Music Miriam Makeba
Yair Hashachar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0298


An iconic singer and an anti-apartheid activist, Miriam Makeba (b. 1932–d. 2008) was one of the most influential figures in the history of African popular music. Well before the advent of World Music as a marketing category, Makeba became a household name and mediated African music to diverse publics worldwide. Born in Johannesburg in 1932, Makeba absorbed the different musical genres of her surroundings, including African American jazz, gospel music, and the musical traditions of her Xhosa and Swazi family. She started singing professionally with the Cuban Brothers and later joined the Manhattan Brothers and the all-female group The Skylarks. Makeba participated in the musical King Kong, before making her major break outside of South Africa through her cameo appearance in the film Come Back, Africa, which documented the life of black people under the apartheid regime. Leaving South Africa to participate in screenings of the film, Makeba arrived in New York and began a prolific career, which resulted in several albums, television appearances, and a Grammy award for her album with her manager and mentor at that time, Harry Belafonte. Her position against the apartheid regime was manifested in her protest songs, supplemented by her political commentary, as well as in her public appearances, most notably in front of the UN Special Committee on Apartheid. Her marriage to civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael led to a decline in her career and the couple moved to Guinea, where Makeba became involved in the local music scene and in cultural production that is more attuned to the continent. Later in her life, Makeba regained her popularity in the United States by participating in the tour that followed Paul Simon’s Graceland album. After the collapse of the apartheid regime, Makeba returned to South Africa after thirty-two years in exile. During her lifetime, she paved the way for African musicians to succeed on global stages, and her legacy continues inspiring younger generations of African artists. Throughout the 20th century, Makeba was not the subject of much academic research. In recent years, however, scholars from diverse fields have begun to recognize the significance of her career and its intersection with key global processes in the 20th century, such as pan-Africanism, the Cold War, the struggle against apartheid, and African decolonization. To date, no general overviews have been written on Makeba’s work and, therefore, different sources must be consulted to obtain a full picture of her career.

Biographies, Autobiographies, Interviews

Given that Makeba’s personal archive is currently inaccessible, biographies remain an important source for knowledge on the singer, despite their limitations. Makeba and Hall 1987 and Makeba and Mwamuka 2004, two co-authored autobiographies, are recommended as a starting point. Separated by two decades, they provide different viewpoints shaped by the respective stage in Makeba’s career. Biographies of Makeba’s close circle provide additional critical information. Masekela and Cheers 2004 adds the perspective of Hugh Masekela, the trumpet player and longtime collaborator and ex-husband of Makeba. Carmichael and Thelwell 2003 and Joseph 2014 shed light on Makeba’s marriage with Stokely Carmichael, their relocation to Guinea, and her musical and political activity there. Belafonte and Shnayerson 2012 is useful for understating Makeba’s first steps in the American music industry from the perspective of Harry Belafonte, who was her manager and mentor. It also expresses criticism of the singer and thus provides an interesting contrast to the largely celebratory narratives in the other biographies. See also Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba (Kaurismäki 2011, cited under Songbooks).

  • Belafonte, Harry, and Michael Shnayerson. My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance. New York: Vintage, 2012.

    Includes relevant information on the Belafonte-Makeba relationship until their breakup. Of interest are the details behind Makeba’s early steps in the American music industry.

  • Carmichael, Stokely, and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). New York: Scribner, 2003.

    Brings the perspective of civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael on his marriage with Makeba and sheds light on his political activity that shaped their life together. Sections by the second author provide additional context for Carmichael’s words.

  • Joseph, Peniel E. Stokely: A Life. New York: Basic Civitas Club, 2014.

    Provides further insights on Stokely Carmichael’s relationship with Makeba and on the shift of political settings that accompanied her relocation to Guinea.

  • Makeba, Miriam, and James Hall. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library, 1987.

    Makeba’s first autobiography co-authored with James Hall during her years in Guinea. Provides Makeba’s account of her musical career and her personal and political life.

  • Makeba, Miriam, and Nomsa Mwamuka. Makeba: The Miriam Makeba Story. Johannesburg, South Africa: STE, 2004.

    Makeba’s second autobiography co-authored with South African Nomsa Mwamuka, complements the first autobiography by bringing the perspective of Makeba recalling her life after returning to South Africa following the end of apartheid.

  • Masekela, Hugh, and D. Michael Cheers. Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela. New York: Crown, 2004.

    Sheds light on Makeba’s career and personal life from the perspective of Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpet player who was her husband from 1963 to 1968.

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