Born March 4, 1932, Zenzile Miriam Makeba, popularly known as Mama Africa, was one of the first African musicians to gain worldwide recognition.
Makeba derived her musical inspiration from her family. After suffering from cervical cancer and an abusive marriage when she was 17, she started her professional musical career with the Cuban Brothers, a South African all-male close harmony group.
At 21, she joined the jazz group, the Manhattan Brothers, as the only woman and they sang South African songs and a mix of popular African-American ones. She recorded her first hit, “Laku Tshoni Ilanga” with the group in 1953 which shot her into the limelight.
Makeba later joined a new all-woman group in 1956 called the “Skylarks”. They sang a blend of jazz and traditional South African melodies. She received no royalties for her work until in 1956 when Gallotone Records released Makeba’s first solo success, “Lovely Eyes”. This record became the first from South Africa to chart on the United States Billboard Top 100.
Makeba later moved to New York, making her US music debut in November 1959 on The Steve Allen Show in Los Angeles. Her career flourished in the United States with the support of Harry Belafonte.
Back home in South Africa, her passport was cancelled and her mother and other family members had been killed in the Sharpeville Massacre.
After the apartheid regime was toppled, Makeba returned to South Africa after persuasion by Nelson Mandela in 1990 following his release. She returned to the country with a French passport.
Makeba received loads of awards and recognition including the Grammy Award in 1966 with Harry Belafonte for the 1965 album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba; Polar Music Prize; Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize; Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold, among others.
On 9 November 2008, Makeba suffered a heart attack after singing her hit song “Pata Pata” at a concert in Castel Volturno, near Caserta, Italy. She was taken to the Pineta Grande clinic, where doctors were unable to revive her.