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.”
From Manhattan Brothers to Skylarks
Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932. She made her official singing debut as a new member in the vocal group the Manhattan Brothers in 1953, one of the most influential groups in the history of South African music, mostly active during the late ’40s and ’50s. She left the band in 1958 to form the successful group 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.
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.
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.
In 1960, the government of South Africa revoked Makeba’s citizenship due to her outspoken opposition against the Apartheid regime. 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, an activist within the Black Panther Party. She then got radicalised also in the US, with cancelled shows and disagreements with her record company.
The couple Makeba/Carmichael relocated to Guinea where she agreed to serve as Guinea’s delegate to the United Nations.
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.
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.
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.
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.