Miriam Makeba by Lisa Miller

BOMB 72 Summer 2000
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Miriam Makeba. Photo by Adam Bartos.

You can try if you want, but it’s hard to avoid using the word legendary in describing Miriam Makeba. When she first became known in Europe and North America no one else sounded like her or looked like her. She sounded singular because she sang in South African languages including Xhosa, with its distinctive click. She looked singular, because she refused to wear much makeup or straighten her hair, a loud statement from a black woman in the 1950s. Speaking out against apartheid got her exiled from her home and family. Marrying Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) during the height of his involvement with the Black Panthers got her closely watched in the United States, where she had settled and was raising her daughter. Through everything, she sang. Today, forty years into her career, she lives back home in a new South Africa, but she is still a working artist on the road.

Makeba’s films, Come Back Africa, directed by Lionel Rogosin in 1959, and Mama, directed by Veronique Patte Doumbe in 1997, are both part of the 2000 African Film Festival which took place at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Museum. A yearly event, the festival is the largest of its kind outside Africa. As well as celebrating African diaspora filmmakers, the 2000 festival highlighted films directed by and about women. Makeba’s latest studio recording, Homeland, was released on April 25, 2000 in celebration of Freedom Day South Africa by Putumayo World Music. The Grammy Award winning performer, well-known for her role as an anti-apartheid spokesperson, is a recipient of the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize.

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Miriam Makeba. Photo by Adam Bartos.

Lisa Miller I’ve heard in the tales about you that you say “Pata Pata” was your most insignificant song; in response to that, I’d like to tell a story before we begin. When I was a little girl in Brooklyn, my mother—one of those mothers who worked long, hard days and went to college at night—would come home and there was just nothing there. She was exhausted. Somehow, at seven years old, I figured out that if I put on your album as soon as I heard the key in the door, she would perk up. She’d kick her shoes off, and the two of us would dance around the living room—me in my bunny slippers and her in stocking feet. Your voice was a release. It was fantastic, a cherished memory.

Miriam Makeba Thank you.

LM So “Pata Pata” is not so insignificant in my opinion.

MM (laughter) I don’t know why people like that song. It doesn’t say anything. It is just about a dance. But then, I guess a dance is a happy thing. Why can’t my songs about trouble be popular? I ask. But people are tired. Sometimes people are tired of thinking of difficult and unpleasant things.

LM At the end of difficult and unpleasant days.

MM Yes, yes. I know what it is to go to work. It is hard.

LM You were very famously exiled from South Africa after you spoke at the UN on the horrors of apartheid, after the Sharpeville Massacres.

MM It was 1963 when I first spoke at the UN, before the Decolonization Committee. In ’64, I spoke again before the Committee on Apartheid. The Decolonization Committee was chaired by a sister from Liberia, Angie Brooks—who was also the first woman to chair a General Assembly. In ’64 we were pleading for the release of women political prisoners at home.

LM Was your acquaintance with those women what led you to speak?

MM No, it was the African National Congress exile leaders here. They asked me because I was a performer and becoming a lady popular, who read and listened and so on. I agreed, because it was necessary.

LM And after that?

MM After that I was watched. It became worse after I spoke at the General Assembly in ’75 and ’76. Also my marriage to Stokely Carmichael was not very well taken in some quarters.

LM Not here, certainly.

MM And so we go boom!

LM Was there anything good about being in exile?

MM It was very painful to be in exile and then go back home and see all the things that were happening to people. I felt so helpless, sometimes I would even feel guilty. It’s painful to be banned and not able to go home. But it’s also painful to not be there and be with those people and, you know, maybe even … throw a stone, or something. It all happened and I was here. That was very painful. Sometimes people would come from home, with church groups or things like that, to sing, and when they left, I’d go to the airport and wave. Then I would go back to my car and just cry. Cry. I said, “Yeah, I know I’ll go back home one day.” Then this dark cloud would come and I’d say, “What am I talking about? I will probably never see home again.” The most painful thing was that when my mother died I couldn’t go bury her. That was painful. But hey, that’s life and I cannot afford to just sit here and say nothing or do nothing.

LM Did you always feel like a South African away from home, or did you feel like a citizen of the world?

MM I’ve always felt I was physically away from home—but emotionally, mentally and otherwise, I was always home. When people ask me now, “How did you feel when you went back home? Wasn’t it difficult after 30 years?” I say, “No, in my mind, I’ve always been there.” I never forgot the language, the culture, anything. When I went back home I found, of course, that things had changed. Many things. There were towns that didn’t exist before. Things have changed: people can go to the same cinemas as white folk, and so on. But for me, I was home. I could still speak to the people. Though many people came to me and felt like they should speak to me in English. And when I answered them in Zulu or Sotho they’d say, “You have a good accent.” But how could I forget? When I left home I had a mouthful of teeth—I was 27. You can’t forget your language at 27 unless you really want to, and I never did. Neither did my daughter. She was eight going on nine, but she could speak and sing in our languages because we spoke them at home.

