Miriam Makeba

Born: 4th March 1932

Died: 10th November 2008

Birth Place: South Africa

Known for: Being a human rights campaigner, and the first vocalist to put African music onto the international map.

Makeba helped to put African music on the world map.

She was not just a musician, but a civil rights activist.

She was a symbol of opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising.

Miriam Makeba

Life story

Early life


Miriam Makeba was born during a time of economic depression in South Africa. Her mother, a domestic worker, was imprisoned for six months for illegally brewing beer to help make ends meet, and Makeba went to prison with her as she was just eighteen days old. From a young age, Makeba loved to sing at church, and performed her first solo during the 1947 Royal Visit. Makeba began her working life helping her mother clean houses.


Her music career started with her singing in her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers. She began to sing for a different band, the Manhattan Brothers, in 1954, and began to build a reputation. She toured South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the Congo with the band until 1957.


Black pioneer


She was the first Black musician to leave South Africa because of apartheid. Makeba took up refuge in London after the Venice film festival and met Harry Belafonte, who helped her to emigrate to the U.S.. In the early 1960s, she shot to fame overnight, and performed for former U.S. President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Gardens in 1962.


She went on to perform for other heads of state, and even the Pope. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from 27 years in prison, and encouraged Makeba to return to South Africa after 31 years in exile. She became a goodwill ambassador for South Africa to the United Nations.

Why was Makeba’s mother sent to prison? When and where was she born? Why is she known as the Empress of African song?

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