If you watch Instagram reels, you are familiar with the song “Ooohe, Makeba”, probably without knowing you are familiar with it. This 2015 song from French singer-songwriter Jain recently started featuring as background music for reels, and has since attained the peculiar social media popularity of everyone instantly recognising a particular song without knowing the first thing about it.
The ‘Makeba’ the song mentions is the name of a person, Miriam Makeba. A singer and songwriter, Makeba was one of the most popular anti-apartheid activists in the world, and was called ‘Mama Africa’ for the work she did to popularise African music and culture among a global audience. Over the seven decades of her life, Makeba lived in three continents, first exiled from Africa and then made unwelcome in America.
When she passed away in 2008, Nelson Mandela in a tribute said, “Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”
What is the Makeba song?
‘Makeba‘ was a part of Jain’s debut studio album, Zanaka, and was both written and performed by her. While reels on TikTok and Instagram usually just feature the first para of the song, it goes on to pay tribute to Makeba. Lyrics of the song go: “Nobody can beat the Mama Africa/You follow the beat that she’s going to give ya/Only her smile can all make it go/The sufferation of a thousand more”.
Miriam Makeba’s career
Zenzi Miriam Makeba was born on March 4, 1932 in a segregated neighbourhood of Johannesburg, South Africa. After her father passed away when she was five, she worked with her mother as a domestic help for some time. At 17, she had a daughter from her first marriage, around the same time that she started singing with a group called the Manhattan Brothers.
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Her performance in two movies, Come Back Africa and King Kong, brought her fame and attention in the western world. Come Back Africa took her to the US in 1959, where the singer Harry Belafonte became her mentor and longtime collaborator. In 1965, the pair won a Grammy award for “An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba.” She was even invited to sing at the 1962 birthday party of President John F Kennedy.
Makeba’s fame came as much from her talent as a singer as from the content of her songs. She sang of the injustice and inequalities of apartheid, merging the traditional music of the African content with more modern forms, thus making African art accessible to a diverse audience. As an NYT article published at her death notes, “The Click Song and the dance song Pata Pata used the tongue-clicking sound that is part of the Xhosa language her family spoke. Traditional African ululation was also one of her many vocal techniques.”
The Click Song is called Qongqothwane in Xhosa. In the video below, Makeba explains the particular sounds and what they mean in Xhosa.
Another NYT article says about her, “Makeba’s frequent appearances on US TV and collaborations with Belafonte offered many Americans their first encounter with an African and helped to challenge sensibilities shaped by Tarzan movies. She constructed an image of an accessible but cosmopolitan entertainer who affirmed her people’s struggles by the dignity with which she represented their culture.”
Life as an activist
Makeba insisted she had not set out to be a “political singer”, but was simply singing about her experiences. However, her work went a long way in educating the world about what exactly life under apartheid could mean.
In an interview with The Guardian, she had said, “People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.”
She also sang at political events, including the rallies of Martin Luther King.
In 1960, when her mother passed away, Makeba found she would not be able to attend the funeral, because South Africa barred her from entering the country.
American historian Ruth Feldstein, in her book How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement, wrote of Makeba that by exiling her, “white South African authorities created a more effective symbol of apartheid’s cruelty than she could have done herself.”
An NYT review of Feldstein’s book mentions that Makeba, along with some other women artistes of the period, “offered an alternative notion of black glamour and femininity, one that embraced unstraightened hair, darker skin, serious artistic ambition and political consciousness as central.” She refused to endorse skin-whitening products.
In 1963 and 1971, she testified against apartheid at the UN, speaking first at the UN Committee Against Apartheid and then the UN General Assembly.
In 1968, she married the Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael. This led to her popularity dimming fast in the US. She said in The Guardian interview, “It was not a ban from the government. It was a cancellation by people who felt I should not be with Stokely because he was a rebel to them. I didn’t care about that. He was somebody I loved, who loved me, and it was my life.”
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Makeba and Carmichael moved to Guinea. A few years after their divorce, Makeba remarried and moved to Brussels in Belgium.
In 1990, she finally returned to South Africa, after the apartheid regime she had fought so hard against crashed.
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In 2008, Makeba died after collapsing at a concert in Italy, organised in support of Robert Saviano, an author who had received death threats after writing about organised crime. She died doing what she had spent her life in — making her voice heard.