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Once there was a girl who sang from the heart, and fought for freedom through her music. Her name was Miriam Makeba. She was raised in South Africa in the 1930s, where laws oppressed Black people like her. She rose up in song to fight the racist system of Apartheid. She used her voice to travel the world and bring awareness about the injustices her people faced at home. Because of this, she was banned from returning to South Africa for many years. After moving to the United States her career was upended when she married a controversial leader of the civil rights leader. But she still used her fame as a platform for change, and came to be known as “Mama Africa”.
Zozibini Tunzi is a passionate activist engaged in the fight against gender-based violence and a supporter of the #HeForShe social media campaign which is changing gender stereotypes. In 2019, Tunzi was the first Black representative from South African to be crowned Miss Universe. Zozi was also the first Miss Universe to be crowned wearing her natural curls, serving as an example to young girls to embrace their most authentic selves. She is using her voice as Miss Universe to encourage young women to “take up space” and hopes to bring more voices together to make change across the world.
Zozi Tunzi Once upon a time, there was a girl who used the power of song to tell the world the truth about herself, and her people…
Her name was Miriam.
Tunzi Miriam was born near Johannesburg, South Africa in 1932. Her mother was a nurse who became a spiritual healer…and on the side she brewed up beer to sell to her friends and neighbors.
But at that time Miriam’s country was ruled by British colonizers who made laws that only applied to the Black population. One of those laws was “no alcohol.”
When Miriam was just 18 days old, her mother Christina was arrested for illegally selling her homemade beer. Together with her baby daughter, Christina was locked up. Miriam spent her first six months in her mother’s arms behind bars.
It was this early experience and many more that came after it that gave Miriam a strong sense of justice, INjustice, and the importance of freedom for all people.
Tunzi I’m Zozi (Zozibini) Tunzi. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode…singer and activist, Mama Africa herself, Miriam Makeba.
In Miriam’s home growing up, there was always music. Her mother and father were both accomplished musicians. And, just as she was taught to walk and talk – she learned melodies.
She learned songs in African languages like Xhosa, Sotho, and Zulu. And she learned songs in English too. And as she grew, so did her voice.
But those early years were not easy. Her father died when she was very young. And her mother went to work as a maid many miles away. Miriam was sent to live with her grandmother. The separation was so painful. But there was something that made being away from her mother a little easier: singing.
Tunzi Miriam’s grandmother was completely devoted to her church and sent Miriam to a school run by Methodists. It was there that Miriam fell even deeper in love with singing. She would sing and sing, weaving the languages that surrounded her into magic.
And someone took notice. When she was just 6 years old, the head of the school choir heard her singing and asked her to join the other singers. So she did.
Imagine her there, her wide, bright smile. Her eyes shining while she lifted her voice, too big for her body, up, up, up.
Miriam found that when she sang –– people listened. And… there was power in that.
Tunzi As Miriam grew up she never stopped singing, but even though she was just a teenager, she had to make a living.
So she began working with her mother, cleaning the homes of white South Africans. It was hard work. Remember this was the 1940’s! Not many people had things like dishwashers and vacuum cleaners. Everything was done by hand.
And then, when Miriam was 16 years old, things got even harder for her family and other Black people in her country.
In South Africa, white people had all the power in the government, even though they only made up “twenty percent” of the population. The government passed a series of laws called Apartheid. It meant that Black people and white people had to stay almost completely separated.
Apartheid had been practiced unofficially in South Africa for a long time…but now it was the law. It made it more dangerous for Miriam’s family and the Black community to live. They couldn’t leave their homes at night or socialize with their white friends or travel easily around their own country!
This filled Miriam and others with sorrow and rage.
And for many people, the outlet for this was music. Jazz music.
As the oppression of Black South Africans worsened, the music scene got bigger and bigger. It was a way to say in song what they could not say freely.
And Miriam would become one of the loudest voices in this choir.
Tunzi In 1950 Miriam was 18 years old. She had briefly married a man who – by most accounts – was not a good guy. Miriam had given birth to a daughter, Bongi, who would ALSO grow up to write and perform music.
They lived in a place called Sophiatown – and Sophiatown in 1950 was HOPPING! The sounds of Kwela music, with its distinct pennywhistle sound, mixed with Jazz and Big Band, and music flooded the streets. Miriam joined her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers, and started singing all over town.
Her talent was undeniable and she quickly became a fixture on the scene. But it wasn’t until Miriam was asked to join the Manhattan Brothers, one of the biggest bands around, that her career really started to take off. She had a big hit with the band and next thing she knew, she was a star!
Tunzi But Miriam had even bigger dreams. In the Manhattan Brothers, and most of the other bands she performed with, she was the only woman. But she wanted to change that!
