Remembering Miriam Makeba
‘Mama Africa’ explores life and times of musical icon, anti-apartheid activist
In 1986, the issue of apartheid in South Africa rocked the campus. Students built and occupied a shantytown on Francis Quadrangle to symbolize the living conditions of black people in South Africa. They were protesting university investments in 54 companies with dealings in South Africa. At first, UM officials said they couldn’t divest holdings because, as a public institution, the university system had no place interfering with the operations of U.S. corporations. After the protests continued, the university divested part of its holdings. It would divest the remainder the following year.
In addition to reassessing UM’s relationship with certain businesses, the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri in 1986 created a formal partnership with South Africa’s University of the Western Cape, at that time a designated “colored” university. This was the first time an American university system partnered with a non-white university.
Since its inception, this partnership has seen more than 600 UM professors from fields as varied as nursing, physics, law and chemistry travel to UWC for academic collaborations, says Rodney Uphoff, Elwood L. Thomas Missouri Endowed Professor Emeritus of Law and director of MU’s South Africa Educational Program.
“This has been a wonderful partnership, and it actually has been recognized by a number of outside groups as a model partnership between an American university and a foreign university. We’re very proud of it,” Uphoff says.
One product of this academic exchange is the play “Mama Africa,” written and directed by Niyi Coker, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of African and African-American Studies with the University of Missouri St. Louis’ Department of Theatre and Cinema Studies.
With an all-South African cast of 40 amateur and semi-professional actors, dancers and musicians performing 30 of South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba’s most beloved songs, “Mama Africa” is a feast for the eyes and ears. A production will be staged Sept. 28 at Jesse Auditorium as a celebration of the partnership between UM and UWC, which marks its 30th anniversary on Sept. 30.
The seed for “Mama Africa” was planted about three years ago, when Coker, who runs the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in St. Louis, saw a film about African musicians.
“My interest in Makeba was piqued. I thought, ‘Why don’t you do a musical on her life?’” Coker remembers.
With funding from the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, Coker traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where he was granted access to Makeba’s entire library, archival material, offices, personal papers and discography through the ZM Makeba Trust. With this information, Coker wrote a compelling drama that incorporates Makeba’s music in a telling of her life story.
The Life of Miriam Makeba
Born in Johannesburg in 1932, Makeba came of age as South Africa’s National Party began to enforce apartheid legislation. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that translates literally into “aparthood,” and these policies formalized racial classification and designated racially segregated areas for people to live. Other restrictive laws prohibited marriage between people of different races and barred blacks from operating businesses in white areas. Beaches, buses, hospitals, schools, universities and even park benches were segregated.
In 1959, Makeba, who had gained some renown in South Africa as a jazz singer, made a brief appearance in an anti-apartheid documentary called Come Back, Africa. Her cameo caught the attention of Harry Belafonte, the Caribbean-American pop star known for such hits as Day O and Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora). Belafonte helped her settle in the United States, where she signed to RCA Victor and released her first studio album in 1960.
And so began a storied musical career that would see Makeba and Belafonte performing at President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 birthday celebration in Madison Square Garden and winning a 1965 Grammy Award for best folk recording for their album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. Today, Makeba, who had garnered the nickname Mama Africa, is credited with introducing Western audiences to Xhosa, Zulu and Swahil music and as an early influence on the world music genre.
As Makeba rose to fame, she remained outspoken against apartheid in South Africa. Her views didn’t sit well with some, and when she tried to return for her mother’s funeral in 1960, she discovered that South African authorities had canceled her passport and would not allow her back into the country. Makeba had been exiled.
Still, Makeba continued to protest apartheid, testifying against it before the United Nations in 1963.
In 1968, Makeba married Stokely Carmichael, a Civil Rights activist whose activity with the Black Panther Party drew additional scrutiny to Makeba.
“When Miriam Makeba married him, people stopped booking her for concerts, record labels dropped her, the IRS went after her accounts, she was tracked by surveillance. Basically she was forced to flee the United States,” Coker says.
So the couple moved to Guinea, where Makeba remained for 15 years. During her time there, she was appointed the country’s official delegate to the United Nations and was awarded the Dag Hammerskjöld Peace Prize in 1986 for her work in this capacity.
Following the death of her daughter, Bongi, in 1985, Makeba moved to Brussels, Belgium. She continued to tour and perform, though not in South Africa or the United States.
Upon his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who would later become the first black president of South Africa, persuaded Makeba to return to South Africa.
This is the point where Coker’s play starts.
Merging Past and Present
It’s hard to fathom what Makeba would have felt in that moment.
“You’re going back home. How would you sleep that night?” Coker says. “She begins to go through how her life … what led her into exile, how she lived in exile, what her struggles were in exile. So this is the unraveling, and it unravels with her songs.”
It’s an extraordinary story to be sure.
But although decades have passed since these events transpired, Coker says it’s very much a contemporary play with an important message.
“I think we’ve almost come around full circle in the struggle to recognize black humanity. You have a whole generation born to civil rights, who have grown up with the notion that they are 100 percent human beings and citizens. Now there is a lot of shock. I look at the faces of my students — what is happening with the police and black community relations when young black men and women are harassed by the police or shot?” Coker says. “But there was a place in history when this occurred. Their grandparents would be able to tell them this story. There’s something fascinating about seeing history from an artistic perspective.”