I want to share my experiences with the late Miriam Makeba. Journalists throughout the world have acknowledged her musical artistry and her political commitment to the struggle of her people. I and others can attest to her warm personal relations with her friends and family, including her daughter Bongi, who died in 1985.
At the time of her daughter’s death, Miriam could not afford a coffin. The pain of that experience was horrific, but Miriam bore it with stoic inner strength, like everything else in her life.
I was a producer of pop music when I met Miriam. In fact, it was through my managerial relationship with Chad Mitchell of the Chad Mitchell Trio that we became social friends. From that connection, Miriam asked if I would manage her. However, it became obvious through negotiation that the distance would not permit me to do a good job.
Miriam understood why I turned down her offer and she and I shared a warm friendship none the less.
Another distinct memory I have of Miriam’s warm and caring nature was when my first wife was hurt in a serious car accident. Miriam spent a day and a half at the hospital until it was clear that Françoise would survive.
A comforting act to say the least, especially since on the day of the accident, Miriam and her husband at the time, Hugh Masekela, were supposed to have dinner with us. Instead, she sat beside me in a rocking chair in my wife’s hospital room saying very little, but speaking volumes about her kindness with her presence.
Miriam married Stokely Carmichael in 1968 during the height of the Black Nationalist movement. I knew Stokely through my participation and support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When white members were expelled from the organization, I sent Stokely a letter telling him that I disagreed because I believed it hindered the struggle against racism in America. But, of course, I sent him a solidarity donation anyway.
In any case, I received no response from Stokely. Nevertheless, Francoise and I heeded Miriam’s invitation and traveled to Scarsdale, New York, to attend their wedding reception. Along with Miriam’s drummer, we were the only whites out of 200 guests present. Stokely ignored us, making it clear that he was uncomfortable by our presence. Miriam, however, did more than acknowledge our friendship; she made us feel welcome.
Miriam was primarily an artist who was forced into the political struggles of her people by her dignity and her artistic ability that refused to surrender to the indignities of apartheid. Through it all she remained strong, yet warm and caring. In the end, those of us who knew her, just like South Africa, have lost much more than a fighting voice for justice and equality. We’ve lost a loyal friend.