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  • Writer's picturehwandawa

Mama Africa: The Iconic Women of Post-Colonial Africa

It's the 1960s and Europe's colonial shackles are finally dropping off the remaining countries on the African continent. After centuries of Western interference, Africa and its countries can begin to shape its own identity.

Social movements and activism defined this era and music acted as a vessel to narrate, express the struggle and define what the new age of Africa would be. Among these people were some unsung extraordinary women who were ready to mold the continent.

One such woman was Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Africa. Somewhat of a prodigy, Miriam's talent was acknowledged from a young age, singing during a visit from the British royals at the tender age of 15. She then went on to tour with The Manhattan Brothers, a group who have been described as South Africa's first superstars, where she inevitably found fame.

Miriam Makeba & The Manhattan Brothers

It was her role in the documentary, Come Back Africa, which launched her into the activism spotlight. Travelling to Europe and the United States to screen Come Back Africa and expand her musical career beyond borders with the help of Harry Belafonte, Miriam found herself being the only black South African with easy access to the media. She used this advantage to cast a worldwide light on the plights of apartheid. Even after losing her citizenship and having her music banned in her native homeland, Miriam continued to speak out; speaking multiple times throughout her career to the UN, and through her music she chronicled black life in South Africa.

"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 realising" - Miriam Makeba

Fellow South African and occasional songwriter for Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu, also used her voice as a vessel to inform the world of the struggle of black people and women, and to provide a message of hope. She was the musical voice of The Color Purple and Roots, and she narrated the documentary film, You Have Struck A Rock, which documented African women's campaigns of non-violent disobedience.

"Mbulu is the roots lady, projecting a sophistication and warmth which stirs hope for attaining pure love, beauty, and unity in the world." - Quincy Jones

Other women challenged the concept of what is was to be a woman in the new era of Africa. Mona Finnih shook 1960s and 70s Nigeria - a time were the musical landscape was dominated by male soul and funk bands like The Hykkers, The Funkees and of course Fela Kuti's Afrika 70 - by becoming the first female lead in a band. Her group, The Sunflowers, in their unfortunately short career, proved their ability to stack up against the men, performing in Fela Kuti's Afro Spot and Maharani - a place also frequented by Fela's band and drumming legend Tony Allen.

Miriam Makeba's early musical venture with The Skylarks also demonstrated the power of women in music. This all girl band became one of the most popular bands in 1950s South Africa.

Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks 1956

Oby Onyioha embodied the new image of the modern woman in Nigeria. Daring to branch out from the traditional, folksy look of other singers at the time, with her hair in a perm and bright lipstick, urging women to live their lives on their own terms with as much hedonism as they wish.

Christy Essien Igbokwe's Seun Rere shines a light on the unequal parental standards of traditional Nigerian parenting, where the father is credited with a child's successes and the mother is blamed for the child's failure, perhaps in an attempt to challenge the social norms and to call for mother's recognition.

Not only did these women speak for and embody the type of Africa they wanted, they also used their new found wealth to nurture their communities. Christy Essien Igbokwe often donated her royalties to organisations which care for and educate women, children and disabled people, and ran Essential Child Care Foundation - a non governmental child welfare organisation. Miriam Makeba opened up the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Center for abused girls as well as supporting various campaigns that aimed to help victims of drug abuse, something which she struggled with herself, and provide HIV/AIDS awareness.

Christy Essien Igbokwe's 58th posthumous birthday is celebrated with a Google doodle

And of course, musically, these women's achievements were highly consequential. Christy Essien Igbokwe has been showered with a number of awards including World Song Festival Award, Africa Music Mother and Entertainment Icon by West African Women in Leadership Conference. She also created what is now known as her state's anthem Akwa Ibom Mmi (My Akwa Ibom).

Quincy Jones, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu

In 2001, Letta Mbulu was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Music Awards. And was handed another in 2018 by the Mzantsi Jazz Awards Company. Her musical achievements are held in such esteem by her homeland of South Africa that her childhood home in Soweto was named a Johannesburg heritage site in 2018.

Miriam Makeba & Harry Belafonte win a Grammy in 1966 for their collaborative album

Miriam Makeba won the coveted Grammy for the album she collaborated on with Harry Belafonte in 1966, giving Africa its first Grammy. She was also the first black woman to have a top ten worldwide hit with Pata Pata. Miriam, also being held in high regard homeland, achievements did not go unrecognised. The 16 June is Miriam Makeba day in Berkeley and she was also given the President's Award by Nelson Mandela.

Women played an integral role in liberating Africa, within and of course outside of the music industry. These women not only helped to shape the sound of Africa, they also represented to the world what they believed and wanted the new African identity to be and strove to make it a reality. A reality where future generations can, and have, flourished.

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