She decided she would start her own group. The Skylarks. Miriam and the Skylarks recorded an album in 1956 and it was a huge hit. They became one of the biggest bands in the country, touring, selling albums and selling out venues…but it wouldn’t last.
Tunzi In 1959, at the age of 27, Miriam was selected to sing in the anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa. The film got a big reaction across the world and Miriam was set to attend the film’s premiere in Venice, Italy, and then on to London and New York City to perform.
With every song she sang, and every note that passed her lips, she summoned the style and story of South Africa. Miriam was singing the truth of her people to an international audience and the government did NOT like it. They accused her of being political through her music. Miriam responded, “I don’t sing politics, I merely sing the truth.”
But, while Miriam was away from South Africa…something terrible happened.
In 1960, the South African government violently put down a protest in a town called Sharpeville. Sixty-nine peaceful protestors, including Miriam’s two uncles, were killed. Then a few days later she got the news that her mother had also passed. She wanted to go home. But when she tried to, she discovered that her South African passport had been cancelled.
The government had banned her from coming home. It was heartbreaking.
When you’re banned from your home country it’s called “exile.” And Miriam would be exiled for 30 years.
Tunzi If the South African government had thought that exiling Miriam from her homeland would keep her quiet, they were wrong. She sang even LOUDER. Before her exile Miriam sang fun songs, love songs.
AFTER? Miriam sang about the oppression she and other Black South Africans felt.
Dressed in the colorful traditional clothing of her homeland, Miriam took the stage night after night. With beaded hair and thick, glimmering gold and silver jewelry, she looked like a powerful queen addressing her kingdom in song.
Miriam sang of her exile and sorrow, and of the joy of her homeland. And audiences embraced her.
She became a HUGE international star, bringing the sounds of her beloved homeland all over the world.
Tunzi It was a time of high highs and low lows for Miriam. In 1960 she recorded and released her first solo album and was nominated for a big American music award called The Grammy. She performed for President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
In 1963 she even spoke to the United Nations about the situation in South Africa, asking people…how would THEY feel in the same situation…
[Sound Bite “I ask you, and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing, if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no right in your own country”]
Tunzi Miriam also found a close group of friends in New York, where she settled – other people who had been forced to leave Africa. They included the Jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who would become known as the father of South African Jazz.
Hugh was also exiled from their home country. Miriam and Hugh became close, marrying in 1964. They would be married for just a short time, but they would perform together for decades.
In 1965 Miriam finally won a Grammy after several nominations and then in 1967 Miriam would release her biggest hit to date: Pata Pata.
Tunzi Pata Pata is a song of celebration, sung in the distinctive fashion of her Xhosa language. It’s catchy and fun, but it didn’t hold the same meaningful message as many of her other songs. No matter, Miriam thought, the more they listen, the more they will learn to love South Africa like I do.
Tunzi In the 1960’s the United States was also going through some very big changes. People were demanding an end to the inequalities Black Americans faced.
Miriam’s outspoken activism grabbed the attention of Stokely Carmichael, a renowned but controversial Black Power activist. In 1968 Miriam and Stokely were married.
Miriam was at a career peak, with record contracts and tour dates scheduled far into the future. But as soon as word got out that she had married Stokeley, her contracts were canceled and her opportunities in America began to dry up.
Miriam wasn’t about to stop performing. She didn’t stop speaking her truth when she was exiled from her home country. And she wasn’t going to stop now that people didn’t like who she was married to.
But things got MORE complicated. She and Stokely took a trip after they got married, and the U.S government refused to let them back in the country. So, Miriam returned to Africa. Not her beloved homeland in the south, but to Guinea in West Africa, where she would stay for the next 15 years.
Tunzi It was now that Miriam earned the nickname that would become her legacy: Mama Africa. She performed all over the continent at events that celebrated freedom for ALL Africans.
She continued to lift her voice and fight for equality for all. But she would always miss her home…South Africa.
Tunzi Miriam Makeba passed away in 2008, at the age of 76. She left behind a legacy of hope and bravery. A legacy of song and perseverance.
Mama Africa bravely spoke up about the injustices she witnessed and her powerful voice was a voice for freedom. Her music spoke for the weary, the angry, the suffering, and the oppressed.
Miriam knew that honesty was power. She held the truth in her heart and shared it with courage and a strong and beautiful voice.
Mama Africa spent her life in song, and her memory sings on.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger.
This episode was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Sound design and mixing by Luis Miranda. Corinne Peterson is Production Manager.
This episode was written by Grace Boyle. Proofread by Ariana Rosas. It was narrated by me, Zozibini Tunzi.
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. For more, visit Rebel Girls dot com. Until next time, stay rebel!