LM You speak with your granddaughter?

MM Yes, and she’s learning to speak Zulu.

LM But she was born here?

MM They were both born here in New York, at Mount Sinai Hospital. My grandson was born the day Dr. King died, the fourth of April in ’68. And my daughter was born March 11 I think that”s near when Kwame Nkrumah [the first president of Ghana after the liberation movement] died in Nigeria, the 11th of March in “71.

LM You lived in other countries in Africa as well?

MM I lived in Guinea from ’69 [with Stokely Carmichael, who had left the Black Panthers and was organizing the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party].

LM And you were involved in their politics, as well?

MM I was asked to read the speech for Guinea at the General Assembly in ’75—because the speech was very much against the apartheid system in South Africa, the president asked me to read it. Then ’76 was the “Year against Apartheid” and I read at the UN, again, and then I went to sing for UNESCO in Paris.

LM But for the most part, your time in Guinea was as a private citizen?

MM Yes.

LM What has been your work since your return to South Africa?

MM I am trying hard to make a home for destitute girls, called Makeba Home for Girls. I’ve chosen a very small town, Balfour it’s in the eastern part of our country, which was devastated by the recent floods, along with Mozambique. And I”m getting somewhere. They gave us a big, big place that used to be a hostel for men who worked at an asbestos plant. But the roof is asbestos, so we can”t put the kids there. I”m begging companies to donate—even just the material—for us to renovate. It”s slow coming, but I think it will happen soon because now even the Ministry of Social Affairs is looking at the project, and trying to help us raise funds. I have ten girls now, who are staying with two old ladies in their homes while we are waiting.

LM How old are the girls?

MM Fourteen and 15 to 18. We have a lot of children on the streets, and the girls have been abused. Many of the homes, the majority, are for boys.

LM I”ve heard that.

MM These are the future mothers of our country. If we don”t look after them, what kind of mothers will they be and what kind of children will they raise? We have a problem right now with AIDS, HIV, and rape. It”s so difficult.

LM Almost as bad as here.

MM They say we are number one! I say, Oh please, don”t exaggerate! I know it”s bad, but we can”t be number one. It”s just this thing in my heart, because I know what it is to be young and not have any help. My mother had six children and I was the last one, she was tired by that time, she had to work, work, work, work. I had a child when I was very young. That”s why I”m a great-grandmother now. When I look at these children sometimes I see myself and I think, Okay, they say you are Mama Africa, so what the hell are you doing? If you die now what will you leave? What will they say Mama Africa did right? So I”m really trying hard before I go, to see this thing happen. It will make me so happy because I think we should always extend a hand and bring somebody up. We”ll get there.

LM Of course we will. Do you have friends can you organize here as well?

MM I”m going to try, I”ll be back here in May for the African Film Festival and to visit the UN. I will be back in July to do a tour.

LM To support the new album?

MM Yes, and I hope to meet a lot of people then and talk to them. Right now they’ve got me so locked into interviews I can”t even go anywhere. This is one of the things that really is in my heart. Sometimes I don”t sleep just thinking about it.

LM You should go to some of the trade unionists here.

MM It”s the trade unionists in Italy, in Reggio Emilia, a very small town near Bologna, who gave me the $10,000 seed money. I went to talk to the students there and they asked me questions about kids in South Africa, their peers, and they raised an extra $1,000. I used that money to make brochures, and based on that, I raised more money. I had a dinner too, but not knowing how to do those things, most of the money went to the dinner. (laughter) I wouldn’t dare propose putting them in that building before taking asbestos out. We had no idea …

LM Not until after you got it.

MM Most of our people still live in asbestos-roofed houses in parts of Soweto.

LM It”s a problem here in the New York public schools, too.

MM But what can we do? There is no money to build new houses even though the Mbeke government is trying very hard.

LM Ultimately, how many girls do you want to work with at the Makeba Center?

MM We don’t think we can afford many because it will be expensive to run it. We could house about 200 girls—but that’s a lot when you think of the maintenance and the food and stuff.

LM And the idea is to keep them until they get to college or …

MM To keep them. We will have them counseled and find out what they want to do. If they want skills, then we help them get the basics so they can run by themselves and come back to sleep. It will be a home for them instead of the street. And as they learn skills and so on, then we can let them go, knowing they can earn a living. When we take them, it’s like they still have forever. That’s why we want to take them at 14, 15 to 18. It is a time when you can still talk to them. After 18 years, they’ve got their own minds.

