Remembering Mama Africa Miriam Makeba

Several of my son’s friends organized a small birthday celebration for him a few years ago. They invited me to hang out with them and I thought I’d bring a couple of DVDs for the occasion.

One of my picks was Alicia Keys’ “The Diary of Alicia Keys.” I liked the international flavor of the DVD, which shows Keys in many countries. One of the spots she visited was Occupied Azania (South Africa). One scene flashed Keys and “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba, together at a piano. I told the gathering, “That’s Miriam Makeba, ‘Mama Africa’”.

For some reason, I was playing much of Makeba’s music on both of my shows, “Diasporic Music” and “Saturday Morning Live” on CKLN-FM and Uhuru. When I arrived home, my phone started ringing.

The news was dreadful. Makeba had died after a concert in Italy. One of the calls came from Ayuko Babu, the executive director of the Pan African Film Festival. Babu, who had spent time with Makeba in Guinea, was clearly upset and I could sense in his voice that Africa and the world had lost a genuine icon.

Makeba was born in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932. She joined the ancestors on November 9, 2008.

Coincidentally, Makeba’s passing came almost ten years to the day of one of her five husbands Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) who passed on November 15, 1998. Makeba’s mother was a Swazi sangoma and her father, who died when she was six, was a Xhosa.

Belafonte’s relationship to Makeba

One of the tallest trees in our forest, Harry Belafonte played a major role in Makeba’s rise to fame. She documents how Belafonte “discovered” her in London and bought the cream of the show business crop to check out her opening date at the Village Vanguard in New York.

Says Makeba, “I cannot believe who Big Brother [Harry Belafonte] has sitting with him and his wife: Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Diahann Carroll, Nina Simone and Miles Davis. I have admired these people for years. They are great artists. And now they have come to see me.”

“Makeba: My Story” discusses her relationship with such mentors as Belafonte; her husbands, musical great Hugh Masekela and Pan-Africanist Kwame Ture; her protector, African statesman Sekou Toure; and her loyal fans.

She was one of the African, and Africans born in America, entertainers at the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Mobutu’s Zaire (which today is the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Her appearance there is captured in the film “When We Were Kings.”

After the death of her only daughter, Bongi Makeba, in 1985, she moved to Brussels. In 1987, she appeared in Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Shortly thereafter she published her autobiography, “Makeba: My Story.”

Makeba was pro-Africa

While I never met Makeba, I did speak to her on the phone on several occasions. During one of our conversations she singled out Denzel Washington for his portrayal of Steven Bantu Biko, in the film, “Cry Freedom.”

I reviewed her autobiography for the Globe & Mail in 1988.

During one pianist Randy Weston’s visits to Toronto I gave him a copy of “Makeba’s My Story,” after he told me he had crossed paths with her during Black History Month (African Liberation Month) in South Africa.

Makeba was pro Africa and pro-Africans and was influenced by and influenced Africans in the West. She had a profound impact on popular recording artists in the United States.

She clarified why the cultural boycott of South Africa should have been supported by all African people.

Says Makeba: “I am asked by…the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to come to New York for the founding of his new organization, People United to Save Humanity – PUSH. The American singer Aretha Franklin, whom I admire, is coordinating the guest list. After the Operation PUSH ceremony, she invites us to a birthday party she is throwing for herself at the Americana Hotel.”

I wish her a happy birthday, and she says, ‘Miriam, I need your advice. I’ve been asked to go to South Africa.’ In an instant my mask of sociability drops. When it comes to this subject, I am always very honest.

The authorities back home love to gain status and boost their image by bringing international stars to perform in the clubs –– clubs that are for whites only. The UN has finally applied limited sanctions against South Africa, and one of these forbids artists from performing there.

The Americans I speak to don’t seem to know anything the UN does. I hope that Aretha does not want me to give her my blessing for her trip. But I don’t have to worry; she seems to be sincerely concerned if it is right.

“I tell her, ‘Aretha, you are the Queen – the Queen of Soul. You have a big name, and you are loved everywhere. I don’t think you need a concert in South Africa. Whether you know it or not, you’d be helping the people who oppress our brothers and sisters. No artists can go to South Africa without getting dirty herself. It’s true what they say, you can’t roll around with pigs and not end up covered with mud.’ Aretha understands.

“She tells her managers to turn down the offer.”

As a vocalist, Mama Africa, enthralled millions from Cape Town to Nova Scotia. As a woman, her struggles to find love and selfhood speak to women worldwide. As an indigenous South African she has always used her voice as a weapon in the struggle against apartheid.

Jalali is producer/host for the Diasporic Music show on every Sunday at 2pm ET and for’s Saturday Morning Live show. His column Diasporic Music appears monthly in The Burning Spear newspaper.  

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