Miriam Makeba Biography: Age, Education, Family, Career, Activism, Controversy

Mama Africa

By  | Jun 22, 2020, 01:48 PM  | Miriam Makeba  | Top of The

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Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador and civil rights activist. Her musical genres were Afropop, world music and jazz. She was also an advocate against apartheid and the white South African minority government.

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In an inspiring statement, she once said, “Girls are the future mothers of our society, and it is important that we focus on their well being.”

Let’s explore the courageous life of Miriam Makeba:

Miriam Makeba Age

Miriam Makeba was born Zenzile Miriam Makeba on the 4th March 1932 in Prospect Township, Johannesburg, Union of South Africa.

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She was born to a Swazi mother, Christina Makeba who was a traditional healer and a domestic worker and a Xhosa father, Caswell Makeba who was a teacher. After the unfortunate death of her father when she was only 6 years of age, Miriam was forced to work. 

Miriam Makeba Education

As a child Miriam sang in the church choir of the Kilterton Training Institute in Pretoria, which was an all black Methodist primary school. Her singing talent earned her praise at school. She was baptised as a Protestant and sang in church choirs in English, in Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu. 

Miriam Makeba Family

As a child Miriam lived with her grandmother and a large number of cousins. Makeba became influenced by her family’s musical taste. Her mother played several traditional instruments and her elder brother collected records, including those of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and taught Miriam songs. Her father played the piano, and his musical inclination was later a factor in Makeba’s family accepting what was seen as a risque choice of career.

In 1949, at the age of 17, Miriam Makeba was married to James Kubay, a policeman in training and had a brief and allegedly abusive marriage. During this period she gave birth to her only child named Bongi Makeba. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband left her shortly afterwards. She eventually beat the cancer and a decade later was diagnosed with cervical cancer and overcame that also. 

in 1968, Meriam got to tie the knot with Stokely Carmichael. He was a Trinidadian-American civil rights activist. The couple first moved to Guinea then Belgium, but the they divorced after 9 years.

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Miriam Makeba Career

Her talent for singing was recognised at a young age and she began singing professionally in the 1950’s, with the Cuban Brothers, which was a South African all-male close group, with whom she sang covers of popular American songs. At the age of 21 she joined the Manhattan Brothers, who sang a mixture of South African songs and pieces from popular African American groups. She was the only female member of the group and she recorded her first hit, “Laku Tshoni Ilanga” in 1953, and developed a national reputation as a musician.

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In 1955, while performing with the Manhattan Brothers, Makeba met the young lawyer Nelson Mandela, he later remembered the meeting, and that he felt that the girl he met “was going to be someone”.

In 1956 she joined a new all –woman group called the Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional South African Melodies. The group was formed by Gallotone Records and they were also known as the Sunbeams. She performed with the Skylarks when the Manhattan Brothers travelled abroad and at a later stage travelled with the Manhattan Brothers.

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Miriam Makeba then went on to performing in musicals and both her musicals and her music gained international popularity. Her songs have been described as reaffirming black pride. These following songs, including covers, having received significant mention about the musical and political movements she was involved in:


  • Miriam Makeba – 1960
  • The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba – 1962
  • An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba – 1965
  • Comme une symphonie d’amour – 1979
  • The Queen of African Music – 1987
  • Sangoma – 1988
  • Welela – 1989
  • Eyes on Tomorrow – 1991
  • Homeland – 2000


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  • “Lakutshn, Ilanga”/Lovely Lies” – 1956
  • “Sophiatown is Gone”
  • “The Click Song” / “Mbube” – 1963 
  • “Pata Pata” – 1967
  • “Lumumba” – 1970
  • “Malcolm X” – 1974 
  • “Soweto Blues” – 1977 
  • “Thula Sizwe/I Shall Be Released” – 1991
  • “Malaika” 


Miriam Makeba was one of the most visible people campaigning against the apartheid system, and was responsible for popularising a number of anti-apartheid songs including “Meadowlands” by Strike Vilakazi and “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” (Watch out, Verwoerd) by Vuyisile Mini.

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Due to her high profile, she became a spokesperson for Africans living under oppressive governments, and in particular for Black South Africans living under apartheid. When the South African government prevented her from entering her home country, she became a symbol of “apartheid’s cruelty”. 

Miriam Makeba was able to testify against apartheid before in the UN in 1962 and 1964. South Africa banned many of her songs, leading it to be distributed underground, with even her apolitical songs seen as subversive. Hugh Masekela said, “there was nobody in Africa who made the world more aware of what was happening in South Africa than Miriam Makeba. 

Miriam Makeba Controversy

After finding success throughout much of the 1960’s, Miriam Makeba’s career and public image was altered after her 1968 marriage to Stokely Carmichael, a noted Civil rights activist and proponent of the Black Power movement. Once Makeba became assosiated with him as an extremist, the American public, media, and music industry changed their approach to Makeba as an individual and as an artist throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Ultimately, this union caused American audiences to turn on her and her music. Her marriage to the black-power activist was said to have caused concerts in the United States to be cancelled due to the controversy that surrounded Stokely Carmichael. 

Miriam Makeba fell ill during a concert in Castel Volturno on the 9th November 2008. She suffered a heart attack after singing her hit song ‘Pata Pata’ and was rushed to the Pineta Grande Clinic. They were unfortunately not able to revive her and she sadly passed away at the age of 76.

One the most inspiring quotes is what Miriam Makeba has to say about age;

“Age is… wisdom, if one has lived one’s life properly.” said Miriam Makeba
She is a great South African legend that will always be remembered not only for her music, but standing up for what was right amidst the opposition she faced.

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Main image credit: bbc.com

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