NPR logo

Remembering Miriam Makeba, 'Mama Africa'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96824536/96824662" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Remembering Miriam Makeba, 'Mama Africa'

Remembering Miriam Makeba, 'Mama Africa'

Remembering Miriam Makeba, 'Mama Africa'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96824536/96824662" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba died Sunday at age 76. In a letter of tribute, Nelson Mandela said, "Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us." Talk of the Nation remembers her with a 1988 recording of Mosadi Ku Rima.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Sad news earlier today of the death of one of the most recognized voices to come out of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. Singer Miriam Makeba died this morning from a heart attack after performing at a concert in Southern Italy. Widely known as Mama Africa and the Empress of African Song, Makeba was also celebrated by many and branded by others as a living symbol of the anti-apartheid campaign. Born in Johannesburg in 1932, she started performing in Sophiatown, a black cultural hub where she learned a lifelong lesson about apartheid. The black residents were forcibly removed by the government. Makeba first came to public attention as a featured vocalist with the Manhattan Brothers then with her all-woman group, the Skylarks, and she later gained international renown as a solo act. In 1963, she appeared at the United Nations to condemn apartheid in South Africa. A year later, Makeba found out her passport had been revoked, and she then spent some 30 years in exile.

Ms. MIRIAM MAKEBA (South African Singer and Activist, Mama Africa): It was very painful for me not to go back home. Mostly, it was painful that I couldn't come home to bury my mother. But you know, in life you make choices. You say, OK, are you going to sit here, Miriam Makeba, and say I'm a star and forget about home, or do you decide to say I'm a South African and this is what is happening to our people and so on. And I made that decision. And from then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics.

CONAN: Miriam Makeba in an interview with NPR's Farai Chideya in 2006. Forty years earlier, she collaborated with Harry Belafonte on the album "An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba" which featured songs about the struggle in her homeland. She's probably best remembered for her hits "Pata Pata" and the click song where she incorporated her native language, Xhosa. Her infusion of Xhosa, township rhythms and jazz was unlike anything Americans had heard. After Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990, Miriam Makeba returned to South African.

Today, former president Mandela said in a statement, "She was South Africa's first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours." In recent years, Makeba worked as a Goodwill Ambassador for South Africa and for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Miriam Makeba was 76 years old.

(Soundbite of Miriam Makeba singing in Xhosa)

CONAN: More on the life of Miriam Makeba later on All Things Considered. I'm Neal Conan and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

South African Singer Miriam Makeba Dies

South African Singer Miriam Makeba Dies

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96805480/96805458" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Grammy award-winning South African singer Miriam Makeba has died. The great-grandmother — known affectionately as "Mama Africa" — reportedly suffered a heart attack after performing at an anti-mafia concert Sunday in southern Italy. She was 76.

Miriam Zenzile Makeba embodied the pan-Africanist spirit of the 1960s when she burst onto the international stage and unwittingly became the voice and symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

On tour in the U.S., Makeba had her passport revoked and was banned from returning home after she was featured in a documentary that criticized apartheid. Makeba was just 27 at the time and wouldn't see South Africa again for more than 30 years, she told NPR in an interview in 2006.

"It was very painful for me not to go back home," she said. "Mostly it was painful that I couldn't come home to bury my mother. But, you know, in life you make choices. You say, OK, are you going to sit here, Miriam Makeba, and say 'I'm a star' and forget about home? Or do you decide to say 'I'm a South African and this is what is happening to our people' and so on? And I made that decision. And from then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics."

She was helped by established artists like her mentor, Harry Belafonte, with whom she won a Grammy for their joint album, An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba.

Makeba made a new home in the U.S. and settled into telling and singing the story of South Africa, reaching an American audience with her unique brand of music, laced with a social message about the suffering of black people back home. Makeba was an instant sensation.

She sang in every language under the sun, including her own — Xhosa — unknown to Americans at that time. But Makeba fiercely resisted being pigeonholed as a musician, describing herself simply as a chanteuse, a singer.

"And now I'm saying what am I? Jazz? Folk? What am I? When I sit back and think over the life of my career, the first jazz festival I performed in was at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the early '60s. I said, 'Why am I going there?' And I opened the festival, and they had me sing a cappella.

"And then they had Odetta. Odetta came after me and did the work songs, which were done by the slaves that were taken from Africa. ... And then Nina Simone came and did the jazz. ... So I was like the first to give the knowledge that jazz came from Africa, that the music evolved into jazz, which then Nina Simone epitomized in that jazz festival.

"That is why I always say, please, don't put me, Miriam Makeba, in a cage. I do not want to be labeled. When people ask me, what do you sing? I say, I just sing. I sing music."

Makeba abruptly left the U.S. after her then-husband, the radical civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael — later known as Kwame Ture — fell afoul of the authorities and opted for exile in Guinea in West Africa.

A committed pan-Africanist who thought continental and sang continental, Makeba once said she longed for South Africa but felt welcome and at home anywhere on the continent. She accompanied Paul Simon on the legendary Graceland tour in 1987 and finally returned home to Johannesburg in the 1990s, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

In his letter of tribute, Mandela said: "The sudden passing of our beloved Miriam has saddened us and our nation. For many decades, starting in the years before we went to prison, MaMiriam featured prominently in our lives, and we enjoyed her moving performances at home. Despite her tremendous sacrifice and the pain she felt to leave behind her beloved family and her country when she went into exile, she continued to make us proud, as she used her worldwide fame to focus attention on the abomination of apartheid. ... Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us."

Well into her 70s and by then a great-grandmother, Makeba continued to perform onstage and record new albums. She was a proud United Nations goodwill ambassador and also set up a school for destitute young girls in South Africa.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.