January 31, 2018

Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba – The Rise, Fall, and Return of South African Singer/Activist

By Kam Williams

Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born black in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1932, which meant she was a second-class citizen. In fact, she spent the first six months of her life in prison with her mother, a sangoma (witch doctor), who was sent to prison just days after giving birth.

Luckily, her mother was also an amateur singer, and that was a gift Miriam inherited. She married at 17 and had a child a year later, but was soon abandoned by her abusive husband. So, to support her young daughter, she started singing professionally.

After performing and recording with several different bands, she found a measure of fame as the lead singer of an all-girl group called The Skylarks. However, while on tour out of the country in 1959, Miriam’s passport was revoked after the release in Italy of Come Back, Africa, a secretly filmed anti-apartheid documentary drama in which she appeared. 

Despite the ban, Miriam’s career caught fire while she was in exile. She was helped by influential entertainers such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Soon, international audiences were appreciating her unique sound, an eclectic mix of jazz, pop, and traditional African tunes.

To combat the civil strife in her homeland, she took of advantage of her success to criticize the South African government. In 1963, she testified at the United Nations and implored the organization to impose economic sanctions on South Africa after it imprisoned attorney Nelson Mandela and thousands of other political activists who were lobbying for equality.

However, Miriam fell out of favor in 1968 when she married Stokely Carmichael, the controversial leader of the Black Power Movement. Because of the union, she made many powerful enemies in the U.S. Almost overnight, Miriam’s concerts were canceled and her records were pulled off the shelves.

Hounded by the FBI, and with her career ruined, she and Carmichael moved to Guinea. However, it wasn’t until the apartheid regime in South Africa fell that she was welcomed home by the new president Nelson Mandela. Her homecoming was a fitting tribute to a talented singer who had dedicated her life to the liberation of oppressed people all over the world.

Excellent (****). Unrated. Running time: 90 minutes. In English and French with subtitles. Production Studios: Starhaus Filmproduktion/Millennium Film/Marianna Films. Distributor: ArtMattan Productions.