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Miriam Makeba
Stories of inspiration from Smart Girl Stories across the globe. Miriam Makeba – Lovingly Known As Mama Africa

Miriam Makeba – Lovingly Known As Mama Africa

Here at SmartGirl Search, we love to celebrate women in music who are an inspiration to young women everywhere. Miriam Makeba is a South African singer-songwriter and activist. She’s our SmartGirl today because she used her talent and voice to fight against racial and economic segregation during the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Early Life

Miriam Makeba, also known as Zensi Miriam Makeba was born on the 4th of March 1932 near Johannesburg, South Africa. She grew up in Sophia town, a segregated township near Johannesburg, and lived with her Swazi mother and Xhosa father.

Miriam’s father was a clerk at an oil company, while her mother was a domestic worker. Her mother was once imprisoned for brewing local liquor to make ends meet and was forced to go to prison with her then 18 days old daughter, Makeba. Her father died when she was just 5 years old, and she later went to live with her grandmother.

The Start Of A Promising Career

Makeba loved to sing and sang mostly at church. She started her music career by joining her local school choir and started singing at an early age. In 1954 Miriam went on to become a professional vocalist performing primarily in South Africa.

She quickly rose to fame in the late 1950s when her singing and recording attracted the attention of an American performer, Harry Belafonte.

In 1959 Miriam settled in the United States, where she embarked on building a successful singing and recording career.

She sang and recorded a couple of popular songs, introducing the Zulu and Xhosa songs to western audiences. Her music career thrived in the United States, and she once even performed for former US president John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in the early 1960s.

Miriam popularly sang songs that criticized Apartheid, an oppressive regime that racially segregated Africans in South Africa. She also featured in a movie, Come back Africa, a film that provoked South African authorities because it highlighted the regime’s oppressive nature.

Due to her activism, she was denied reentry into south Africa and was forced to live in exile for over three decades.

In 1963, her songs were banned in South Africa. She realized that the government had revoked her passport when she tried to return to South Africa for her mother’s funeral.

In the same year, she testified against the Apartheid regime at the United Nations, leading to her South Citizenship being revoked.

Personal Life

Miriam got married in 1964 to a fellow musician, but the couple divorced two years later. Despite their marriage ending, the couple maintained a close professional relationship and even won a Grammy award in 1965 for their album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.

In 1968, Makeba was remarried to the Black American activist Stokely Carmichael. She relocated back to Africa with her then-husband due to harassment by the US government and settled in Guinea, West Africa. She was later divorced in 1979 and moved to Belgium to continue with her singing and recording career.

Miriam continued to speak against the oppressive regime in South Africa and was even invited to speak twice at the United Nations Assembly against the Apartheid regime.

In the 1980s she tragically lost her daughter and was diagnosed with cervical cancer but still continued with her activism and singing career.

The Return Home

In 1990, she was encouraged to return home by Nelson Mandela, a South African activist who had just been released from a long-term prison sentence (27 years).

In 1991 Miriam finally performed in South Africa for the very first time since going into exile.

She continued with her humanitarian work through her foundation for abused girls and supported campaigns against drug abuse and HIV/AIDS awareness.

Miriam continued to perform into the late 90s until she died of a heart attack in 2008, shortly after performing in Italy.

It is easy to see why we have chosen Miriam Makeba as a Smart Girl. She is an inspiration to young women around the globe due to her work against the Apartheid regime.

Learn about more inspiring girls on our Smart Girls page, or follow our Instagram page for more stories like this!



Founder, Smart Girl, Survivor, Champion of womens rights and kids rights


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