Miriam Makeba died after suffering a fatal heart attack on stage at one of her concerts. She was 76 years old.
Makeba was best known for having used her incredible musical talent and voice to raise awareness about Apartheid.
Makeba testified before the UN in 1963 about the extreme violence, repression, and inequality that were the backbone of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The South African government retaliated by canceling her passport and her citizenship, having already refused to let her return to the country for her mother’s funeral a few years earlier.
Unswayed, Makeba continued to speak out and make music questioning the Apartheid regime. In 1966 she won a joint Grammy with Harry Belafonte for their album, An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba. The album was one of the first to address the violence and profound inequality in Apartheid South Africa that reached a global audience. It also provided the foundation for many other musicians’ protests around the world. The album and Makeba herself, through a requested collaboration with Paul Simon, also influenced the most memorable anti-Apartheid musical work in its finally decades done by Paul Simon and Lady Smith Black Mambaso.
Makeba’s musical career was nearly ended not by her outspokenness about Apartheid but her marriage to Stockley Carmichael and the subsequent backlash by the recording industry. Makeba was undeterred understanding that a global black consciousness was necessary to end racism across the globe and free all black people from the tyrannies of state sanctioned racism. She slowly rebuilt her career through this same global black network, playing in Africa and the Caribbean, until the West could no longer ignore her talent or her message.
During the 70s she served as Guinean delegate to the UN and in 1986 she won a Peace Prize. In 2001 the UN also awarded her a peace medal for her considerable activism. Despite these feats some felt she supported several questionable black leaders who committed attrocities against their own people.
Makeba was finally able to return to South Africa in 1990 at Mandela’s request. Though Apartheid had finally ended, Makeba continued to be a strong advocate. She appeared on a coming out episode of The Cosby Show lending her powerful presence to gay rights and in two films exploring the contribution of music to the fall of Apartheid.
Despite all of this amazing work for peace and equality, Makeba maintained that she was just a singer, singing about her own life.