March 4 – Happy Birthday, Miriam Makeba

Posted on March 4, 2015

She turned the world onto African music.

She campaigned against the bigotry of apartheid.

She recorded and toured with popular musicians such as Harry Belafonte and Paul Simon.

She worked for civil rights.

Today's birthday, Miriam Makeba, was born in South Africa on this date in 1932. She spent her first six months in jail, because her mom was arrested for selling homemade beer when she was just 18 days old!

And she spent much of the first half of her life in another sort of prison – in the repressive, racially-segregated society called apartheid.

Makeba loved singing in a choir as a child, and as a young adult and breast cancer survivor she began to sing with groups and eventually as a solo artist.

But she dared to speak out against apartheid in a documentary and in her travels as she performed and accepted awards. As revenge, the South Africans government cancelled her passport while she was out of the country. She tried to go home for her mother's funeral and discovered that she was in exile!

Makeba with Harry Belafonte
Makeba came to the United States. She performed on The Steve Allen Show, signed with RCA, released a few studio albums, and sang with Harry Belafonte at U.S. President John F. Kennedy's birthday party—and then met the President!

She also continued to campaign against apartheid. When she testified against it before the U.N., her native country acted in revenge AGAIN. This time, her citizenship and right to return were revoked.

Makeba with Paul Simon
Was she a woman without a country, then?

No! Nine countries stepped up and issued her international passports, and ten countries granted her honorary citizenship! In a way, Makeba had MANY countries; in a way, she was a citizen of the world.

Makeba won a Grammy Award in 1966. She was partly responsible for the so-called “Afro” look of a natural, non-curled, non-straightened hairstyle. Her song “Pata Pata” became a worldwide hit.

I was sure I had never heard it, but it turns
out it was totally familiar to me! I was all,
“Oh! THAT song!!”
Unfortunately, Makeba's connection to the U.S. was damaged when she married Trinidad-born civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. During the time that she was not welcomed with open arms in the U.S., Makeba served as Guinea's official delegate to the U.N., and she won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize.

In the 1980s, though, she was back in the U.S. on a popular tour with musician Paul Simon.

When the system of apartheid crumbled in 1991, Makeba was finally able to go home!

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