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“Miss Makeba”: thrown in at the American deep end

Miriam Makeba, and the fight goes on (episode 3). After having achieved great success in her country where the noose of apartheid tightened on Black people, the young singer flies away from home. A new life begins. A life of success, commitments, and exile.

Photo: Marlon Brando and Miriam Makeba, Los Angeles, April, 2nd, 1968 © Max B. Miller

When she arrives in Venice in August 1959, after stopping by in London and Paris, the young Miriam Makeba is still very much unknown outside of South Africa. But Come Back Africa, the film in which she makes a brief appearance with two songs, will be shown in the Italian city, as a world premiere, to the audience of the Venice International Film Festival.

The director, Lionel Rogosin, takes her under his wing and excitedly informs her that friends to whom he has shown the film are waiting for her in the United States: one wants her on his TV show – the renowned Steve Allen Show; the other wants to book her at the Village Vanguard, a famous New York jazz club. In Venice, the film wins the Critics’ Prize and Miriam Makeba is taking in the surprise of suddenly being followed by photographers (see photo below). 

Miriam Makeba, Lido beach, Venice, 1959 (photo by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche)

On a path to an international career

After the success of Come Back Africa, she leaves for London with the director of the film, waiting to receive a visa allowing her to travel to the United States. She takes part in the BBC television show, In Town Tonight, where she sings “Back Of The Moon”, one of the songs featured in the movie.

While visiting London, the singer and American activist Harry Belafonte, watches the show, and arranges to meet her the next day at a screening of the film. He promises to help her during her stay in the United States. Firstly he obtains a visa for her, and organizes a trip to Los Angeles for the Steve Allen Show, which is watched by no less than 60 million viewers! She leaves shortly for New York, as she is about to begin a four-week residency at the Village Vanguard.

Belafonte’s team, whom she nicknames “Big Brother”, have her hair styled in the era’s current fashion: straightened. On the very first evening, she then rubs her hair under water, and it returns to its natural appearance. This is the natural hairstyle that soon African-American women will imitate and call “afro”. Makeba has only just arrived, but she had already created a new fashion sensation.

In Village Vanguard’s dressing room, her new mentor Belafonte informs her that the African-American artistic elite had come to listen to her. In the front row, sitting at the tables of this crowded club, are Duke Ellington, Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone and Miles Davis. Not bad for a debut show!

She sings “Jikele Mayweni”, “Back Of The Moon”, and the famous “Qonqgothwane” that journalists will come to name “The Click Song”. Following her residency at the Village Vanguard, she is hired at the Blue Angel, a glamorous club in New York, where Lauren Bacall attends her show. The Times wrote: “She is probably too shy to realize it, but she would create a very noticeable void in the American entertainment world, where she made her entrance just six weeks ago.” In short, America smiles at Zenzi (diminutive of her first name Uzenzile), and she starts to become recognized in the street.

From apartheid to civil rights, the struggles come to life

She accompanies Harry Belafonte on tour, sings for an SCLC benefit – an organization whose president is Dr. Martin Luther King – and learns to cope with the Southern states’ persistent racism. In her autobiography (that she co-wrote with James Hall), she tells how her, Belafonte, and fellow musicians are denied entry to a restaurant in Atlanta because they are “colored”. Belafonte immediately summons the press to the restaurant and holds an impromptu press conference outside, comparing the situation of the “Jim Crow law”-gagged South with that of apartheid-ruled South Africa. Moreover, Belafonte would come to organize a press conference before each one of the shows, while he expanded on the situation of Blacks in the USA, and how she tells that of South African Blacks. Certainly, in her country, the situation becomes more tense every day: the government brutally represses the peaceful demonstrations that protest against the “pass” – a passport every Black person needs if they want to move from one district to another. In Sharpeville, there are 69 dead and 178 people wounded. 

The PAC (Pan African Congress) that organize the event, as well as the ANC are banned and must go clandestine. The ANC leaders then decide to found “Umkhonto we Sizwe” (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the party responsible for harassing security forces of the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo are elected to run the activist group.

Makeba is well aware that she is the only Black South African to have easy access to the media. Chaperoned by her “Big Brother”, she will shortly make the most of it. For now, she manages to bring her daughter Bongi to the United States. A few weeks later, while she is performing in Chicago, she is notified that her mother has died. At the South African embassy in Washington, where she needs to extend her visa, the civil officer stamps her passport: “out of validity”! She become stateless, and is prevented from returning home to bury her mother.  

Her native country whose voice she bears, will only be seen again 34 years later. Her political commitment becomes stronger. While based in New York, she meets various African delegates whose countries have just achieved independence.

On July 16, 1963, she speaks at a UN meeting before the special committee on apartheid, to challenge the nations of the world and ask them to put pressure on Pretoria. She is only 29 years old. 

From then on, her records are banned from sale in South Africa.

But in the United States, her success is growing. Invited to sing at President Kennedy’s birthday in 1962, she also appears in the famous Ed Sullivan Show, another big TV show that propelled Elvis, The Doors, The Beatles and the Jackson Five. She is introduced by her “Big Brother», Harry Belafonte.


It is then with him – in 1965 – that she receives a Grammy Award, the highest North American award in the music industry, for the album An Evening With Belafonte & Makeba (which features their duet “Malaïka”). It is Belafonte who signs the text of presentation of the album, recounting his meeting with the woman who, for nearly a decade, would accompany him on all the North American stages

She also meets Marlon Brando, one of the few White stars to ask her about the situation in South Africa. He also offers her a platform to make a speech at the premiere of The Ugly American in Washington, in front of an audience of celebrities. 

At the end of 1963, the singer falls sick. And the brutal verdict is given: cancer. Belafonte, and her other friends organize themselves so she can be operated on quickly. She will survive, but around her, darker clouds are piling up in her adoptive country’s skies. In the hospital room, she learns about the assassination of President Kennedy. Barely recovered, she resumes performing concerts, where she never misses an opportunity to talk of and denounce the situation of her country.

Although she picks up again her career in the United States, performing concert after concert, and even winning a hit with a new version of “Pata Pata” (composed in 1956 in South Africa), Makeba’s fate is being spelled out, more and more, in Africa. The shy girl has gradually become the ambassador of a continent in full steam, rich in an ideal that she will embody: unity. She gains a new nickname: “Mama Africa”.

Listen to our playlist Miriam Makeba on Spotify and Deezer.

Read the other episodes of the series Miriam Makeba, the struggle continues.