LM Talk a little bit about how it is living in South Africa now.

MM It’s a big struggle. I feel that as a people we struggled for so long, that we want to see it all happen now, now, now. But that’s not possible. The government is only seven years old. And in that time they have done a lot. Pregnant women and children up to six years can go to whatever few hospitals we have and be treated for free. Women who used to walk miles for water now have a pump where they can get water easily.

LM So girls don’t have to wake up at dawn.

MM Exactly, and there are a lot of little things we didn’t have before. These houses are small, but it is better than being in a shack. And though thousands of them have been built, it is still not enough—but they are trying very hard. Then on the women’s side we have 18 women ambassadors—even in big countries like the United States. We have women in France, Switzerland, Austria, Malaysia, Britain. We feel like the woman has come a long way. We have eight women ministers. Our minister of foreign affairs is a woman. And eight deputy ministers. And we have 200 women Parliamentarians out of 405.

LM How has your life changed since going back?

MM Not that much. There’s not much work for us musicians at home, and I am not happy about that, because I still have to run around the world going to sing here, sing there. And the theaters are either very small or you have to sing in stadiums. I hate singing in stadiums.

LM Didn’t something odd happen at a festival recently? I remember hearing that you were singing at a festival and there was a disturbance from the audience …

MM It was in a very small town called King Kar, at a festival that used to be for Afrikaners only, the Boers, but now they’re trying to integrate it. I went to sing there and I sang, sang, and then I sang “Soweto Blues.” And then some rowdies started talking. But I didn’t move, I just kept on singing.

LM That’s what they said in the papers. You sang and then you chided whoever that was before you walked off the stage.

MM Yes, I said, “Those of you out there must know that this is a new South Africa and you must change. Those who do not want to change, the boat is waiting!” Then I got up and left. The next day: press conference. They came and interviewed me and I said it was a disgrace. Here we are all trying. We can think of so many things that are wrong, and keep on hating, but that is like a wheel turning without end. We have to stop at some point, and look back and think. But also we have to stop and go forward, and to go forward we have to go forward together. If we can’t come and sing without having cans and stuff thrown at us, it’s not happening. It can’t happen. The mayor of that town, an African guy, had come and he said it was terrible.

LM Did he say other things that would encourage you?

MM I told him, “I’ll be back. I will come back here because you cannot stop me from coming back here. I will be back.” They haven’t invited me back.

LM It’s okay, we need you here, too.

MM (laughter) I will be back, because it’s true they can’t go on like that. We all have to live there, and we are the majority to begin with. Where are they going to put us? Where? They can’t wish us away. We can’t wish them away, either. The best thing is to just say, “Hey let’s just forget it.” And masakhane.

LM What does that mean?

MM It’s one of my songs. The first song on the album is called “Masakhane”: “You help me I help you. Together we’ll be all right.” And in the song I say I’ve been around the world telling the story of my country and my people and in that journey a lot of people listened and raised their voices against injustices. Those voices helped bring us where we are. I also say thank you to our children for the part they played. I say thank you to our mothers for their nurturing and their prayers. I say thank you to our traditional healers for their part, but most of all I say thank you to our leaders who are gracious and have taught us how to be tolerant: who tell us that while we may never forget, we must forgive. And so masakhane: let’s build together. It’s the first song on the album, it was written by one of the singers who sings with me, Zamo Mbutho.

LM You are going to host the opening of the African Film Festival at Lincoln Center. They are showing your 1956 film, Come Back Africa.

MM Such an old film. I don’t know why. (laughter) It’s so old.

LM That was an important film. Do you remember?

MM I was young then. Oh, I never even thought I would leave home.

LM Even after you made that film?

MM It’s because of that film that I left South Africa, because Steve Allen saw it and wanted me on his program, and then Max Gordon of the Village Vanguard.

LM That was even before you brought the film to Europe?

MM Yes, it was 1956. I’m 68 now—I was 68 on the fourth of March. Sweet 68. (laughter)

LM I understand this year’s festival is focussing on the work of women.

MM Yes. Women in film and behind the camera.

LM Filmed by women. Is there much work for African women directors?

MM Not very much. It’s even more difficult in the film world, I think, but there are some women who have been making their way, and I think that’s what they want to show. It is true everywhere. Euzhan Palcy [who directed A Dry White Season and Sugar Cane Alley made a very nice film.

LM Beautiful film.

MM But now she is quiet.

LM Because it’s hard to raise money.

MM Yes it is. It’s twice as hard for a woman.

LM Over the past few years a real window has opened, it’s very exciting to see sophisticated filmmaking—especially from Africa.

MM In Paris they’ve been doing festivals like this for a long time, but this year, the black directors got on the stage and said, “We’ve had enough. No blacks have ever won anything here.” It was a little bit embarrassing for the French.

