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From Apartheid to TikTok: How Makeba Found a New Generation of Fans

If you've been scrolling through TikTok or watching Instagram reels, chances are you've encountered the infectious song Makeba by French singer-songwriter Jain. While the song was made in 2015 and gained popularity recently through a viral dance trend, many need to be aware of its profound tribute to Miriam Makeba, the renowned anti-apartheid activist, with over 155 million views on YouTube and one million TikTok videos using the song as a sound. 

However, a meme featuring actor Bill Hader sparked the recent resurgence of the Makeba trend. The meme originated from a cut-for-time sketch on Saturday Night Live in 2015, where Hader portrayed a human-like doll named Alan, known for his entertaining dance moves. The sketch gained viral popularity and has since been widely shared on social media platforms. 

TikTokers seized the opportunity to pair Hader's quirky dance moves with the upbeat rhythm of Makeba, creating a new dance trend quickly gaining traction on the app. The combination of Hader's comical performance and the catchy song has resulted in a surge of TikTok videos featuring the dance and contributing to the song's resurgence. As a result, Makeba by French artist Jain has found a new audience and has become synonymous with the dance trend initiated by Bill Hader's meme.

It's time to delve into the significance of Makeba and the extraordinary life of the woman it honours. Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Africa, was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, and civil rights activist who rose to prominence during apartheid in her country. 

Born on March 4, 1932, in Johannesburg, Makeba's early life was marked by struggle and determination. From her humble beginnings as a domestic worker's daughter to performing with the Manhattan Brothers and later the Skylarks, Makeba's talent and passion for music propelled her to international recognition.

Makeba's journey to becoming an iconic figure in the music industry was challenging. Growing up in a segregated neighbourhood during an economic depression, she witnessed the harsh realities of racial inequality firsthand. Makeba's mother, a Sangoma (traditional healer), instilled in her a deep connection to her African heritage and a love for music. Despite her difficulties, Makeba found solace in singing and began her career by performing with her cousin's band, the Cuban Brothers.

However, her association with the Manhattan Brothers, a popular singing group in South Africa, brought her widespread recognition. Makeba's powerful voice and stage presence captivated audiences, and she soon became a sought-after performer in her country. She later joined the Skylarks, an all-female group that combined jazz and traditional African melodies. Makeba's unique blend of genres and ability to infuse her songs with powerful messages set her apart as an artist of exceptional talent.

In 1959, Makeba's life significantly turned when she starred in the anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa. The film, which depicted the harsh realities faced by black South Africans under apartheid, brought international attention to Makeba's talent and the plight of her people. During this time, she caught the attention of American singer Harry Belafonte, who became her mentor and longtime collaborator.

Makeba's collaboration with Belafonte propelled her into the global spotlight. She became the first African artist to win a Grammy Award, which she achieved with Belafonte for their album An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba in 1965. Makeba's fame reached new heights as she performed at prestigious venues and events, including the birthday party of President John F. Kennedy. She used her platform to advocate for justice and equality, raising awareness about the oppressive system of apartheid and promoting African culture.

While her musical talent brought her international acclaim, Makeba's activism solidified her status as a fearless advocate for human rights. She used her voice not only to entertain but also to speak out against the injustices faced by black South Africans. Makeba's songs became anthems of resistance, addressing the struggles and pain of her people with poignant lyrics and soulful melodies.

Makeba's impact extended beyond the realm of music. She actively participated in political events and organisations, including the rallies of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963 and 1971, she testified against apartheid at the United Nations, exposing the world to the brutal realities faced by her fellow South Africans. Makeba's powerful speeches and performances at the UN played a crucial role in garnering international support for the anti-apartheid movement.

Despite her dedication to her homeland, Makeba was forced into exile due to her outspoken activism. The South African government revoked her passport, denying her the right to return to her country. This exile marked a turning point in Makeba's life as she continued her fight against apartheid from abroad. She settled in the United States, where she continued to use her music and voice to raise awareness about the injustices in South Africa.

In Dwight Garner's book How It Feels to Be Free: Salutes Black Female Entertainers, Miriam Makeba is celebrated as one of the remarkable black female entertainers who have made significant contributions to the arts and society. Alongside icons like Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Diahann Carroll, Makeba's resilience, talent, and activism are highlighted.

The book emphasises Makeba's rise to international fame in the 1960s as she fearlessly used her voice to address the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. Her soulful melodies and poignant lyrics became a powerful expression of the struggles faced by her people, earning her the nickname Mama Africa. 

Beyond her musical achievements, Makeba's activism was a defining aspect of her career. She used her platform to shed light on the injustices faced by black South Africans and actively campaigned for their liberation. Her unwavering commitment to justice and equality earned her the admiration of fellow activists and musicians, including Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone.

Makeba's commitment to justice and equality went beyond her struggle. She championed various causes, including the fight against drug abuse and HIV/AIDS awareness. Her humanitarian work extended to establishing the Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation, which aimed to support abused girls and promote social change through education and empowerment.

In 1990, as apartheid began to crumble, Makeba returned to South Africa after 31 years in exile. Her homecoming was a momentous occasion, symbolising the triumph of the anti-apartheid movement and the resilience of the South African people. Makeba became a goodwill ambassador for her country, using her international platform to advocate for peace and reconciliation.

Makeba's legacy as an artist and activist continues to inspire generations. Her music, characterised by a fusion of traditional African sounds and modern styles, remains timeless and impactful. Songs like Pata Pata and The Click Song showcase her unique vocal techniques and lyrical depth, transcending cultural boundaries and touching the hearts of millions worldwide.

Miriam Makeba's passing in 2008 left a void in the music and activism spheres, but her indomitable spirit lives on. She will always be remembered as an icon who used her voice to fight against oppression, promote African culture, and inspire change. Makeba's contributions to music, human rights, and the anti-apartheid movement are a testament to the power of art to challenge the status quo and bring about social transformation.


As the song Makeba resurfaced in popular culture, introducing a new generation to the name and legacy of Miriam Makeba, it serves as a reminder of the enduring impact of her life's work. Mama Africa's songs continue to resonate, carrying the torch of activism and cultural pride. Miriam Makeba's story is one of resilience, courage, and unwavering dedication to justice, leaving an indelible mark on the world and reminding us of the power of art to effect change.

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