Miriam Makeba

Singer & Civil Rights Activist

“Be careful, think about the effect of what you say. Your words should be constructive, bring people together, not pull them apart.”

Miriam Makeba, also known as “Mama Africa,” was a popular South-African singer who introduced Xhosa and Zulu songs to Western audiences. She is best known for the songs “Pata Pata,” “The Click Song” and “Malaika.”

Early Life and Career

Miriam Makeba was born Zensi Miriam Makeba on March 4, 1932, in Prospect Township, near Johannesburg, South Africa, to a Xhosa father and a Swazi mother.

Miriam Makeba

Makeba began singing in her school choir as a young girl, and by the mid-1950s, she was landing local gigs as a full-time professional singer. By the end of the decade, she had made a name for herself throughout South Africa.

Continued Commercial Success

In 1959, Makeba's singing appearance in the documentary film Come Back, Africa attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte. The film tells the story of Zachariah, a black South-African man living under the rule of the nation's oppressive apartheid government. With Belafonte's help, Makeba settled in the United States, where she embarked on a successful singing and recording career. In 1960, she was denied re-entry into South Africa, and, subsequently, she lived in exile for three decades.

Makeba's song “Pata Pata,” originally released in South Africa in the late 1950s but not released in the United States until 1967, is considered by many to be her most popular single. She is also well-known for the songs “The Click Song” and “Malaika,” and for introducing to the West a number of Xhosa, Zulu and Swahil songs.

In 1962, Makeba performed at the birthday celebration of President John F. Kennedy. In 1965, she and Belafonte released the album An Evening with Belafonte & Makeba, which includes two duos by the musicians: “Train Song” and “Cannon.” The album earned Makeba and Belafonte a Grammy Award for best folk recording in 1966.

In the mid-1980s, Makeba met famed American musician Paul Simon. In 1987, she and Simon performed together as part of Simon's incredibly famous Graceland tour. The tour focused attention on apartheid in Makeba's homeland, where she would eventually return, encouraged by Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.

Miriam Makeba

In addition to her music career, Makeba, a black South African, was a prominent civil rights activist, speaking out against apartheid in South Africa.

Final Years

Miriam Makeba continued making music and fighting for causes that she believed in until her death, following a heart attack on November 9, 2008, at the age of 76, in Castel Volturno, Italy.

By the end of her career, Makeba had recorded 30 original albums and 19 compilation albums, and had collaborated with other musicians on several other projects.

Personal Life

In 1964, Makeba married famed trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The couple divorced in 1966, following Makeba's release of An Evening with Belafonte & Makeba. In 1968, Makeba wed Trinidadian-American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. With Carmichael, she relocated to Africa, where the couple settled in Guinea, and later moved to Belgium. Makeba and Carmichael divorced in 1979, after nearly a decade of marriage.

Quick Facts

Birth Date:
March 4, 1932

Death Date:
November 9, 2008

  • At the age of 18, Miriam was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Her mother, who also happened to be a traditional healer, cured her. Sometime later, Miriam found a new way to grow around her troubles and started working on her music.
  • Her first solo success arrived in the year 1956, under Gallotone Records, when Miriam recorded her very first solo album titled Lovely Eyes. The record got released in the United States and became the first ever South African album to make it to the Billboard 200 chart. During this time, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was starting to boil up and Miriam came out in full supported. She secretly appeared in a documentary film Come Back, Africa, the film which later won the top honour at the Venice film festival.
  • Miriam’s popularity reached the then American president, John F. Kennedy, who claimed that he was a huge fan of the singer and invited her over to perform at his son’s birthday party in 1962. Three years later, she along with her mentor Harry Belafonte, released a duo album titled An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba, which went on to receive the Grammy award for best folk album of the year in 1966. The duos Train Song and Cannon also received widespread love from around the country.
  • Her career took another major turn in mid 80s, when she came in touch with Paul Simon, a cult figure in American music scene. She embarked on a glorious ‘Graceland’ tour, which turned her life around and the European countries got officially introduced to the brilliant musician that Miriam was. The tour also gave her opportunity to be vocal about the apartheid movement back in South Africa and raise awareness about the cause
  • She got married for a third time to Stokely Carmichael. He was a Trinidadian-American civil rights activist. The couple first moved to Guinea then Belgium, but the they divorced after 9 years.
  • Miriam Makeba
  • Miriam Makeba
  • Miriam Makeba


BIO: Biography.com + Wikipedia.com
PHOTO: Medium + CarWallPapea2 + City-Press + Telerama + 3d-Car-Shows

Last Updated

April 2020

Original Published Date

June 2017

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