Miriam Makeba Uses The Sounds of The Townships To Challenge Apartheid
Eyes On Yesterday
When we look at political movements, we often forget how connected globally these issues are to each other. We forget how much a culture can be affected by different forms of expression and experience. We don’t see how far back we should be looking to figure out how we’ve gotten here.
In 1990, the once stateless “Mama Africa” was finally welcomed back to her home country of South Africa after 30 years. At a time of mounting pressure both domestically and internationally, the ban on anti-apartheid organizations (most notably the African National Congress) by the South African government was overturned and sweeping changes were made to the political system. Along with the broader changes, political prisoners, like Nelson Mandela were released and others that were exiled from the country were once again allowed to return home.
This isn’t a story about a political singer but is one about one of the most influential South African singers to express herself in the best way she knew.
The World of Miriam Makeba
Born to a Swazi mother and Xhosa father in March of 1932, Zenzile Miriam Makeba grew up in Prospect, a black township near Johannesburg. Miriam had begun working at a very young age following the death of her father.
Singing in the Kilnerton Training Institute choir, Makeba recognized (and was rewarded with enormous praise) that she was able to hone her skills strengthening her voice in Xhosa, English, Zulu, and Sotho. Mainly exploring domestic work after the death of her father, Miriam was exposed to her early musical influences by her family. Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington’s work became part of her repertoire at a young age and carried throughout her eventual long-standing career.
Occupying jazz and harmony groups predominately with men, in 1956, Miriam joined The Skylarks, an all-womxn group focused on bringing traditional African melodies, gospel, and marabi jazz to their songs. Roughly 100 recordings were made with the group and gave the chance for Makeba to experiment with a lot of styles of music, seeing what combinations worked to blend for audiences. Later on, her work with the Skylarks became cited as some of her best. Not a lot of details are known about what caused Makeba to depart, but it is known that it left her without claim to intellectual property or royalties.
Makeba’s reach extended into film and theatre, broadening the audience that was exposed to her wide-ranging vocal tones and careful phrasing across multiple dialects. She made a very short appearance (a total of 4 minutes) on Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary filmed in secret. Her brief cameo connected well with audiences, prompting the filmmaker to arrange a visa to attend its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. This opened up numerous opportunities to perform across the United Kingdom and the United States. During her time performing in London, Miriam met Harry Belafonte. The two developed a significant relationship, with Belafonte continuing to mentor Makeba in crafting her first solo recordings. Moving to New York City, she recorded and released her first solo album in 1960.
The album included one of her most famous hits, “Qongqothwane” (or “The Click Song” because U.S. audiences couldn’t pronounce the Xhosa title).
Makeba’s career was flourishing in the United States, but back at home, the landscape continued to shift. Following the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, Miriam learned that her mother passed away. In an attempt to return home for the funeral, she discovered that the South African government has cancelled her passport. In part, due to Makeba’s testimony on multiple occasions against the South African National Party (advocating for sanctions, an embargo on weapons, and the end to apartheid in the country). In response, Miriam’s music was banned, her citizenship and the right to return were revoked.
Growing discomfort about her family’s safety, but limited in her direct influence, Makeba had to come to terms with the freedom that she possessed. She had been able to leave the country while others were being affected by institutionalized segregation of apartheid. Activism within her music wasn’t a focal point in her early work but realizing the platform that she had a strong grip on, used it to talk about her life, her country and her people’s plight. Not wanting to typecast Makeba strictly as a political singer, who has spoken out many times throughout her career about this label:
“People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us — especially the things that hurt us.”
— Miriam Makeba
Building on her growing popularity, Miriam’s subsequent releases The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba, The World of Miriam Makeba, and The Voice of Africa brought a widespread appeal fulfilling the “exotic” singer image for many white audiences and the link to common struggle in the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement that she so often connected to.
“There wasn’t much difference in America; it was a country that had abolished slavery but there was apartheid in its own way.”
— Miriam Makeba
In 1968, after keeping her relationship a secret from family and friends, married Stokely Carmichael (at the time a leader in the Black Panther Party). This proved to have an effect on her career as she became a focus of the U.S. government and was the target of backlash from her white audiences. This led to some of her U.S. performances to be cancelled and a losing battle to maintain an apolitical status. The couple moved out of the U.S. (to the addition of Makeba’s ban from returning to the U.S.) to Guinea for the next 15 years. Miriam’s performances shifted to being predominantly held in African countries especially as they became independent of European rule (i.e. Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, and Angola). Following her ban from the United States, her music’s subject matter grew to hold more criticism of its own institutional policies and systems. She wouldn’t return to the United States until the end of the 1980s.
She continued her activism and advocacy for human rights along with producing over 30 albums in her career. After announcing a semi-retirement, Makeba move to doing some smaller performances until a heart attack at a concert in Italy resulted in her passing.
Refuse To Let The Truth Be Covered By Life
Makeba became a symbol for a lot of people in the 1960s and has carried influence in the years that followed. One of the first South African artists to have a global reach, Miriam brought Afropop, jazz and folk music to the mainstream. Beyond a successful career, Miriam Makeba was at her core attempting to connect with her audiences on an emotional level. Expressing that artist shouldn’t be closed to what is happening around them, she wanted a good life for her people and for the world to pay attention.