"She was at the United Nations ages ago, before it was even fashionable," said the South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka of Miriam Makeba, who died Nov. 10 at 76. The first African woman to win a Grammy, Makeba, known affectionately as "Mama Africa," traveled to New York City in 1963. She appeared before the U.N.'s special committee on apartheid to plead for intervention in South Africa. Her nation repaid Makeba by exiling her until 1990, when President Nelson Mandela personally asked her to return.
Though much of Makeba's influence resulted from her political involvement and her topical lyrics, she shied away from the term political singer. Makeba said in an interview, "I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us--especially the things that hurt us."
While she cared deeply about South Africa and about her role in its struggle for equality, she was also a fundamentally blithe spirit who would cook grand feasts for her friends and sing lyrics like "Pata Pata is the name of a dance we do down Johannesburg way."
Makeba--who often said she would perform until the last day of her life--spent her final moments onstage near Naples, Italy, singing those very words: "Pata Pata is the name of a dance we do ..."