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South African Singer Makeba Dies

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Our final story this hour is a remembrance of one of Africa's first international superstars. Miriam Makeba fought apartheid in South Africa through music. Last night, during a performance in Italy, she suffered a heart attack and collapsed. She died early this morning. Makeba was 76 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has her story.

NEDA ULABY: Miriam Makeba's life had more than its share of tribulation. She was exiled for decades from apartheid-era South Africa and survived an abusive first husband, the death of a daughter, four divorces and cancer. But her voice always rang with power.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MIRIAM MAKEBA (South African Singer): It is a song that says, why me?

(Soundbite of song)

ULABY: Makeba talked about her albums in Goma in 1988 on WHYY's Fresh Air.

Ms. MAKEBA: In a wider sense, I see it as, why black people? Because you go in to any part of the world, black people are always at the bottom of the ladder.

ULABY: Miriam Makeba came of age at a tumultuous political moment, when many African countries verged on independence. That's when she met Harry Belafonte. He was immediately struck by her voice.

Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Musician): Not only did it have power and beauty as an instrument, what makes great voices indelible is what people sing about.

ULABY: Makeba sang about Africa's culture and struggles. And Belafonte decided that was something Americans needed to hear. He helped arrange a U.S. tour and got the shy, 27-year-old on the Steve Allen Show.

(Soundbite of Steve Allen Show)

Ms. MAKEBA: I speak (unintelligible). It's very close to Zulu, but it has more clicks than Zulu.

Mr. STEVE ALLEN: More clicks?

Ms. MAKEBA: Yes, like (unintelligible).

ULABY: Makeba's hits like "The Click Song" taught Americans African sounds.

(Soundbite of "The Click Song")

ULABY: Makeba's international popularity extended to the United Nations, where she addressed a special commission on apartheid in 1963. She appealed for a boycott of her country.

Ms. MAKEBA: I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place?

ULABY: Makeba's albums were banned in South Africa. Her success in the rest of the world and the pressures of touring led to a divorce from trumpeter Hugh Masakela. She went on to marry Black Panther Stokely Carmichael and moved to Guinea. Two decades later, Makeba's voice stirred a new generation with Paul Simon's Graceland tour.

(Soundbite of song "Soweto Blues")

Ms. MAKEBA: (Singing) Refusing to comply they sent an answer. That's when the policemen came to the rescue.

ULABY: Miriam Makeba returned to South Africa after the end of apartheid. Nelson Mandela welcomed her as a hero. Makeba announced her official retirement a few years ago. But she kept traveling and singing, she said, because people kept asking her to come and say goodbye. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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MusicNational & International ObituariesMorning EditionAll Things Considered
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.