You’ve probably had the song “Makeba” stuck in your head once or twice. More than likely, you’ve already used the music for a TikTok or Instagram video.
If you’re unfamiliar with the song, it starts with a low bass sound that makes you want to rock side to side. Then, the melody kicks off with a high-pitched “Ooohe.” Before you know it, the song’s rhythm will have you swaying side to side, singing, “Ooohe, Makeba ma qué Bella, Can I get a ‘oohe’ Makeba, makes my body dance for you.”
The song “Makeba” by the French artist Jain has been trending all over social media and used in over 5 million Instagram reels. Although it was initially released in 2015, people have more recently latched on to this catchy tune.
Yet this song is more than a viral trend. Within the lyrics and the music video, you can see the song’s meaning and message are connected to something more significant than the song itself.
So what is the song really about? Or the better question is, who is Makeba?
Inspiration for the song
If you listen closely to the lyrics, you’ll hear lines like “You are the real beauty of human rights,” and “Nobody can beat the Mama Africa.”
The song’s words allude to a woman named Zenzile Miriam Makeba, who is the inspiration for the song. The music video shows symbols of Africa with South African dancers and people throughout different scenes. One particular image stands out, with a message of peace and equality. In one frame, two images of a South African girl and a South African albino girl mirror each other — an idea meant to show that everyone is equal despite their appearance.
In a YouTube video, Jain shared that she didn’t want to create a typical song about parties or other youthful experiences. Instead, she wanted to sing about things that were important to her. Thus, she made a song about Makeba, a South African singer and activist whose music was heard worldwide. Because of this motivation, the song has become a unique cross-cultural collaboration between France and South Africa.
Who was Makeba?
Makeba was a woman who loved to sing and developed a music career that took her across the world. Although she had a successful career, Makeba had a challenging life when she was younger.
Born March 4, 1932, in Johannesburg, she started the beginning days of her life in prison with her mother. During that time, her mother struggled to make ends meet and sold beer illegally to afford the essentials. Once she and her mother were released, they worked as domestic workers.
Amongst hard labor, Makeba was exposed to different types of music, such as American jazz, kwela music, and African jazz. Being drawn to music, she started singing in high school and at church. She pursued her love of music by studying at the Kilnerton Training Institute in South Africa for eight years.
Eventually, music became a more significant part of her life when she joined her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers. However, her career took off when she joined the Manhattan Brothers and toured with them for three years. Her career began flourishing when she played the female lead in 1959’s King Kong, which helped her obtain international fame. She became the first South African musician to be recognized worldwide.
Throughout her musical career, she would stay true to her African roots by combining unique clicks and African sounds in her music. In addition to adding an African flare to her songs, she kept her lyrics honest and sang songs about social injustices. Yet despite her forward lyrics, she never identified as a political singer.
When interviewed by the British Times, she said she mostly sings about her life because that’s what they do in South Africa. They sing about what is happening, especially things that hurt them.
Although she didn’t see her lyrics as controversial, the government of South Africa did. When she moved to the United States with her husband, she would find out that her passport had been revoked when she tried to re-enter South Africa to attend her mother’s funeral. Eventually, she was able to return home in 1992 after apartheid was abolished.
Despite her being in temporary exile, her career took off in other parts of the world. She was the first woman to speak up at the United Nations against apartheid. She won a Grammy award in 1966 for her song “An Evening with Belafonte.” Her song “Pata Pata” became a top-ten worldwide hit, making her the first Black woman to achieve this accomplishment. Outside of her music, Makeba created the Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation and the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for abused girls.
Makeba spent her life sharing her music and doing good for others. Unfortunately, in 2008, during a performance, she died at age 76 because of a heart attack.
A quote from her biography sums up her life succinctly: “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music, I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realizing.”
Because of her authenticity she will always be known as Mama Africa.
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Kiersten is a freelance writer and coach. As a writer, she has written for Travel Noire, Passion Passport, BAUCE mag, and various travel and lifestyle blogs. As a writer, her goal is to write content that inspires others to take action. As a coach, her goal is to empower women to be their most authentic selves. In her free time, you can find her dancing to any song any where.