Ms. Makeba played a big role in several important cultural movements across her 50-year career. She stood up against apartheid, acting as one of South Africa's most vocal activists. She played with Paul Simon and Harry Belafonte, introducing African music to many in the West. She became the first African woman to win a Grammy. And she helped shape the modern "Afro look."
Born 81 years ago today, Makeba grew up far from the world stage. Her father died when she was 6, forcing both her and her mother to take up a series of odd jobs. Makeba fell in love with music early on and discovered that her gift for singing could lift her out of poverty.
After bouncing from one band to another, Makeba wrote what would become her most popular song: "Pata Pata." This signature hit, which means "touch touch" in English, played on radio stations across South Africa. The song solidified her celebrity. When "Pata Pata" reached American shores a decade later, it captured audiences once again, rocketing to the No. 12 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Time magazine called her the "most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years."
While her songs made Makeba famous, her politics made her infamous to South Africa's government. Makeba regularly spoke out against the racial segregation of apartheid. After touring and living in England and the US, she returned home in 1960 for her mother's funeral. Authorities turned her away at the airport. The ruling government had terminated her South African passport, forcing Makeba into exile.
"I always wanted to leave home," she told author Hank Bordowitz. "I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you've ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That's when it hurts."
She continued her activism in exile. Makeba testified against apartheid at the United Nations in 1963. "She always took time to endorse the cultural boycott of South Africa of which she was a figurehead," wrote The Guardian in her obituary. "She herself was accused of breaking the boycott by collaborating with Paul Simon on his controversial Graceland project, with an album in 1986 and concerts, including one in Zimbabwe the following year. Simon was the one being picketed for not conferring with the exile groups before his recruitment drive for South African session players. Makeba and [South African jazz musician Hugh] Masekela gave him full support, however, and welcomed the controversy because it brought important issues into general discussion and made cultural activity even more potent."
After apartheid fell apart, Makeba carried on with her music. She performed until the very end, playing a concert on the day that she died in 2008. If you're unfamiliar with her music, check out the "Pata Pata" video attached above.