I was blown away by the power of her voice and its comforting, encircling maternal resonance. Maybe that's what earned her the nickname 'Mama Afrika', though I suspect that was only a small part of it - she truly was an African icon - a exile of South Africa during apartheid. From the New York Times:
Widely known as “Mama Africa,” she had been a prominent exiled opponent of apartheid since the South African authorities revoked her passport in 1960 and refused to allow her to return after she traveled abroad. She was prevented from attending her mother’s funeral after touring in the United States.
Although Ms. Makeba had been weakened by osteoarthritis, her death stunned many in South Africa, where she stood as an enduring emblem of the travails of black people under the apartheid system of racial segregation that ended with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.
In a statement on Monday, Mr. Mandela said the death “of our beloved Miriam has saddened us and our nation.”
He continued: “Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”
“She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours,” Mr. Mandela’s was one of many tributes from South African leaders.
“One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing,” Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement. “Throughout her life, Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid and colonialism through the art of song.”
For 31 years, Ms. Makeba lived in exile, variously in the United States, France, Guinea and Belgium. South Africa’s state broadcasters banned her music after she spoke out against apartheid at the United Nations. “I never understood why I couldn’t come home,” Ms. Makeba said upon her return at an emotional homecoming in Johannesburg in 1990 as the apartheid system began to crumble, according to The Associated Press. “I never committed any crime.”
Music was a central part of the struggle against apartheid. The South African authorities of the era exercised strict censorship of many forms of expression, while many foreign entertainers discouraged performances in South Africa in an attempt to isolate the white authorities and show their opposition to apartheid.
From exile she acted as a constant reminder of the events in her homeland as the white authorities struggled to contain or pre-empt unrest among the black majority.
Ms. Makeba wrote in 1987: “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realizing.”
Her path was marked by the stars of the southern hemisphere
and she walked the length of her days under African skies...
Goodbye, Mama Africa, and thank you.