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Free in Algeria
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 06 - 12 - 2018

“I am free in Algeria!” sang the world-famous Miriam Makeba, in Arabic, in 1972. Last week, the Algerian minister of culture, the eminent poet and writer Azzedine Mihoubi, launched an award that pays tribute to this internationally celebrated singer and civil rights activist from South Africa: the Miriam Makeba Award for Artistic Creativity.
To our generation, Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) was one of the greatest African singers who achieved international repute in the 20th century. She was celebrated around the globe, from the Americas in the West to Japan and Australia in the east. One of her most popular songs internationally was “Pata Pata” which was inspired by South African folk heritage. With the rise of the civil rights movement in South Africa, Makeba became a symbol for the struggle against apartheid. Indeed, she soon became a symbol for all African liberation movements, all of which she supported and encouraged with her music, earning her the nickname, Mama Africa.
Makeba was exiled from her country for 30 years and rendered stateless. She was only able to return to her homeland after the fall of the apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela's rise to power. He reinstated her nationality and she performed in concert in Johannesburg for the first time in 1991.
In the course of her travels abroad, she met the African American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael whom she married in 1968. Carmichael (1941-1998), born in Trinidad, was a leader of the Black Panther Party and a radical opponent to the system of white supremacy as well as an outspoken critic of the global Zionist movement. He was forced into exile after his activism brought him under the crosshairs of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover who saw him as a national security threat.
Makeba left the US with Stokely Carmichael. Together they settled in Guinea where Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture and where Makeba obtained Guinean nationality and was appointed that country's ambassador to the UN.
In 1972, Makeba met Algerian president Houari Boumediene who invited her to perform in Algeria on the anniversary of the Algerian Revolution. There she was awarded Algerian nationality, which she retained until her death. It was also in Algeria, that she sang her first song in Arabic: “I am free in Algeria / The age of slavery is over.” The song commemorated the Algerian people's successful struggle to free themselves of colonial domination. She was also close to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and defended the Palestinian cause on numerous occasions.
Makeba died of a heart attack following a charity concert in Italy in 2008. She had asked for her ashes to be scattered on the Atlantic Ocean so that its currents could take her to the shores of the countries that once embraced her while she was alive.
I had the honour to be chosen as chairman of the international jury for the award that pays tribute to Makeba whose career I followed and whose music I enjoyed in my youth. The jury also included the South African filmmaker Ramadan Suleman, the famous Cape Verdean singer Solange Cesarovna, the Moroccan composer and performer Abdel-Wahab Doukali and the well-known Algerian intellectual and film critic Ahmed Bedjaoui. We were received by Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi who stressed that his government had no intention to intervene in the jury's work or selection process. However, it did stipulate one condition which was that the recipient of the award had to be an African living in Africa since the award, after all, was dedicated to Africans. We agreed with the minister. The jury members then began a series of meetings in the premises of the National Office for Copyrights and Related Rights, which is directed by Sami Benchikh Lehocine who afforded us every comfort without attempting to interfere in our work. Our task was, firstly, to establish the bylaws for the prize at this inaugural phase. We agreed that the prize should be awarded for cultural creativity in fields in which Makeba, herself, specialised, namely music, song, composition and acting. At the same time, potential recipients had to be dedicated to African causes, as was the case with the person to whom the prize pays tribute. Makeba was a singer, composer and actress and among her most best-known films is “Come Back Africa”, a documentary that lashes out against apartheid. This was the film that led to her exile and the stripping of her nationality.
At the end of its deliberations, the jury decided to grant the Miriam Makeba Award for Artistic Creativity to the African cultural organisation, Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO). Based in Burkina Faso, FESPACO is an annual film festival that only accepts films produced in Africa by African filmmakers. Because of the significance of this award, the jury also wanted to include the Miriam Makeba Foundation, which the famous singer and rights activist founded before she died and which, this year, is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Therefore, we decided to award $80,000 of the $100,000 allocated to the prize to FESPACO and the remaining $20,000 to the foundation.
As I said in my speech when we announced the recipients at the Palace of Arts in Algiers, where a ceremony will be held on 9 February in order to award the prize, Makeba embodied African unity which colonialist forces had long attempted to divide, whether between north or south or between anglophone and francophone. This is why, I said, the prize should go to an agency dedicated to transcending national boundaries and representing the African continent as a whole.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Algeria and to its energetic Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi for this initiative. How I hope that Egypt can launch a similar initiative as it prepares to chair the African Union next year. Egypt's closer relations with Africa should not be expressed solely at the political level through ministerial exchanges and the like. It must also be manifested culturally. Culture has a more powerful impact on people's minds and hearts than other realms of activity.


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