LM That’s an interesting question in terms of South African films. It’s hard to think of white directors from South Africa as African filmmakers for someone like me, and yet there it is.

MM It’s true, it’s quite confusing to a lot of people, but they were born there, they are South African.

LM You were at the Robben Island performance for the millennium and I watched television on and off for much of that day thinking I would see you. Then the satellite went out.

MM We sang for way too many people, and we sang maybe one song. The big thing was for our former president to light the candle.

LM Nelson Mandela?

MM Yes. To light the candle at midnight. That was really the big thing. We were there to keep the people busy before midnight and after.

LM What did it feel like?

MM It was cold. They put up a tent in the middle of nowhere. And there’s no light on that island. No light. DARK! There’s also something funny about the fact that they used to use that island for lepers. Men and women were not allowed to mix, or they might have babies—things like that. Then they decided to send prisoners there, political prisoners. Myself, I felt very strange there. It is not a happy place to go to.

LM What was it going to be? What were their plans for it?

MM Now it is like a tourist place. People go all the time by boat from Cape Town to see where the prisoners were, especially the famous prisoners. And guides tell you the history of the island. Last December was my first time there. And we just went to the rehearsal tent.

LM Had you been escorted around to tour the cells?

MM They showed us where they used to keep the lepers because it was on the way to the tent.

LM How do you feel your music has changed since you’ve gone home? Do you think it’s changed?

MM I think it’s not changed. But we try to be positive in our music, all of us are trying. I’ve always sung about real things, and now I’m saying masakhane—we’ve been through all of that.

LM This is what’s ahead.

MM The theme of this new album is really love. The song “In Time”: “In time we get older, in time we get mellow/I never ever changed my mind about the things I wanted in my life/I’ve been through changes like everyone else/My heart’s been broken, put on the shelf/but now the light shines and the wounded heart will heal in time/God always answers one’s prayer his guiding light is love/No matter how hard we fall, his guiding light is love.” Then there’s a song called, “Because We Live for Love.” It says open your hearts for our children all over the universe, to love and hold and then there is “Masakhane,” “let’s build together” and then there’s the song “Homeland” …

LM —And “Pata Pata 2000.” (laughter) Which you sing with your granddaughter.

MM Yes, yes.

LM Is that going to be the first video, you teaching the kids the dance?

MM I think the company decided they want to do a video on “Because We Live for Love.” And at the end of that song, I sing with 20 children.

LM Who are the musicians you work with in the states?

MM I sometimes work with musicians based in France, but at home I work with South African musicians. My singers are always South African, because of language.

LM Are you working with people you’ve worked with in the past?

MM No, I have younger people now in the chorus. They give me the energy. (laughter) I’m the only oldie on the stage. Most of the musicians are young. I’m the grandma. I always say that I’m the only old one on stage. Sometimes it’s nice with the young ones because I learn from them, they learn from me.

LM Do you find yourself to be training young musicians in a certain way?

MM I can’t train anybody ‘cause I was never trained myself. But I think they’re learning something. They get some experience from traveling and they see other places and so forth. One of the girls was chosen to perform in a show called Riverdance. They went to Ireland to rehearse, and they should be here now. In fact, I’m going to try to go and see it. We were very happy for her. And my granddaughter has just released an album.

LM She’s a composer as well?

MM Yes, and she may be taking off on her own, if things go well.

LM Will you be on her new album?

MM I am. I sang a song called “Milali” with her. It’s an African song. I think the exposure gives them all a little bit more courage. When I’m performing, everywhere I go, I give them a spot on the show. I introduce them and leave them to sing by themselves and so I call that my small OAU—Organization of African Unity—because the musicians are usually from South Africa, Madagascar, the Congo. The one from Madagascar does a song from Madagascar every time singing “You show a little bit of me each part of the troubled continent.”

LM So to speak.

MM It is a troubled continent. Sometimes it’s so painful to watch how Africa is.

LM Well, you remember what Kissinger said: “This is not Africa’s century.” Of course, he said that some time ago. Maybe his prediction has expired now that the century has turned.

MM I don’t know. We just don’t seem to want to stop, you know—how long have we been singing “Unify us don’t divide us”?

Lisa Miller is a writer, theater director, and community activist who works as a program associate of Columbia University’s Oral History Research Department. She is currently collaborating with a group of theater artists and literacy advocates on an adult learning project between Durban, South Africa and Brooklyn, New York.

Originally published in

BOMB 72, Summer 2000

Featuring interviews with Om Puri, Uncle Mame, Donald Baechler, Monique Prieto, Aleksandar Hemon, Paul Beatty, Arthur C. Danto, Julien Temple, and Miriam Makeba.

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