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Remembering Miriam Makeba, 'Mama Africa'


Sad news earlier today of the death of one of the most recognized voices to come out of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. Singer Miriam Makeba died this morning from a heart attack after performing at a concert in Southern Italy. Widely known as Mama Africa and the Empress of African Song, Makeba was also celebrated by many and branded by others as a living symbol of the anti-apartheid campaign. Born in Johannesburg in 1932, she started performing in Sophiatown, a black cultural hub where she learned a lifelong lesson about apartheid. The black residents were forcibly removed by the government. Makeba first came to public attention as a featured vocalist with the Manhattan Brothers then with her all-woman group, the Skylarks, and she later gained international renown as a solo act. In 1963, she appeared at the United Nations to condemn apartheid in South Africa. A year later, Makeba found out her passport had been revoked, and she then spent some 30 years in exile.

Ms. MIRIAM MAKEBA (South African Singer and Activist, Mama Africa): It was very painful for me not to go back home. Mostly, it was painful that I couldn't come home to bury my mother. But you know, in life you make choices. You say, OK, are you going to sit here, Miriam Makeba, and say I'm a star and forget about home, or do you decide to say I'm a South African and this is what is happening to our people and so on. And I made that decision. And from then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics.

CONAN: Miriam Makeba in an interview with NPR's Farai Chideya in 2006. Forty years earlier, she collaborated with Harry Belafonte on the album "An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba" which featured songs about the struggle in her homeland. She's probably best remembered for her hits "Pata Pata" and the click song where she incorporated her native language, Xhosa. Her infusion of Xhosa, township rhythms and jazz was unlike anything Americans had heard. After Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990, Miriam Makeba returned to South African.

Today, former president Mandela said in a statement, "She was South Africa's first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours." In recent years, Makeba worked as a Goodwill Ambassador for South Africa and for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Miriam Makeba was 76 years old.

(Soundbite of Miriam Makeba singing in Xhosa)

CONAN: More on the life of Miriam Makeba later on All Things Considered. I'm Neal Conan and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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