam Makeba (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Citation read by Desmond Tutu
LaGaylia Frazier, "Think", at the Polar Music Prize ceremony
Zinfa & Sotonga Choir "Nkosi sikelel'i Afrika" at the Polar Music Prize ceremony