Remembering The Activism of Miriam Makeba Roxanne Lawson — director of Africa policy for TransAfrica Forum — remembers the musical and political contributions of legendary South African singer, Miriam Makeba. Makeba died while singing on stage this week at the age of 76.

Remembering The Activism of Miriam Makeba

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I want to actually go to something cultural. We want to talk about someone that I know that you feel, and many people feel, has had a huge impact on international politics and culture. And we're talking about the South African singer, Miriam Makeba, who died on Monday in Italy. She has been mourned by people across the Continent and the world.

(Soundbite of Miriam Makeba singing)

CHIDEYA: Fans called her "Mama Africa." The Apartheid government banned her albums and exiled her. Black Panther Stokely Carmichael chose her as his wife. We're talking about Miriam Makeba, a woman whose influence went far beyond the world of music.

(Soundbite of Miriam Makeba singing)

CHIDEYA: Makeba collapsed on stage in Italy on Sunday while singing her biggest hit. She was 76 years old. News & Notes producer Roy Hearst had the chance to speak with her in 2004.

(Soundbite of 2004 interview with Miriam Makeba)

Ms. MIRIAM MAKEBA (South African Singer/Activist): I am not a politician, but I am a South African who feels and who knows where I come from and what we are going through. And I said I don't sing politics, I sing - I merely sing the truth. And that's where Miriam Makeba became Miriam Makeba.

CHIDEYA: Yesterday we spoke with Harry Belafonte about Makeba's life and influence. He first met her in London in 1958, when she was already living in exile. Together they won a Grammy for best folk recording in 1966. I asked Mr. Belafonte how he helped her gain entry to the U.S. and launch her international career.

Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Musician/Activist): I suggested to her that there might be some things that I could offer and some platforms I could extend to her that might help her develop her base in America and in Europe. And she accepted that offer, and for the next seven years we worked together almost - well, with great consistency. The first three years she worked on my platform, in my concerts, and we went in several places around the world together. And we both had a chance to make history.

(Soundbite of Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba singing)

Mr. BELAFONTE: The very first night she walked out on stage with me, at the end of the night she just stood in the wings and wept, because she had never quite experienced the audiences the way in which she experienced the one that we sang together on. All the audiences thereafter were fairly young because it was a tour of the universities of America that I was doing at the time. And they just delighted in hearing her and the "Click" song and singing in African tongues and the rhythms. The young people just absolutely delighted in it.

(Soundbite of Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba singing)

CHIDEYA: We were just hearing from musician and activist Harry Belafonte talking about the passing of South Africa's Miriam Makeba, "Mama Africa." And we're talking as well, to Roxanne Lawson, again, TransAfrica Forum's director of Africa Policy. It's one of those things where in certain ways, the conversation we've had today on the show has closed a loop because we were just talking about the influence of music on political participation among the hip-hop generation. And this is a very different situation, but also a woman who used her music in order to shape politics. What kind of risks do you think that she took in order to be the woman that she was, and to say the kind of things she said throughout her life?

Ms. ROXANNE LAWSON (Director of Africa Policy, TransAfrica Forum): I imagine they must have been insurmountable, to spend 31 years in exile just for wanting to practice your art, your music. To want to be yourself, as she said many times. You know, she didn't consider herself to be a political singer, she was just going about her life. And I think for me and many people like me, she shows us that life is political, that art is political.

I know that for TransAfrica Forum, this merger, this love, this marriage between activism and art fuels much of our work. And as someone who grew up in the anti-Apartheid struggles, I remember as a child listening to her and then hearing her and seeing her play a role in "Sarafina," not realizing who she had been. Then as I grew up, realizing what she had given to me as someone who grew up in the United States the ability to live life on your own terms, to honor your culture through music and expression and to be yourself.

CHIDEYA: there have been different moments where Africa and America have connected around civil rights, around international rights. I'm thinking of, you know, everything from the way that there was a dialogue with South Africa between South Africans and Americans working in the civil rights movement to, of course, the protest that ended - in America that helped provide a grounds for ending Apartheid, or at least the U.S. participation economically in supporting South Africa's Apartheid. Do you think that we're entering another period where we may see both culturally in terms of music, and also politically more of a connection between Africa and America?

Ms. LAWSON: Well I certainly hope so. I mean, if you think about it, as you talked about today on your show, more people - more Africans have come to the United States in the last 20 years then in the entire middle passage. And so Africans in the U.S. are a completely different animal than we were even a generation ago.

And I think that we'll see that, and we see that through music. We see that through all of our - if you think about - as a hip-hop - as someone from hip-hop generation, that hip-hop artists, how many of them, like Jean Grae, had their roots in Southern Africa or across the Continent. I think that is what I hope will be the future of both political struggle and culture in this country. It's something that I'm dedicated to and I think that you can not have political struggle without an artistic and cultural expression of that struggle.

CHIDEYA: How do you think Miriam Makeba will live on in terms of her legacy?

Ms. LAWSON: I mean, her tremendous influence. I think that for so many young people, men and women, we don't even understand how much she influenced the way in which we understand ourselves. Seeing African culture as beautiful. Seeing the ways in which speaking your indigenous language is beautiful, is powerful and can be understood by the masses, I think is a really important point that was made.

I think also, just the strength of someone who could survive beautifully despite Apartheid, despite being oppressed, despite being in exile. I think those things will live on. And as well, just the ability that you can link cultures with art. You can link people, not with just their commonalities, but with their differences through their love of art. And for me, I mean, she really is the mother of our struggle. And she will be severely missed and mourned, but also, will give birth to another generation of sons and daughters who will follow in her footsteps.

CHIDEYA: Roxanne, thank you.

Ms. LAWSON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Roxanne Lawson is director of Africa Policy for the TransAfrica Forum.

(Soundbite of Miriam Makeba singing)

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