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Before Rihanna, there was Mama Africa

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on February 15, 2021

A hero with a voice: During her stint in the US, Makeba used her voice to strengthen the American civil rights movement )   -  REUTERS/ MIKE HUTCHINGS

The wrath of two nations couldn’t stop South African diva Miriam Makeba from using her voice as an instrument of protest against apartheid and civil rights oppression

* South African diva Miriam Makeba was 76 when she passed away in 2008, but her legacy lives on in her music and her nickname — Mama Africa

* Her UN testimony against apartheid invoked the ire of the South African government — so much so that her citizenship and passport were revoked. For the next 30 years, she went on to live in exile

* It was in 1977 that she crafted the quintessential protest song in Soweto Blues, about the Soweto uprising in South Africa, a movement that spread to other parts of the country

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As a seven-word tweet continues to draw reams of reactions on and off social media, the storm in the Rihanna teacup has whipped up emotion across the country. While there have been strident accusations of interference, misunderstanding, and meddling in India’s private internal affairs, the Barbadian singer’s post also saw gratitude and respect from the fraternity of India’s protesting farmers.

But then music has always been bereft of political boundaries. It has always made strong lyrical statements against atrocities and has provided the soundtrack of hope. There are, of course, long lists of songs that have provided background scores to revolutions, and have waved the flag of equality. From Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up, to Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, through Lennon’s Imagine, music has brought emotion to the fore, and has sonically highlighted issues that have affected the world not bound by their immediate geographical homes.

This is a good time to remember an African diva who took up cudgels in song on behalf of those who could not fend for themselves, and made music that offered a strident statement for the world to read.

South African diva Miriam Makeba was 76 when she passed away in 2008, but her legacy lives on in her music and her nickname — Mama Africa. Born in 1932 apartheid-era South Africa, Makeba had to start work early to fend for her family after the death of her father. A brief and abusive marriage at age 17 only added to her already difficult circumstance. But she was a survivor, and even breast cancer could not dampen her spirit. She continued singing with her all-woman band The Skylarks, making a merry mélange of music by mixing jazz and traditional African melodies.

In 1959, her cameo in the anti-apartheid film Come back, Africa, brought her much-deserved attention, and along with it came the opportunity to travel to London. It was there that she met the legendary singer Harry Belafonte, and thus started a story that would capture the imagination of a whole generation. From there to the US, her career was on the upswing.

Her work with Belafonte was packing in the venues. Her album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, was a cry to the world to look at apartheid in the eye. The duo received a Grammy for best folk recording. But she did not just stop at singing about oppression. In 1963, she also testified against apartheid and the South African government in the United Nations, appealing to the world body to also free her country’s political prisoners.

This invoked the ire of the South African government — so much so that her citizenship and passport were revoked. Tragically, she was not allowed to enter South Africa to attend her mother’s funeral. For the next 30 years, she went on to live in exile.

During her stint in the US, Makeba used her voice to strengthen the American civil rights movement. In the late ’50s, Makeba along with fellow artistes Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and others travelled across the country, using their music to push for civil rights. Her music and her marriage to Stokely Carmichael, another civil rights activist and a prominent member of the Black Panthers group, meanwhile, prompted the US government to revoke her visa and her right to enter the country, while she was taking her music beyond its shores.

She and her husband had to then make the Republic of Guinea their home.

It was in 1977 that she crafted the quintessential protest song in Soweto Blues, about the Soweto uprising in South Africa, a movement that spread to other parts of the country after the police attacked a peaceful march led by schoolchildren. Originally written by her former husband and jazz maestro Hugh Masekela, the lyrics went:

Children were flying bullets dying

The mothers screaming and crying

The fathers were working in the cities

The evening news brought out all the publicity:

Soweto blues, Soweto blues

She could return to her country of birth only when apartheid was dismantled in 1990. But she continued to make her music an instrument to amplify the cause of those who could not be heard. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us”.

So, as we dissect 280 characters on the world wide web making a case for dissent and protest, it would perhaps also be of help to remember those who showed strength of character, and the courage of conviction, to stand up for what they thought was right, even if it meant losing their home, and gaining the wrath of more than one regime.

Mama Africa certainly knew how to nurture that courage, and to make it heard in the most melodious way possible, through the gift of music.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi

Twitter: @radiochaos

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Published on February 15, 2021
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