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A ONE-WOMAN PLAY: 
MAKEBA: MAMA AFRICA SPEAKS ON MUSIC, LIFE, AND HOW ONE MARRIAGE (NEARLY) RUINED IT ALL.

 

Harvard ES

HIST E-1672

"Long 1960s: Pop Music, Counterculture, and Black Awakening."

Dr. Octavio Carrasco

August to December, 2021

MAKEBA: MAMA AFRICA SPEAKS ON MUSIC, LIFE, AND HOW ONE MARRIAGE (NEARLY) RUINED IT ALL.

 

CREATIVE STATEMENT ON THE PROCESS, HISTORY, AND INFLUENCES THAT SHAPE  "MAKEBA: MAMA AFRICA SPEAKS."

Miriam & Stokely. Mama Africa Speaks.

Miriam Makeba, legendary South African singer, spent the first six months of her life in jail. Her mother, Christina, was arrested when Miriam was just 18 days old for selling umqombothi, a traditional homemade beer made from cornmeal and maize. Unable to pay the fine, Christina Makeba was sentenced to six months in jail. Financially strained, she had to take her baby along. As with so much else about Makeba, this remarkable start to an extraordinary life inspires me to write a one-act, one-woman play about the singer Ebony called “the most exciting foreign singer to hit big in the United States in recent months.”

“Miriam & Stokely. Mama Afrika Speaks,” is set at Kippies, the legendary Johannesburg jazz club, on November 15, 1998, the day her husband Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Turé) dies. The plot is simple. As her set begins, she receives a call: Carmichael had died. Makeba reflects on—and sings about—life with Carmichael at the confluence of a growing anti-Apartheid movement, mounting anti-imperialism in Africa, and Black Power in the United States.

I aim to construct the work from responses culled from interviews, making extensive use of online databases, particularly Google Scholar and newspapers digitized by ProQuest. Transcripts of video interviews with Makeba will also be evaluated and incorporated.

Essentially a monologue, the work will be structured around recollections and opinions exactly as Makeba uttered them, in her own words. I plan to intersperse monologue with song lyrics, most having relevance to the zeitgeist, the Civil Rights movement, Apartheid, and Black Liberation among other things, positioning her in a musical environment, exploring existential themes, showing how Makeba was learning, growing—her eyes on the prize—determined to achieve personal freedom, while being effective in the struggle for liberation.

It is vital that the emerging work be practical and easy to produce. Beyond the academic world, it must live in its own right as performance work with the ability to add to the discussion around the 1960s and Civil Rights. What I want to leave the audience thinking about—the dominant metaphors—are persistence and consequence. Makeba, her nationality, her marriage, and her politics offer glimpses into a short timeframe during which two people, steeped in their liberation ideologies met, and fell in love. And freaked out a lot of nervous whites.

In the bigger picture, the one-woman play will shed light on Makeba’s struggle to be heard: as African woman, anti-Apartheid activist, wife, and increasingly, as reluctant—discarded—music star. Focusing on Makeba’s words, my goal is to reveal tension at the intersectionality she represents: that of African musician and American activist against an American audience who shuns her for her politics, suspected of being radical and extremist.

Disillusioned with Apartheid, and the slow progress of Civil Rights in the United States during the early 1960s, Makeba identified with Black Power, becoming associated with what some viewed as radical activity. In 1967, while in Guinea, she met Black Panther leader and Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who became her fourth husband the following year. Jet’s front cover, on March 28, 1968, proclaimed Makeba “Africa’s first lady of freedom fighters,” adding she “uses her talent to raise money in fight to free blacks.” 

Makeba’s marrying Carmichael strained her career—essentially ending it—her “days of stardom in the United States were numbered.” It got worse since “no longer was she considered mainstream or nonthreatening after becoming Mrs. Stokely Carmichael. Instead, her public persona was recast as angry, threatening, and extremist.” Then, on assuming chairmanship of the SNCC in 1966, “Carmichael became an overnight media sensation and the nation’s most important Black radical since Malcolm X.” To some, the couple emerged as “Sid and Nancy” archetype—turbulent and truculent—representing a troubling Civil Rights Movement moment.

To Makeba and Carmichael, shifting public opinion of them was poignant. Their union was symbolic as much as romantic, set, as it were, against a political landscape where many Americans disliked militancy and rising Pan-Africanism. Carmichael writes, “next thing I know, the marriage is suddenly a ‘symbolic union between black America and the continent,’ the motherland with the diaspora…. gimme a break, that’s one hell of a burden to load on one marriage… Unifying black America and the African world? C’mon, sounds nice, but be serious.” Makeba and Carmichael eventually relocated to the West African socialist country, Guinea, its leader, Sekou Touré, giving sanctuary to those fleeing the capitalist west. 

In response to audience rejection, Makeba became critical of racial policies in the United States, recording songs such as “Lumumba” in 1970 and “Malcolm X” in 1974. By then, her marriage was strained, Carmichael recalling, “The more popular an entertainer is, the more the public feels that he or she is somehow accountable to them in their personal life.”

Makeba was many things: a spokesperson for subjugated Africans; a champion of the Civil Rights Movement; a visible force in both Black Power and Pan African movements; a symbol of Apartheid’s inhumanity when the South African government refused her return for her mother’s funeral. Nelson Mandela, former South African president, eulogized that “her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”

Bibliography 

 

“Belafonte’s Protégée: African in Coast-to-Coast Debut.” Ebony Magazine, February 1960. 

Borstelmann, Thomas. Apartheid’s Reluctant Uncle: The United States and Southern Africa in the Early Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Carmichael, Stokely. Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014. 

Carmichael, Stokely, and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). New York: Scribner, 2005. 

Coker, Christopher. The United States and South Africa, 1968–1985: Constructive Engagement and Its Critics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986.

Doggett, Peter. There’s a Riot Going On. United Kingdom: Canongate Press, 2009. 

Feldstein, Ruth. How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 

Fleming, Tyler. A marriage of inconvenience: Miriam Makeba’s relationship with Stokely Carmichael and her music career in the United States, The Journal of South African and American Studies, Vol 17:3, 312-338, 2016.

Hostetter, David L. Movement Matters: American Antiapartheid Activism and the Rise of Multicultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Joseph, Peniel E. Stokely: A Life. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2016. 

Kelley Robin D.G, Africa Speaks, America Answers Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2012.

Makeba, Miriam. “Into Yam from Come Back, Africa.” YouTube, January 9, 2012. https://youtu.be/Buod66bq0cg. 

– – –. “Malcolm X, Live Au Palais Du Peuple De Conakry.” YouTube, March 17, 2015. https://youtu.be/nrN6fOJqwZ0.

Makeba, Miriam with Nomsa Mwamuka. Makeba: The Miriam Makeba Story. Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2004.

Nesbitt, Francis Njubi. Race for Sanctions African Americans against Apartheid, 1946-1994. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 

Vitorino, Vitor. “Miriam Makeba, UN, 1963 (South African Apartheid).” YouTube. YouTube, November 27, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWP5mBJ4HWs.