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Miriam Makeba: Africa’s Most Iconic Diva

In a career that spanned five decades, she was a singer, actress, and political activist. She performed for dignitaries who included Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. She even had three private audiences with the Pope. She was Miriam Makeba, the most influential African diva of the 20th century. After initial successes with South African doo-wop pioneers the Manhattan Brothers and her own girl group the Skylarks in the 1950s, starring roles in the seminal black jazz opera King Kong (1959) and anti-Apartheid documentary Come Back Africa (1960) permitted Makeba to advance her career in exile.

Building on the rapturous reception she received during her residency at New York’s Village Vanguard, she released her eponymous debut album in 1960. American audiences were enchanted by the onomatopoeic range of vocalized clicks of Makeba’s native Xhosa vernacular on Afro-pop jazz hits like the “Click Song.” TIME magazine compared this distinctive sound, made with a percussive flick of the tongue off the palate to “the popping of champagne corks,” and hailed Makeba as “the most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years.” Journalists were so seduced that from the first rhapsodic reviews in Billboard in 1960, she was quickly tagged as the “click-click girl.”


Yet while “The Click Song” would become her signature tune in live performance over the next five decades, Makeba herself had something of a love-hate relationship with it. As a vocal proponent of black consciousness, she was all too aware of its novelty value as an “exotic” signifier. It was only after the end of Apartheid that she recorded a new studio version on her final album, Reflections (2004).

Her penchant for swinging through traditional Xhosa wedding songs, airy Afro-Latin moods, and catchy Calypso grooves on early albums such as The World of Miriam Makeba (1963) may later have had revisionist American critics pigeonholing her as a world music pioneer, but “genre-fication” was never her thing.

As writer Bongani Madondo rhapsodized in Rolling Stone South Africa, hers “was a voice and spirit for all seasons.” Over different eras, “yours has been a child’s, a friend’s, a lover’s, a mother’s, a revolutionary’s and indeed a diviner’s voice,” he wrote. Whether she was belting out playful Afro-pop ballads, sultry jazzy seductions, or powerful political protest songs, Makeba transmuted pain, love, and sorrow in a honeyed, yet heart-wrenchingly vulnerable mezzo-soprano that emanated deep from within her African soul. And yet, as Madondo observed, it was never really her voice that distinguished Makeba as a singer. It was the place from which it came.


It was exile that shaped Makeba’s music from the moment her South African citizenship was revoked after testifying against Apartheid at the United Nations in 1963. “Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile,” she reflected about being unable to return to her homeland. “No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That’s when it hurts,” she added of the ensuing three decades she was forced to spend as “a global citizen.”


It was the pain of exile that fueled her 1966 Grammy Award–winning album with Harry Belafonte, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, that railed against the horrors black South Africans were living in under Apartheid. Her rendition of executed African National Congress member Vuyisile Mini’s “Ndodemnyama Verwoerd” quickly became an anthem for the oppressed masses who would chant “Beware Verwoerd!” at protest rallies across South Africa.

It was the sound of an exiled artist channeling her homesickness on haunting renditions of Christopher Songxaka’s struggle requiem “Mayibuye” and Solomon Linda’s “Mbube,” captured on her classic Live at Bern’s Salonger album, that so bewitched Swedish audiences in 1966. It was her yearning for home that inspired her to burst onto the American Billboard charts in 1967 with an impeccably funky cover of Dorothy Masuka’s addictive dance instruction ditty, “Pata Pata” that, married township marabi-jazz grooves and samba-kissed swing into an infectious Afro-pop party starter.

But Makeba’s political commitment had its consequences. Her marriage to Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968 resulted in broken record deals, cancelled tours, and exodus from America. But that didn’t stop Makeba. She spent the next 22 years championing African liberation across the continent. She played the first Pan-African Cultural Festival, held in Algiers, Algeria, in 1969 [video]. She provided the soundtrack for Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s legendary “black consciousness” boxing showdown, The Rumble in the Jungle, in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974. She became Guinea’s official delegate to the United Nations. She teamed up with boycott-busting US folk-pop star Paul Simon on his worldwide Graceland tour of 1987–1988. And she performed at the anti-Apartheid Mandela Day concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988 before her triumphant South African homecoming in 1990.

Miriam Makeba recounts her return to South Africa

Of course, it wasn’t merely her politics or music that elevated Miriam Makeba to the status of “Mama Africa.” She was also a fashion icon. Whether she was bewitching audiences make-up free in a sexy leopard-skin print dress in the 1950s; rocking knee-length African royalty silk drapes in the ’60s; or brandishing braids, beads, and batik cloth in the ’70s; she revolutionized notions of African female beauty, sensuality, and style. Her constant search for individualism inspired Afropolitan fashion trends from Paris and Atlanta to Georgia, Johannesburg, Lagos, Brooklyn, and beyond for decades to come.

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While Makeba eased into her status as an elder stateswoman of South African music during her later years—choosing to explore themes of African spirituality, love, homecoming, and her legacy rather than overt politics on 1988’s Sangoma (Healer), 2000’s Homeland, and 2004’s Reflections—she never let go of musical activism. On November 9, 2008, at a concert to support writer Roberto Saviano’s stand against the Italian mafia, she checked out in style, suffering a fatal heart attack on stage after performing her hit “Pata Pata.”

In 2013, Miriam Makeba joined previous recipients Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, and Fidel Castro in being honored with an Ubuntu Award for her lifelong championing of the African value system of ubuntu.

—Miles Keylock
© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Elza van den Heever
Angélique Kidjo
Wednesday, November 5 at 8 PM
Angélique Kidjo and Friends
Grammy Award–winning vocalist Angélique Kidjo celebrates the life and music of iconic South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba, known popularly as “Mama Africa.” Kidjo shared a close relationship with Makeba, studying with her and eventually performing with her in Paris and South Africa. Kidjo returns to Carnegie Hall—with Makeba’s supporting singers Zamokuhle "Zamo" Mbutho, Faith Kekana, and Stella Khumalo—in this tribute to a remarkable woman.

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