Tomorrow, March 4th, would have been Miriam Makeba’s 81st birthday. Miriam ‘Mama Afrika’ Makeba was a beloved actress, vocal powerhouse, political activist, and one of the most powerful African ‘divas’ of all time. She was the first African woman to win a Grammy with Harry Belafonte, and she performed for Ethiopian Emperor and the Rastas’ messiah Haile Selassie, the Pope, and even Fidel Castro.
Her enduring legacy and beloved status in South Africa- and across the continent- isn’t just due to her immensely powerful voice, but also due to her role in the anti-apartheid struggle and her pride in being African- it’s in the stories she told, the languages she sang in, the way in which she wore her hair.
The international news is full of Africa these days (perhaps more so than usual): the Kenyan elections, the Steenkamp murder, Mali… and the tropes, the stories, the Western; still- colonial; gaze is strong and prevalent through most of them. The voices of Kenyan, Malian, South African friends on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, over e-mail, over hot cups of tea are different, the gaze more informed (obviously), turned inward, touching on the stories and beliefs and ideas and truths that are who they are, how they see their countries and nations; free from the outside gaze.
In the song, ‘U Shaka’, she narrates:
“The most noble of all those groups are the Zulu. And the most popular of all the Zulu kings was a man named Shaka. He was not only a great king but also a great warrior as well as being a great mind; for he tried to unify our country and to keep the invaders of our country away. The British often referred to him as the Black Napoleon, but I say Napoleon was a White Shaka”.
She narrates a different idea of leaders from her country, shifts the gaze from a Western-centric one to one that pays tribute to the heritage of her own lands; of the wisdom of her own culture; and she posits a different version of history (especially in the 60s/70s) that sees the colonisation of Africa as an invasion- not liberation. It is also remarkable that she challenges the default White-centric perspective and flips it, positioning Black wisdom and ‘a great mind’ as an inspiration rather than Napoelon; especially given the context of apartheid and her own exile from South Africa.
I suppose that it’s fitting that my timelines are filled with Miriam Makeba as Kenya goes to the polls and as South Africa ponders gender-based violence in it’s society. Her voice that sang Christopher Songxaka’s struggle ode, that sang the Soweto Blues, that sang about Brother Malcolm: about hope, about struggle, about belief, about triumph: it is fitting that these are the sounds that once again, accompany the hope and the belief in times of change.