I first heard Miriam Makeba sing in 1987, 27 years after the South African government forbade her to do so. Rather, they barred Paul Simon from bringing his Graceland concert tour to their country — so Simon, Makeba, and others sang from the border of neighboring Zimbabwe, massive loudspeakers projecting their music to thousands of South Africans who stood cheering under the sun, and millions of people like me, glued to their TV sets thousands of miles away. Makeba sang one of my favorite songs off of Graceland, a duet with Paul Simon, “Under African Skies,” and I though to myself, what a cool dame.
I didn’t know the half of it.
Makeba, 76, died Sunday evening after collapsing on stage while performing a concert to benefit a threatened Italian journalist. Dubbed “Mama Africa” by her adoring fans, Makeba was more than just a voice for her homeland. She was a musical emissary on a mission to abolish apartheid, a civil rights activist up to last waking minutes of her five-decade career (though she always resisted the “political singer” label), a longtime exile from her homeland, and a symbol of an oppressed people. Though she was well-versed in jazz, folk, and pop music, she introduced the music of South Africa to many people across the globe, most famously with her song, “Pata Pata,” which became a Stateside hit in 1967. She toured with Harry Belafonte in the 1960s and won a Grammy award with him for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. In 1962, she sang at the birthday party of President John F. Kennedy.
Thirty years later, Ms. Makeba starred alongside Whoopi Goldberg in Sarafina!, a film about the 1976 Soweto youth uprisings. For many young folks who never knew apartheid, it was a shocking introduction to a society that existed less than two decades ago. Thanks to Makeba and people like her, that reign of terror is no more. In his condolence message, former South African president Nelson Mandela said it was “fitting that her last moments were spent on a stage, enriching the hearts and lives of others.” RIP, Mama Africa.