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Miriam Makeba moved through many worlds during her long and fruitful career. Born in a mud hut outside Johannesburg, her mother and grandmother taught her in the ways of South African spiritual and music traditions. By the end of her life, however, she held passports from nine different countries, and counted some of the century’s most brilliant public figures as friends and advocates.

Miriam Makeba came of age as a singer during a fertile period for South African music. The impact of apartheid, the stringent set of segregationist policies which kept the white Afrikaner minority in control of the country from 1948 to 1994, was certainly felt by the country’s black population. However, interracial neighborhoods such as Johannesburg’s Sophiatown were still centers of creativity and cultural exchange which produced, among other things, a swinging jazz scene. Nicknamed ‘the Nightingale’ for her strong clear voice, Makeba began singing with some of South Africa’s hottest jazz bands, and before long, she began recording with an all-woman singing group, the Skylarks.

Her success as a global performer was in large part thanks to Harry Belafonte, who took her under his wing in New York City, where she performed for stars like Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis. As she became more popular in the United States, South African political and racial tensions began to escalate. Sophiatown was demolished, and anti-racial mixing regulations increased. When Makeba spoke out against the apartheid government, her South African passport was revoked, and she found herself in exile. Her marriage to Stokely Carmichael, the charismatic leader of the growing Black Power movement, only isolated her further. As Nina Simone would also come to discover, the strident political opinions of female singers were not necessarily well-received. Then again, as Makeba liked to put it, she never sang about politics- only the truth. Her integrity and commitment to music kept her afloat as she continued performing around the world. In 1990, upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela himself convinced her to return home, where she joined her countrymen in building a new South Africa.