R.I.P. Miriam Makeba

The first song I ever heard Miriam Makeba sing was Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” It was off of a scratchy old album I found at a friend’s house and, for me, it was a life-changing experience. I’d never been much of a Dylan fan, but Makeba’s soulful rendition summed up in three short verses everything I understood about living with someone’s foot on your neck.

Waking up Monday morning to the news that Makeba had died overnight in Italy, I took it as a personal loss.

Makeba began her career in the 1950s with the Manhattan Brothers, a South African version of an American doo-wop group, and then quickly moved to form her own group, the Skylarks, who performed a blend of jazz and traditional South African music. She stepped onto the international stage in 1959 when she appeared in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa.

That led to a meeting with Harry Belafonte, who brought her to the States where Makeba became famous for the novelty cut “The Click Song” (a tune that included the ‘clicks’ used in her native tongue, the South African language Xhosa). Soon after, Makeba had her South African citizenship revoked for her statements, artistic and personal, against apartheid. Her recordings were banned in her home country and she was not allowed home for her mother’s funeral.

In 1964, she appeared before the UN General Assembly and later that year married South African jazz trumpet player Hugh Masekela. In 1966, Makeba and Belafonte won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, which dealt with apartheid. She divorced Masekela and went on to marry, then divorce, Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael.

She performed at the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” prizefight between Muhammad Ali and Houstonian George Foreman, and in 1986 won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize for her work as a delegate to the United Nations. In 1987, she appeared on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, along the way she battling cancer and losing her only daughter.

During her years in exile, Makeba never stopped working to expose apartheid and the suffering of black South Africans. As a singer, activist and author (1987’s Makeba: My Story), she had one message: free South Africa.

By 1990, apartheid was officially over and South Africa was a different place; Nelson Mandela was president and he brought Makeba home. Many of her countrymen had never seen her perform live, but the country celebrated her return. A couple of years later she appeared in the film Sarafina! about the Soweto uprisings. At the time, the young cast said the highlight of making the film was meeting “Mama Afrika,” as Makeba had become known.

In the years since then, with her voice past its prime, Makeba slowed down – a little. She had reportedly been suffering from severe arthritis for several years, and cut back her concert schedule to a few select shows a year. But she kept performing right up to the end.

Monday, Makeba was in Italy performing in a concert supporting Roberto Saviano, a writer who exposed the Camorra (a mafia-like organization). Shortly after the concert, Makeba collapsed and was taken to the Veneto Verde hospital near Naples, where she died of a heart attack.

Nelson Mandela was among the first to offer his condolences: “She was South Africa's first lady of song,” he said. “She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours.”

For me and thousands of other fans, she was the “light come shining.” Mama Afrika, rest in peace. - Olivia Flores Alvarez

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray