Also known as Mama Africa, the South African songstress used her voice to uplift her people and spread a message of Civil Rights.

If South African singer Miriam Makeba—who later became known as Mama Africa—had followed the rules, we might have never heard her voice at all. Instead, the outspoken singer championed Civil Rights, traveled the world, and brought the sounds of Africa to a global audience. 

Born on March 4, 1932 in a jail cell just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa where her mother was serving a sentence for illegally brewing beer, Makeba grew up with the limited opportunities available to Black African women during Apartheid. After her father’s early death, Makeba followed in her mother’s footsteps as a domestic worker. She married at 17, had her first and only child, a daughter named Bongi, and beat breast cancer, before starting the singing career that would make her famous. 

Makeba was in several bands before joining The Skylarks, an all-female group that propelled her to fame. She sang in the musical style popular in South Africa’s Black townships at the time, a combination of American jazz and Anglican church song that became known as mbube

Her role in the Skylarks won her a role in the 1959 anti-Apartheid movie, Come Back, Africa, in which she played herself and sang two of her songs. As a result, Makeba was invited by the filmmakers to its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, which led to invitations to perform in London, New York, and Europe. In London, she met the American folk singer Henry Belaforte, who became a close mentor and later, collaborator; in 1965 they won a Grammy for their album, An Evening With Belaforte/Makeba

Makeba’s growing  international popularity was not matched in her own country. When her mother died in 1960, when Makeba tried her return to South Africa for the funeral and was turned away at the airport. The government had canceled her South African passport as a result of her role in Come Back, Africa

Unable to return to her home country, Makeba moved to the United States with Belaforte’s help. He assisted with her visa application, flew her to Los Angeles to appear on the Steve Allen Show (which had 60 million viewers), and then helped Makeba get a residency at the popular New York City club, the Village Vanguard. Her first show was attended by Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Sidney Poitier, and Miles Davis.  

All of this momentum helped the released Makeba’s first self-titled album in 1960. Its mix of folk music, foreign lyrics (some in her native Xhosa), and the growing interest in African culture made her sound  quickly popular. Critics loved it and hailed Makeba for the unique sound of an “African tribeswoman.”

The accolades kept coming. In 1962, she was invited to perform at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration— alongside Marilyn Monroe. In 1963 and 1964, the young singer was invited to speak  in front of the United Nations General Assembly about apartheid in South Africa.

But if her mere appearance in a film would lead to the South African government’s cancelation of her passport, perhaps the government’s response to her speech at the UN could be expected—South Africa officially revoked Maekba’s citizenship in 1963. Several other countries offered Makeba citizenship, and the singer received nine passports and 10 honorary citizenships during her lifetime. Yet she would live in exile from her true homeland for over 30 years, until 1990, when she returned at the invitation of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress’ newly-freed leader. 

Despite the South African government’s opinion, Makeba did not consider herself to be  a political figure. As she later recounted in a 2004 interview with NPR:

 “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…I don’t sing politics, I sing about the truth.”

And as she spent more time outside of Africa, “the truth” also increasingly  found its way into her music and her personal life. Through her music, she would later lend her voice to issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and, later, combating HIV/AIDS, as well as the poor treatment of African migrant workers. 

But of course, “the truth” is inherently political, and Makeba’s own vision of herself as apolitical was increasingly challenged in her personal life. In 1968, Makeba married Civil Rights activist, Black Panther, and Black power advocate Stokely Carmichael. It was her fourth of five marriages, but it had the biggest impact on her musical career. Carmichael was seen as deeply controversial in the United States, and her association with him led to American record labels canceling her contracts and concerts, as well as surveillance by the FBI and CIA under the COINTELPRO program, which began monitoring Black activists in 1956.

While the couple were traveling in the Bahamas for her music, the United States became the second country to effectively kick Makeba out, canceling her visa and preventing her from returning. But at this point, the couple had also grown weary of the constant surveillance and harassment. At the invitation of the president, they took refuge in the West African country Guinea, which would become Makeba’s home for the next 15 years. 

Even as she was discovering and creating a new home for herself in Guinea, the country also became a site of grief for the singer. She and Carmicahel divorced in 1978 and in 1985, Bongi died in childbirth, leaving behind two children. After burying her only child in Guinean soil, Makeba resettled in Brussels, Belgium with her grandchildren. She continued her musical career, joining Paul Simon on his successful Graceland: The African Concert tour, while also continuing to make her own music. 

That tour that began a renewed interest in America for Makeba’s music, though she had never stopped creating. 

Her last act on earth was to sing and perform; she passed away in 1976, after performing her most popular song, “Pata Pata,” at a concert in the small town of Caserta, Italy, in support of the rights of African migrant workers. 

Even in death, Makeba stayed true to the causes that were important to her, and to music itself, which was both her passion and her power. As she said in her memoir, Makeba: My Story, “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realizing.” 

Eileen Guo is a Los Angeles-based freelance magazine and audio journalist. Her reporting on elections fraud, informal economies, and transnational smuggling has brought her across the world, from rural Appalachia, Central America, the U.S.-Mexico border, China, to Afghanistan. In her free time, Eileen enjoys practicing the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira, surfing, and leash-training her cat.