HOW MUCH STRENGTH must a voice have to climb above the weight of injustice?
How much character must a singer have to stand firm in the face of racism and oppression and cruelty and, eventually, exile?
And how much powerful grace must an activist possess to draw millions to hear her message the world over?
The measuring stick for answering those was embodied by one woman. South Africa’s first lady of song. Mama Africa.
Today, Google pays tribute to the late and great Makeba on what would have been her 81st birthday. Artist Mike Dutton’s richly tinted Doodle depicts the anti-apartheid icon in stylish profile, wearing her traditional clothes, backdropped by the company’s logo set against earth tones.
The illustration’s profile captures the passion of Makeba in performance — the magic of her music that she first realized, as a Prospect township-born girl in the ‘30s, might have the power to lift her out of hardscrabble times. It was that captivating gift of voice — tuned to traditional South African song (her dad was Xhosa, her mom a Swazi) as well as jazz and pop and folk — that would carry her from ‘50s groups like the Manhattan Brothers and the Skylarks through to the attention of supporter Harry Belafonte, who helped bring her to New York and wider attention.
South Africa denied Makeba’s re-entry into the country after she performed for the anti-apartheid documentary “Come Back, Africa,” which helped heighten her prominence beyond her nation. As Makeba gained international fame in the ‘60s with such songs as ”Pata Pata,” “Qongqothwane (The Click Song)” and “Malaika,” it was her power to transcend borders and cultures with her sociopolitical messages that prompted South Africa to ban her songs.
Tellingly, the Google art’s background reflects Makeba’s undying connection to her homeland. Even as she became a global symbol of her nation’s struggles — speaking against apartheid at the United Nations in the 1960s — she ached, like a caged-out songbird, to return home. “I never understood why I couldn’t come home,” she said upon returning to her native city as apartheid began to fall in 1990, ending her three-decade exile, according to her New York Times obituary. “I never committed any crime.”
She was the first African woman to win a Grammy (with Belafonte). She used that growing fame to speak, and sing, to social ills. And she supported the boycott against South Africa until, by choosing to perform with “Graceland”-era Paul Simon in the ‘80s, she felt it did more good for the greater cause by not doing so.
“My life has been like a yo-yo,” she told Salon in 2000, according to The Post’s obituary. “One minute I'm dining with presidents and emperors, the next I'm hitchhiking. I've accepted it. I say, 'Hey, maybe that's the way it was written, and it has to be.’ “
Makeba died in 2008, immediately after performing in Italy to support Roberto Saviano, who had received death threats after writing about organized crime. The world embraced the legacy of South Africa’s Empress of Song, but nowhere more than in the land that had long exiled her.
“Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us,” Nelson Mandela, the apartheid prisoner turned South African leader, said upon Makeba’s death. “She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours.”
TOP 10 GOOGLE DOODLES THAT HONOR VISUAL/MUSICAL ARTISTS:
1. WINSOR McCAY: THE OTHERWORDLY DOODLE
2. LES PAUL: THE PLAYABLE GUITAR
3. MARTHA GRAHAM: THE DANCING DOODLE
4. JOHN LENNON: IMAGINE THIS DOODLE
5. FREDDIE MERCURY: THE MUSIC VIDEO
6. JIM HENSON: THE CLICKABLE MUPPETS
7. CHARLES ADDAMS: THE SPOOKY DOODLE
8. ART CLOKEY: THE “GUMBY DOODLE”
9. MARY BLAIR: THE DISNEY DOODLE
10. DIEGO RIVERA: THE LARGER-THAN-LIFE MURAL