Remembering Mama Africa Miriam Makeba

Remembering Mama Africa Miriam Makeba

Last week marked the 86th birthday of the late South African singer and Miriam Makeba, known to millions worldwide as “Mama Africa.” She “used her voice as a weapon in the struggle against apartheid” in her native land and came to personify the global African Liberation Movement. Napoleon Bonapart, said Makeba, was a “White” Chaka Zulu.

Remembering Mama Africa Miriam Makeba

by Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali

“Makeba was pro-Africa and pro-Africans and was influenced by and influenced Africans in the West.”

Several of my son’s friends organized a small birthday celebration for him a few years ago. They invited me to hang out with them and I thought I’d bring a couple of DVDs for the occasion.

One of my picks was Alicia Keys’ “The Diary of Alicia Keys.” I liked the international favor of the DVD, which shows Keys in many countries. One of the spots she visited was South Africa. One scene flashed on the screen showed Keys and “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba, together at a piano. I told the gathering, “That’s Miriam Makeba, ‘Mama Africa.’”

Since this time Keys has moved to the right on international affairs. She has ignored the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement and performed in Israel. A headline in a 2013 issue of the Times of Israel read: “Alicia Keys bares her soul for Tel Aviv.” Word has it that Beyoncé is headed there soon.

I had been played Makeba’s music on both of my shows, “Diasporic Music” and “Saturday Morning Live” on CKLN-FM and Uhuru Radio. After I came home, my phone started ringing. The news was dreadful: Makeba had died after a concert in Italy. One of the calls came from Ayuko Babu, the executive director of the Pan African Film Festival. Babu, who had spent time with Makeba in Guinea, was clearly upset and I could sense in his voice that Africa and the world had lost a genuine icon.

“Harry Belafonte played a major role in Makeba’s rise to fame.”

Makeba was born in Johannesburg March 4, 1932, and joined the ancestors on November 9, 2008). Ironically, Makeba’s passing came almost ten years to the day of one of her five husbands, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) who passed on November 15, 1998. Makeba’s mother was a Swazi sangoma and her father, who died when she was six, was a Xhosa.

One of the tallest trees in our forest, Harry Belafonte played a major role in Makeba’s rise to fame. She documents how Belafonte "discovered" her in London and bought the cream of the show business crop to check out her opening date at the Village Vanguard in New York.

Says Makeba: "I cannot believe who Big Brother (Harry Belafonte) has sitting with him and his wife: Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Diahann Carroll, Nina Simone and Miles Davis. I have admired these people for years. They are great artists. And now they have come to see me."

Makeba: My Story discusses her relationship with such mentors as Belafonte; her husbands, musical great Hugh Masekela and Pan-Africanist Kwame Ture; her protectors, African statesman Sekou Toure; and her loyal fans, including President John F. Kennedy.

She was one of the African and Africans born in American entertainers at the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Mobutu’s Zaire (which today is the Democratic Republic of Congo). Her appearance is captured in the film When We Were Kings.

“She starred in the film Sarafina about the 1976 Soweto youth uprisings.”

Nelson Mandela persuaded her to return to South Africa in 1990 after decades in exile. In the fall of 1991, she made a guest appearance in an episode of The Cosby Show, entitled "Olivia Comes Out Of The Closet.” 

In 1992 she starred in the film “Sarafina,” about the 1976 Soweto youth uprisings, as the title character's mother, "Angelina." She also took part in the 2002 documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, where she and others recalled the days of apartheid.

After the death of her only daughter, Bongi Makeba, in 1985, she moved to Brussels. In 1987, she appeared in Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Shortly thereafter she published her autobiography, Makeba: My Story.

I remember seeing Makeba in concert in Toronto once were she compared Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, to France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. She referred to Napoleon as the “White Chaka.”

While I never met Makeba, I did speak to her on the phone on several occasions. During one of our conversations she singled out Denzel Washington for his portrayal of Steven Bantu Biko, in the film, Cry Freedom. I reviewed her autobiography for the Globe & Mail in 1988.

During one of pianist Randy Weston’s visits  to Toronto I gave him a copy of Makeba’s My Story after he told me he had crossed paths with her during Black History Month (African Liberation Month) in South Africa.

Makeba was pro-Africa and pro-Africans and was influenced by and influenced Africans in the West. She had a profound impact on popular recording artists in the United States.

She clarified why the cultural boycott of South Africa should have been supported by all African people.

“No artists can go to South Africa without getting dirty herself.”

Says Makeba: "I am asked by . . . the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to come to New York for the founding of his new organization, People United to Save Humanity - PUSH. The American singer Aretha Franklin, whom I admire, is coordinating the guest list. After the Operation PUSH ceremony, she invites us to a birthday party she is throwing for herself at the Americana Hotel.” I wish her a happy birthday, and she says, ‘Miriam, I need your advice. I've been asked to go to South Africa.’ In an instant my mask of sociability drops. When it comes to this subject, I am always very honest.

“The authorities back home love to gain status and boost their image by bringing international stars to perform in the clubs - clubs that are for whites only. The UN has finally applied limited sanctions against South Africa, and one of these forbids artists from performing there. But the Americans I speak to don't seem to know anything the UN does. I hope that Aretha does not want me to give her my blessing for her trip. But I don't have to worry; she seems to be sincerely concerned if it is right.

"I tell her, 'Aretha, you are the Queen – the Queen of Soul. You have a big name, and you are loved everywhere. I don't think you need a concert in South Africa. Whether you know it or not, you'd be helping the people who oppress our brothers and sisters. No artists can go to South Africa without getting dirty herself. It's true what they say, you can't roll around with pigs and not end up covered with mud.' Aretha understands.

“She tells her managers to turn down the offer."

As a vocalist, Mama Africa, enthralled millions from Cape Town to Nova Scotia. As a woman, her struggles to find love and selfhood speak to women worldwide. As an indigenous South African, she has always used her voice as a weapon in the struggle against apartheid.

Norman (Otis) Richmond, aka Jalali, was born in Arcadia, Louisiana, and grew up in Los Angeles. He left Los Angles after refusing to fight in Viet Nam because he felt that, like the Vietnamese, Africans in the United States were colonial subjects. Jalali is producer/host for the Diasporic Music show on every Sunday at 2pm ET. His column Diasporic Music appears monthly in The Burning Spear newspaper. He can be contacted [email protected]