Following a three-decade-long exile, Miriam Makeba's return to South Africa was celebrated as though a queen was restoring her monarchy. The response was fitting as Makeba remains the most important female vocalist to emerge out of South Africa. Hailed as the Empress of African Song and Mama Africa, Makeba helped bring African music to a global audience in the '60s. Nearly five decades after her debut with the Manhattan Brothers, she continues to play an important role in the growth of African music.
Makeba's life has consistently been marked by struggle. As the daughter of a sangoma, a mystical traditional healer of the Xhosa tribe, she spent six months of her birth year in jail with her mother. Gifted with a dynamic vocal tone, Makeba recorded her debut single, "Lakutshona Llange," as a member of the Manhattan Brothers in 1953. Although she left to form an all-female group named the Skylarks in 1958, she reunited with members of the Manhattan Brothers when she accepted the lead female role in a musical version of King Kong, which told the tragic tale of Black African boxer, Ezekiel "King Kong" Dlamani, in 1959. The same year, she began an 18-month tour of South Africa with Alf Herbert's musical extravaganza, African Jazz and Variety, and made an appearance in a documentary film, Come Back Africa. These successes led to invitations to perform in Europe and the United States.
Makeba was embraced by the African American community. "Pata Pata," Makeba's signature tune, was written by Dorothy Masuka and recorded in South Africa in 1956 before eventually becoming a major hit in the U.S. in 1967. In late 1959, she performed for four weeks at the Village Vanguard in New York. She later made a guest appearance during Harry Belafonte's groundbreaking concerts at Carnegie Hall. A double-album of the event, released in 1960, received a Grammy award. Makeba has continued to periodically renew her collaboration with Belafonte, releasing an album in 1972 titled Belafonte & Miriam Makeba. Makeba then made a special guest appearance at the Harry Belafonte Tribute at Madison Square Garden in 1997.
Makeba's successes as a vocalist were also balanced by her outspoken views about apartheid. In 1960, the government of South Africa revoked her citizenship. For the next 30 years, she was forced to be a "citizen of the world." Makeba received the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize in 1968. After marrying radical black activist Stokely Carmichael, many of her concerts were canceled, and her recording contract with RCA was dropped, resulting in even more problems for the artist. She eventually relocated to Guinea at the invitation of president Sekou Toure and agreed to serve as Guinea's delegate to the United Nations. In 1964 and 1975, she addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on the horrors of apartheid.
Makeba published her autobiography, Miriam: My Story, in English in 1988 and subsequently had it translated and published in German, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. Following Nelson Mandela's release from prison, Makeba returned to South Africa in December 1990. She performed her first concert in her homeland in 30 years in April 1991. She appeared in South African award-winning musical Sarafina in 1992 in the role of Sarafina's mother. Two years later, she reunited with her first husband, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, for the Tour of Hope tour. In 1995, Makeba formed a charity organization to raise funds to help protect the women of South Africa. The same year, she performed at the Vatican's Nevi Hall during a worldwide broadcast, Christmas in the Vatican. Makeba's first studio album in a decade, Homeland, was released in 2000. ~ Craig Harris