HOW MUCH STRENGTH must a voice have to climb above the weight of injustice?
How much character must a singer have to stand firm in the face of racism and oppression and cruelty and, eventually, exile?
And how much powerful grace must an activist possess to draw millions to hear her message the world over?
The measuring stick for answering those was embodied by one woman. South Africa’s first lady of song. Mama Africa.
Today, Google pays tribute to the late and great Makeba on what would have been her 81st birthday. A richly tinted Doodle depicts the anti-apartheid icon in stylish profile, wearing her traditional clothes, backdropped by the company’s logo set against earth tones.
The illustration’s profile captures the passion of Makeba in performance — the magic of her music that she first realized, as a Johannesburg-born girl in the ‘30s, might have the power to lift her out of poverty. It was that captivating gift of voice that — tuned to traditional South African song as well as jazz and pop and folk — would carry her from ‘50s groups like the Manhattan Brothers and the Skylarks through to the attention of supporter Harry Belafonte, who helped bring her to New York and wider attention.
As Makeba gained international fame in the ‘60s with such songs as ”Pata Pata,” “Qongqothwane (The Click Song)” and “Malaika,” it was her power to transcend borders and cultures with her sociopolitical messages that prompted apartheid-era South Africa to revoke her passport in 1960 and ban her songs a couple of years later.
Tellingly, the Google’s art background reflects Makeba’s undying connection to her homeland. Even as she became a global symbol of her nation’s struggles — even speaking against apartheid at the United Nations in the 1960s — she ached, like a caged-out songbird, to return home. “I never understood why I couldn’t come home,” she said upon returning to her native city as apartheid began to fall in 1990, ending her three-decade exile, according to her New York Times obituary. “I never committed any crime.”
She was the first African singer to win a Grammy (with Belafonte). She used that growing fame to speak, and sing, to social ills. And she supported the boycott against South Africa until, by choosing to perform with “Graceland”-era Paul Simon in the ‘80s, she felt it did more good for the greater cause by not doing so.
Makeba died in 2008, immediately after performing in Italy to support Roberto Saviano, who had received death threats after writing about organized crime. The world embraced the legacy of South Africa’s Empress of Song, but nowhere more than in the land that had long exiled her.
“Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us,” Nelson Mandela, the apartheid prisoner turned South African leader, said upon Makeba’s death. “She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours.”