Miriam Makeba was for me, and I know many of us, the first South African we knew by name, and probably felt we knew personally since her music was so much a part of our lives back in the day.
Before Mandela—or before Miriam married (I think) trumpet player Hugh Masakela, another South African whose name became internationally known for his musicality—Makeba became famous, especially among those of us who were into jazz in the l950s and '60s, for her "click" song, in which she sang in Xhosa, her tribal language, which included the tongue clicking against the roof of the mouth to make a sound like those little metal crickets the nuns would squeeze to make the noise we Catholic school kids would genuflect and then rise to on entering and leaving church, click, click.
In 1964, when I married my first wife Lee, God rest her soul, I was stationed outside Spokane Washington in the Air Force and Miriam Makeba came to town to do a show in a huge auditorium there with either the Kingston Trio or the Limelighters, two very popular folk singing groups of the time (I can no longer remember which unfortunately, which shows how much of an impact they had on me as opposed to Makeba).
Makeba was famous enough then, this relatively small, black, South African woman who sang in a language probably no one in the audience could understand and in a musical style that was a cross between African traditional and American jazz, and yet was able to rouse a huge auditorium filled with a majority of white people in a town, Spokane, that had yet to entirely recover from the Great Depression and had a banner hanging over its main street that declared "WELCOME TO JOHN BIRCH COUNTRY"—!—(and if you're too young to know the significance of that, the Birchers were like the KKK in suits).
Fortunately, Lee knew one of the members of the folk group that had probably been the main draw for the crowd, which nonetheless totally appreciated and gave a long round of applause to Makeba. So, we got to go backstage to the dressing room and hang after the show and even went out later to a local club.
That was the one and only time I met Miriam Makeba in person, and fell even more deeply under her spell than I had just listening to her on a record. She was majestic, charismatic, gracious, and even more beautiful in person than I'd imagined.
She helped change not only the world of music—bringing "world music" to America long before people like Paul Simon and David Byrne would be credited with doing that many years later—but she helped change the perception of white Americans about black Africans, which up until then were mostly known from Hollywood movies, where they were usually represented as mostly naked and primitive, or from English movies where they were usually referred to as "poor devils."
She not only brought a new image and idea of who black Africans really might be to this country, but she also brought dignity and warmth to that image and in the end a better idea of what we all could be, as influential in her own way as Dr. King and the prominent African-American Civil Rights leaders here.
If you have it, or if you can find it on the web, go put the click song on right now and dig some deep history.
[PS: I always forget you can find almost anything on the web. Here's a link to Makeba doing the click song two years after I saw her doing it, though in the show I saw she was dressed in much more traditional African garb with a bright head cloth wrapping as a kind of African queen crown, and layers of equally bright cloth wrapped around her body. But look how beautiful and vibrant she is in this faded black and white film and hear what made her so unique, and remember she had been banished from South Africa for several years by this time, but had yet to marry the U. S. Black Power movement leader Stokley Carmichael, which virtually ruined her career in the U.S. How wonderful that she lived long enough to see the son of a black African become president of this country and the most powerful person in the world in many ways!]