Befittingly, Miriam Zenzi Makebaâ€”Grammy Award-winning songstress from South Africa, the â€œEmpress of African Song,â€ Mama Afrika herselfâ€”died as she lived: on stage, and for a noble cause. After concluding a performance at a concert near Caserta, Italyâ€”interestingly enough, supporting a writer opposing the oldest crime organization in the countryâ€”she collapsed and succumbed to a heart attack. She was 76 years of age.
Makeba needs the rest, for her entire life was characterized by struggleâ€”by being in a three-decade exile from her homeland South Africa for speaking out against apartheid; by watching her record deals and tours cancelled as the consequence for marrying radical civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael; by being in prison with her herbalist motherâ€¦while still in utero. And Makeba singing became her conduit of struggle. Blessed with a calming, assuring tone that exuded confidence and doggedness, she found her calling in singing, right from the moment she was a child at a training institute in Pretoria, South Africa. From there, she would only soar higher: performing to exclusively black audiences with The Manhattan Brothers in the 1950s; formed her own group, The Sylarks; starred in the anti-apartheid Come Back, Africain 1959; and, of course, her collaborations with Harry Belafonte in the United States, forever linking the struggles of people of African descent everywhere.
So it cost Makeba her home. The last straw for the South African government came when she testified before the United Nations concerning her countryâ€™s oppressive policies; her passport was revoked as a consequence. Big deal: The world became her home. She virtually traversed the entire globe, performing in three continents. She owned nine passports and had honorary citizenships in ten countries. And indeed, in 1990, she returned, persuaded by a newly freed Nelson Mandela to do so. The grand celebration that followed was befitting of a monarch returning to her domain
Despite the numerous tours and the Grammy Award (for 1965â€™s An Evening with Makeba/Belafonte, Makeba was more than a singer. Heck, despite the numerous peace prizes and medals, she was even more than an activist. “I do not want to be labeled”, she once said. No, at least, Makeba symbolized the struggle and despair yet the resilience and hopes of a continent. Just like South Africa dispensed of its reprehensible apartheid system, an event that Makeba thankfully lived to see, Africa as a whole can, and will, triumph over its tortured history and blighted state
So I say this in my native tongue Yoruba:Sun re o, Mama Afrika (Rest in peace, Mama Afrika!) Struggle no more, O Empress. Heaven just got a lot sweeter.