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African Legends

Miriam Makeba

By Chris Nickson
Published November 9, 2006

In 1967, Miriam Makeba became the first African to have a U.S. hit single, when “Pata Pata” (which she’d recorded in 1959) shot up the charts.

By the time Miriam Makeba left South Africa in 1960, fleeing because of apartheid, 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. Before long she began recording with the all-female Skylarks, with whom Makeba honed her vocal skills. 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.

Harry Belafonte 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. 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, causing the South African government to strip her of her citizenship.

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.

Marrying Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader, brought immediate controversy; suddenly Makeba’s singing engagements were being canceled. She returned to Africa, settling in Guinea. She became the Guinean delegate to the U.N., and won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986. She wouldn’t return to the international stage until 1987, when she performed as part of Paul Simon’s Graceland tour (which also included fellow South African Hugh Masekela, to whom Makeba had been briefly married).

In 1988 her autobiography, Makeba: My Story, appeared in Britain and the U.S. In 1990, she set foot in South Africa for the first time in three decades. Making her home in South Africa again seemed to bring peace to Makeba. In 1992 she returned to the South African stage in the apartheid-era musical Sarafina!

It wasn’t until 2000 that she issued another album, Homeland, simply claiming that no one had asked her before.