Johannesburg - Were global icon and human rights activist Miriam Makeba alive today, she would have turned 81 on March 4.
Befitting of a global icon, Google recognised Makeba, featuring her unmistakably African image on its logo. She’s the first South African to be honoured by Google in such fashion.
This reaffirms the decision of the National Heritage Council to award her, posthumously, with this year’s Ubuntu Award.
Makeba is in the same league as previous recipients Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Fidel Castro, Boutros-Boutros Ghali and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
She was no ordinary musician. The world has known many musicians. Some even reached international stardom, only to disappear off the scene as soon they’d surfaced.
Their songs were simply good musical arrangements that excited on first hearing, but sounded ordinary the more they were played, and were quickly overtaken by other, similar arrangements.
Makeba’s songs are timeless; Pata Pata and Uqongqothwane are just two international classics. Even the stiffest and most musically challenged among us sing along when those two songs play, as if we’re hearing them for the first time. This is because Makeba didn’t just sing to make a living, she sang to make a cultural statement.
Though singing in international capitals, she never changed her music to appeal to her immediate surroundings.
Africa, in its mythology and folklore, remained a source of inspiration, and reaffirmed the universality of the language of music. Unable to pronounce the title of the song Uqongqothwane, her international audience in New York, Paris or Milan dubbed it “The Click Song”, and kept calling for more of it.
Makeba left a distinct cultural imprint. She was more than a musician. She was a cultural activist. She wanted to change the world through music and was not deterred by racial prejudice.
Consider the US of the 1950s, for instance, which Makeba found on her arrival.
An African image was still a curiosity, even something to ridicule, including within black people in the US itself. Stereotypes of pagans and wild Africa held sway within the American imagination.
But Makeba did not shrug off her Africanness for fear that it would be an object of ridicule.
She openly and proudly embraced her Africanness through her music, and in her dress and looks. She wore short, natural hair with a head lace around her forehead and dressed in elegant African gowns. This is what made Makeba a cultural pioneer.
Most women throughout the black world lightened their skin colour and treated their hair making it straight and long.
Being black, with all its physical traits, was not considered beautiful. Makeba disagreed.
She believed that black was beautiful, and flaunted that black beauty for all to see the world over. In the process, she became more than just a South African native; she became a pan-Africanist. She represented the whole of the black world, in the Africa and in the diaspora.
Makeba was Africa’s first international celebrity. Perhaps more than being a pan-Africanist, Makeba represented a meeting point between Africa and its diaspora.
She gave the African diaspora a window into Africa’s culture and music, and opened doors for African artists to the world.
Makeba did not hog all that international adoration to herself, but shared it with other African performers. Hugh Masekela, for one, had doors opened for him because Makeba had paved the way.
Cultural activist that she was, Makeba could not help but be political. Her music was a prelude to, and actualisation of, the Black Consciousness philosophy that would be popularised by Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko.
Any political change, Biko told us, is preceded by a cultural revolution. Makeba was an agent of the cultural revolution that inspired Africa’s political independence. She made her opposition to apartheid and colonialism known throughout her international travel.
Her invitation to witness the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 and to several African countries upon attaining independence was a resounding indication of her stature and role in the emergence of independent Africa. Indeed, Africa dubbed her “Mama Africa”.
Because of Makeba’s uniqueness and pioneering impact, a new generation of musicians has arisen, inspired by her genre. South Africa’s own repertoire of music, especially African music, is richer now than when Makeba found it.
She inspired a generation of Afropop/Afrojazz musicians – Ringo Madlingozi, Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai, Zahara and Siphokazi. These musicians have kept the cultural revolution going.
Language keeps culture alive. English is gaining prominence over African languages, especially among young kids, growing up in multiracial environments. They don’t consider mother tongues cool.
Singing in vernacular, Zahara, Lira and the new rap artists makes vernacular hip.
As they speak frequently, kids are unlikely to lose proficiency in their mother tongues, which ensures cultural transmission.
Language reflects its cultural location. Through language one is able to transmit culture.
As we honour and remember Makeba, we must also ask ourselves whether we have done right by her. It has been revealed that though highly acclaimed, she was quite unhappy in the years preceding her death.
Makeba had discovered that, all along, she was not receiving all the royalties from her music. She didn’t own the copyright. Someone else did and pocketed most of the profits.
She is obviously not the first to suffer this cruel, parasitic practice. Brenda Fassie, Solomon Linda and Umoja have all suffered this travesty.
We cannot have Makeba continue to suffer an injustice in death, when we’re beneficiaries of the justice she brought to our lives. Justice to the artists is the true honour we can ever bestow upon Miriam Makeba.
* Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa is the chief executive of the National Heritage Council.