The end of apartheid in South Africa let the country exhale in a huge sigh of relief. It also allowed those who’d been forced to flee because of the repressive regime to come home. Among them was Miriam Makeba, the country’s jewel of a singer who’d left her homeland in 1960, returning as both a musical and political icon.
By the time she left, she’d already forged an impressive career. Born in Johannesburg in 1932, at the age of 22 she became a female adjunct in the Manhattan Brothers, one of the most popular black South African groups. It gave her a good grounding as the group played an endless round of one-nighters. But it was a steppingstone to bigger and better things, and before long she began recording with the all-female Skylarks. They hit the road, crisscrossing the country as part of Alf Herberts’s African Jazz and Variety package, the crucible for a number of emerging artists.
On that tour, which lasted 18 months, Makeba honed her vocal skills and made her voice into a powerful instrument. And it certainly paid off. In 1959 she was chosen to play the female lead in the groundbreaking first black South African musical, King Kong. The production traveled to New York, where Makeba decided to make her home, as she was no longer allowed to record in her homeland.
One person impressed with her singing was Harry Belafonte, then a major star with an outlook that spread across black culture of the world. He invited her to appear with him at Carnegie Hall, an evening commemorated on An Evening With Harry Belafonte, which brought her a Grammy award in 1960.
That was just the beginning of her story in the U.S. however, although it made for a spectacular start. The following year she sang at President Kennedy’s birthday party, skyrocketing her to fame. Then, in 1963, she testified before the United Nations about apartheid. It was a powerful speech, from her own experience. And it had an obvious effect on the South African government—it stripped her of her citizenship. That same year, she sang at the birth of the Organization of African Unity.
“That was, to me, something,” she remembered. “Here I was, coming from nowhere, and singing to all these important people.”
Still, her star was on the ascendant in America. In 1967 she became the first African to have a U.S. hit single, when “Pata Pata” (which she’d recorded in 1959) shot up the charts.
However, love brought it all tumbling down. She’d become a star by the time she married Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader. It brought immediate controversy, although curiously, none of it came from the government. Suddenly her sing
The Definitive Collection (Wrasse)
Sangoma (Warner Bros.)
Live At Bern’s Salonger, Stockholm, Sweden, 1966 (Gallo)