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Singer Miriam Makeba Dies of Heart Attack

November 10, 2008 01:24 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba died of a heart attack at the age of 76 after performing a concert against organized crime in southern Italy.

Singer-Activist Makeba Dies at 76

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Known widely as “Mama Africa,” Makeba was exiled from her home country of South Africa for 30 years, and was for a time ostracized by the United States for her marriage to a Black Panther.

According to The International Herald Tribune, the concert in southern Italy had been arranged in protest of organized crime. Makeba sang for nearly half an hour in a show of support for Roberto Saviano, an Italian Journalist who received death threats after publishing his book about organized crime in Naples, Italy. She suffered a heart attack and was taken to a hospital in nearby Naples.

In South Africa, Makeba’s passing was profoundly felt. South Africa’s Arts and Culture Ministry spokesman Sandile Memela said, “It’s a monumental loss not only to South African society in general but for humanity.”

Background: The life of Miriam Makeba

Nicknamed “Zenzi,” Makeba was born on March 4, 1932, near Johannesburg, South Africa. Her father, Caswell, was a schoolteacher, and her mother, Christina, was a domestic worker. Christina was once arrested for “selling home-brewed beer” for extra money in Prospect, the black township where the family lived, resulting in her and Zenzi’s six-month imprisonment, according to FemBio.

Her most well known works are “The Click Song,” a traditional wedding song, and “Wimoweh,” a lion-hunting song for Zulu tribesmen. She continued incorporating elements of jazz and folk, as well as Portuguese and Yiddish tunes “long before anyone talked about ‘world’ music.”

Makeba overcame illnesses, including a breast abscess and a bout of cervical cancer, as well as an abusive first husband. But perhaps her greatest challenge was overcoming exile from her home country due to her outspokenness on apartheid. In the 1950s, Makeba performed across South Africa and in the Belgian Congo. During this time, her anti-apartheid stance emerged. Having witnessed “racist policies such as separate black and white audiences,” she promised to devote songs to South Africa’s struggles. She soon met singer Harry Belafonte in England, and agreed to move to the United States with him as her mentor. The duo would later win a Grammy Award for their collaboration.

Makeba performed on the Steve Allen show in 1959 during her early days in New York, which helped catapult her into the public eye. Soon after arriving in the United States she was exiled from South Africa for her revolutionary words and songs, but she never claimed to be motivated by politics. “I was never politically involved … I just speak the truth,” she said. She always maintained that singing was what made her most happy.

At the time of her exile, she was only 27 years old, and more than 30 years passed before she was able to return to South Africa in the 1990s, after Nelson Mandela’s  release from prison. She told NPR in 2006, “Mostly it was painful that I couldn’t come home to bury my mother.” Makeba also described her decision to sing about South Africa. “From then on,” she said, “I was branded that artist who sings politics.”

She continued performing into her 70s, and pursued other work, as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, and in setting up “a school for destitute young girls in South Africa.”

Nelson Mandela released a statement following the news of Makeba’s death. “Despite her tremendous sacrifice … she used her worldwide fame to focus attention on the abomination of apartheid. … Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”

Reference: Makeba on film

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