Miriam Makeba: World Music Star Celebrated

Miriam Makeba, the late South African singer and activist known as “Mama Africa,” has been honored today with a Google doodle. According to Chris Gaylord for The Christian Science Monitor, Makeba’s 50-year career included high points like becoming the first African woman Grammy winner and low points like being exiled from her home country of South Africa.

She would have been 81 if she hadn’t passed away in 2008 from a sudden heart attack. Goodman said that the energetic singer was going strong until the very end and that she had actually performed in concert on the day she died.

UK’s The Guardian said today that she was “the defining voice of world music” who was asked to sing at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party in 1962.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Makeba had left her home to perform overseas in the UK and the US. Because she was an outspoken supporter for civil rights, she attracted the notice of the apartheid era government. When her mother died in 1960, she tried to return for the funeral but was turned back at the airport. Her South African passport had been cancelled.

Apartheid, originally a word from the Afrikaans language of South Africa, was a notorious system of segregation established in South Africa in 1948. According to Wikipedia and many other sources, the purpose of the segregation laws were to restrict the civil rights of the black majority while protecting the power of the Afrikaner minority.

As a result of losing her passport, “Mama Africa” was not allowed to re-enter her own home country for the 30 years between 1960 and 1990. When Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, citizens who had been long exiled were finally allowed to return, including Miriam Makeba.

Despite her 30 years of exile, the activist singer remained forever fearless. According to The Guardian report, that final 2008 concert was for author Roberto Saviano, who has lived in hiding since 2006 to avoid a mob hit after he penned a best-selling book about the mafia-like organization, Camorra.

Some Americans may also remember her marriage to Stokely Carmichael, described in Biography as a leading figure in the American Black Panthers. Wikipedia said that when she married the controversial Carmichael in 1968, she faced the cancellation of her American concert tours and record deals, causing the couple to relocate to Guinea.

The difficult Carmichael became notorious in the women’s liberation movement for his infamous comment, quoted by Jo Freeman for the Duke University Special Collections Library as: “The only position for women in [his civil rights organization] is prone.”

Makeba separated from Carmichael in 1973 and finally divorced him in 1978.

Did Google’s doodle honoring Miriam Makeba introduce you to her achievements for the first time? Or were you already a fan?