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South African Vocal Legend Miriam Makeba is Dead at 76

Miriam Makeba, the Grammy-winning South African vocalist who became a worldwide symbol of the struggle against apartheid, died in Italy early today, November 10, following a performance. She was 76 and the cause was a heart attack.

Makeba fell ill after a concert in the southern Italian town of Baia Verde late on Sunday, according to a press release from Heads Up International, Makeba’s last label in the U.S. She died after being rushed to a clinic in the town of Castel Volturno, near Naples.

Known as “Mama Africa” and the “Empress of African Song,” Makeba was the first black South African musician to gain international fame, winning renown in the United States in the 1950s with her sweeping vocals.

Born in 1932 in Johannesburg, Makeba first came to the public’s attention as a featured vocalist with the Manhattan Brothers. She soon left to record with her all-woman group the Skylarks while touring Southern Africa with Alf Herberts’ African Jazz and Variety. In 1959 she teamed up with South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who became her first husband, and starred in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa.

In 1963, after testifying about apartheid before the United Nations, the South African government revoked her citizenship and banned her recordings. She remained in the U.S. and married Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, but they eventually fled to Guinea on the west African coast. Makeba returned to world prominence in 1987 when she performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour. In 1990, she finally returned to her homeland as a free South African.

During her career she performed with jazz and pop artists including Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte. She received the Grammy for Best Folk Recording in 1966 together with Belafonte for #An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba#. The album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid. Makeba was the first African woman to win a Grammy.

Makeba also sang for such prominent leaders as John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. She scored a number 12 hit in the U.S. in 1967 with “Pata Pata.”

Makeba’s final U.S. studio recording was Reflections, released in 2004.

Originally Published