Legendary singer and cultural crusader Miriam Makeba, who died suddenly of a heart attack Sunday night following a performance in Castel Volturno, Italy, is being remembered as a performer who energized an African consciousness here in the United States and more significantly gave hope to millions of her own countrymen during the struggle against apartheid. Voice of America Africa music specialist Matthew Lavoie explains how in music and in life, Makeba transmitted her unique brand of artistic authenticity.
"Starting in the 1950's, Miriam Makeba was a popular singer. Her material wasn't particularly political. In 1959, she starred in a documentary about apartheid actually, which from there went to the Venice Film Festival. And it was during that trip that she went to London and found that she was not welcomed back in South Africa. Harry Belafonte met her in London. They came to the United States, and really, in the United States, she became the first African artist to become nationally popular. Her song Pata Pata was in the US top ten," he noted.
Lavoie says Makeba's US popularity marked a huge triumph for establishing African musical creativity in the popular American consciousness. It also led to her becoming identified as an artist with a political message.
"In terms of politics, much like (Nelson) Mandela, her politics were not based on a message of revenge or hatred, but were always based on a message that really tried to push people throughout the world to live up to the best in human nature. And this is something that she really believed in and also sacrificed for throughout her career," he explained.
Often affectionately billed as "Mama Africa" and the "Empress of African Song," South African-born Makeba was the first African woman to receive a prestigious Grammy award from the American recording industry (in 1966 together with Harry Belafonte for Best Folk Recording for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba). Lavoie says although she frequently collaborated with other notable musical luminaries like her former husband, South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela, jazz greats Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, and on Paul Simon's 1987 Graceland tour of Southern Africa, Makeba distinguished herself the most as a solo performer.
"While she was a great artist and a spirit open to collaboration, again, I think her work as a solo artist stands above all the collaborations she did," notes Lavoie.
After calling for a political boycott of South Africa in 1963 before the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, Miriam Makeba was stripped of her South African citizenship and barred from returning home for about 30 years. Matthew Lavoie says her 1968 marriage to black power activist Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Toure and moved with Makeba from the US to Guinea) transformed the artist into a subject of continent-wide focus.
"Really, one of the few artists who not only spoke about pan-Africanism, but really creatively invested herself and her entire career into being a pan-African artist. And some of that was a creative decision. Some of that was due to the realities of her life. She was forced into exile from South Africa, lived in the United States, and was more or less forced out of the United States. The government didn't say,'You have to leave.' But after she married Stokely Carmichael, her record contract dried up, her concert appearances dried up. And so she was more or less, to continue having a career, forced to leave the country. And all these again political decisions had artistic consequences," he said.
Although resuming and reviving her singing career after several interludes as an international diplomat (for Guinea) and in other roles, Lavoie said Makeba ultimately vowed to continue singing as long as she said she could.
"She was someone who genuinely believed in African independence, in African intellectual creativity, both politically and artistically on the world stage, and I think that she really tried to live that. Also, (Guinean President Ahmed) Sekou Toure welcomed Miriam Makeba with open arms and she represented Guinea at the United Nations as a political appointee. And so she was really embraced by that country when other parts of the world wouldn't," he noted.
Miriam Makeba at age 76 continued to appear on stage. On Sunday evening in Italy, she was appearing at a solidarity concert for a journalist covering the story of six immigrants from Ghana who were recently shot to death by alleged mafia gunmen during a reported drug-dealing dispute. Matthew Lavoie says her sad farewell, just after singing one of her most famous hits, Pata Pata, was characteristic of the way she lived her life.
"I actually watched a few clips of performances from this past weekend, and the voice is still there. And even though reports have come out that she had arthritis and was in a lot of pain, you would never know it if you were sitting in the audience this weekend in Italy. And she said so herself throughout her career, that the reason music meant so much to her was that despite all the upheavals in her life and all the different relocations in her life, the one place where she was always at home, no matter what place she was in her life was when she was on stage," he noted.