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Biography of Miriam Makeba

Read on to know more about Miriam Makeba, the famous singer from South Africa.
Chandramita Bora
Miriam Makeba, the famous international singer hailing from South Africa, was born in 1932 in Johannesburg. Her father was a Xhosa (an African ethnic community that speaks the Bantu language) and her mother was a Swazi Sangoma (traditional healers from the Swaziland).
She was just six years old, when her father passed away. In her childhood, she attended the Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria for eight years, where she used to sing as a group singer.


She began her professional career as a singer in 1950, as a member of the band, the Cuban Brothers. Then, she became a part of the jazz group, the Manhattan Brothers that used to perform solely for black people. She toured different places of South Africa as a member of the Manhattan group, and was recognized by the entire country.
Later on, she formed her own group, known as 'The Skylarks'. She got international recognition in the year 1959, during her tour of the United States as a member of the Manhattan group. In 1959, she acted in the musical jazz opera, King Kong, which was a huge success in South Africa.
She even starred in the documentary, 'Come Back Africa', directed by the American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. It was a documentary against the policy of racial discrimination of South Africa. In 1992, she played the role of a mother in the film Sarafina, which was about the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Makeba used to mix jazz with traditional African music.
She contributed many unforgettable hit songs to the world. She is credited with the release of more than 30 albums. 'Pata Pata', and 'The Clique Song' are some of the most famous numbers of Miriam Makeba, which reflect her anguish over the racist apartheid laws (social, economic, and political discrimination against the Black people) of South Africa.


Miriam had to spend 31 years of her life in exile due to her unceasing struggle against racial discrimination. Because of her appearance in the documentary 'Come Back Africa', her passport was revoked by the South African government. As a result, she could not attend her mother's funeral.
In 1963, she testified before the United Nations against the apartheid laws of South Africa, for which her South African citizenship was canceled by the government. In 1968, Miriam married Stokely Carmichael, which was greatly disliked by the American public, as Carmichael was a leader of the movement for the emancipation of black people.
Miriam again found herself in trouble, as suddenly many of her contracts and concerts were canceled in the United States. As a result, she and her husband left the United States and went to Guinea. During her stay in Guinea, she attended the General Assembly of the United Nations as a Guinean delegate.

Return to South Africa

When Nelson Mandela was released from the prison, he persuaded Miriam Makeba to come back to South Africa. The ban on her music was also lifted by the government in 1988. Finally, she returned to her homeland in December, 1990.


In 1965, Miriam Makeba became the first African black woman to win the prestigious Grammy award. She won the award for best folk recording together with Harry Belafonte, for the album 'An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba'. Her album 'Homeland' was also nominated for the Grammy award in 2000. In 2002, she won the Polar Music Prize, along with Sofia Gubaidulina.
She was the recipient of the prestigious UNESCO 'Grand Prix du Conseil International de la Musique' award. As a social activist, she won the 1986 Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize. She also received the Gold Otto Hahn Peace Medal from the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) for her humanitarian activities.


On November 9, 2008, she suffered a severe heart attack, while performing at a concert organized in the Italian town Caserta. She was immediately taken to the 'Pineta Grande' clinic, but doctors failed to revive her. She died at the age of 76, leaving a void in the music world.
Miriam Makeba, also known as 'Mama Afrika', and the 'Empress of African Song' was an iconic figure, who popularized African music by creating some remarkable and unforgettable songs. Besides being a world famous singer, she was also a human rights campaigner, and received many awards for her service to the mankind.
Music was her passion, and a medium through which she conveyed the pain of the age-old suppression and discrimination faced by her countrymen, to the entire world.