She was born Zinzile Miriam Makeba on the fourth of march 1932 in Johannesburg South africa. Having been forced to look for work at a very early age due to her father’s death, her early life showed nothing of what she was to become. It was only the beginning. She was married by the age of 17 to a husband who was allegedly violent towards her and abandoned her within two years. The afro-pop /jazz artist overcame breast cancer and cervical cancer within a space of ten years. All this made her strong and irrepressible preparing her for the task that was to come.
She started her music career singing with various bands like the Cuban brothers, the Manhattan brothers and Skylarks. Makeba was the only female in the Manhattan brothers group. She soon made a name for herself in the music business nationwide. Her international success came from the song ’lovely lies ‘recorded by Gallotone records, one of the biggest recording companies in South Africa at the time. The melody was the first south African song to be on the Billboard top 100 chat. By 1959 she had appeared on the drum magazine cover, acted in several Broadway shows and films like King Kong and Come back Africa. Come back Africa depicted the life that South Africans were experiencing at that time and exposed the apartheid regime to the world.
After watching the emotional film Anthony Carthew of the daily herald in his review said “I have just seen a movie that makes me ashamed to be white. “He expressed his shock towards the way that white people had manipulated the Africans into thinking they were inferior. It has since won many awards including the Italian Critics Award of 1960.It was selected by Time magazine as one of the “ten best pictures of 1960”.
Although she had moved to America and acquired International popularity, she kept in touch with her African upbringing and culture. She refused to straighten her hair for shows and or use any skin lightening creams or even appear on their advertisements. She stood firm for her beliefs and refused to satisfy the standards that the white “majority” had set for an African woman to be seen as beautiful. She was a role model to many black girls and women who had been subjected to such standards.
Makeba ‘s mother passed away in 1960 and when the songstress tried to attend the funeral, she was turned back at the airport. She was not allowed to return to her mother land due to the pressure her work had put on the government. She became even more determined to speak against the racial system. She began to publicity criticize the South African government something which she had avoided before her exile. Due to her resilience and willpower to help set her people free, she was eventually called Mama Africa. In 1962 she testified against the south African government at the U. N Special Committee Against Apartheid. She talked about the effects of the system and asked that economic sanctions be put in place against South African ‘s National Party administration. As a result of this her citizenship was revoked and her music was banned in South Africa. Her efforts did not however go unnoticed by the world as she was given passports to 9 countries and honorary citizenship to 10 states. Her exile led to her being recognized tremendously by her fellow Africans. She was the only artist to perform at the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity later that same year.
Her music continued to develop. She was mentored by American singer Harry Belafonte. The pair made an album together titled “An evening with Belafonte/Makeba” and it won a Grammy in 1965. It was during this time that she recorded her most famous song “Pata Pata “. It went as far as number 12 on the Billboard 100 chats. The tune was said to have given many black Americans the first introduction to African culture. Mama Africa however in an interview stated that ‘Pata Pata’ was the most insignificant song she had made. Why? Because she was on a quest to aid in thwarting apartheid in her native land and she had sung many other songs in relation to that. ‘Pata Pata’ however was a dance song and a song of joyful times which were far from what her people were going through at that moment.
Makeba was stateless for several years and moved from one state to the next on a regular basis. She yearned to be with her people. When apartheid was banned in South Africa in 1990, Makeba returned home after being convinced by Nelson Mandela himself. There she made an album with her ex-husband Hugh Masekela and others titled ” Eyes on tomorrow “. It symbolized hope for South Africa. She continued her acting career also as she appeared on The Cosby show as a guest and acted on the South African film Sarafina.She was named a U. N Goodwill Ambassador under the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1990.Many more awards were given to the icon to show a gratitude towards her selflessness and to appreciate the talent which she had used to change the world in the years between 1990 and 2008.
Two whole books were written to honor Mama Africa and to show her life journey. One of which was the autobiography by journalist James Hall. Makeba suffered from a heart attack during a concert in Italy, 2008.She was survived by her two grandchildren. The African continent as a whole lost a mother, a true heroine. One who’s legacy can never be buried.