Songs of Freedom

Songs of Freedom

Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela and other freedom fighers made Liberia their home in the 60s and 70s.

Nina Simone said, “Liberia and America were connected through history in a positive way, and Liberian culture and society reflected that. It was a good place to start for any Afro-American looking to reconcile themselves to their own history.” This is what drove she and many others to calling Liberia home in the 60s and 70s.

Hugh Masakela

Hugh Masekela is a world-renowned flugelhornist, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer and defiant political voice who remains deeply connected with his home, South Africa, while his international career sparkles. He was born in the town of Witbank, South Africa in 1939. At the age of 14, the deeply respected advocator of equal rights in South Africa, Father Trevor Huddleston, provided Masekela with a trumpet and, soon after, the Huddleston Jazz Band was formed. Masekela began to hone his, now signature, Afro-Jazz sound in the late 1950s during a period of intense creative collaboration, most notably performing in the 1959 musical King Kong, written by Todd Matshikiza, and, soon thereafter, as a member of the now legendary South African group, the Jazz Epistles (featuring the classic line up of Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa).

In 1960, at the age of 21 he left South Africa to begin what would be 30 years in exile from the land of his birth.It was during these years that Masakela discovered a love for Liberia and made it home for a number of years.  He encouraged other freedom fighters from Africa and the West to also move to Liberia.  The 70s became the ‘roaring 70s’ of freedom fighting and music in Liberia.

Miriam Makeba

Zenzile Miriam Makeba, nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer and civil rights activist best known for her songs "Pata Pata" and “Malaika.” “When South Africa took away what was mine, which they called theirs, the first country in Africa to give me a passport, was Liberia,” she said.  In the 1970s Miriam Makeba lived in a Liberia for a number of years. 

Miriam Makeba was born in South Africa in 1932. Her singing appearance in the documentary film Come Back, Africa (1959) attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte. 

In 1962, Makeba performed at the birthday celebration of President John F. Kennedy. In 1965, she and Belafonte released the album An Evening with Belafonte & Makeba, which includes two duos by the musicians: "Train Song" and "Cannon." The album earned Makeba and Belafonte a Grammy Award for best folk recording in 1966.

In the mid-1980s, Makeba met famed American musician Paul Simon. In 1987, she and Simon performed together as part of Simon's incredibly famous Graceland tour. The tour focused attention on apartheid in Makeba's homeland, where she would eventually return, encouraged by Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.

In addition to her music career, Makeba, a black South African, was a prominent civil rights activist, speaking out against apartheid in South Africa.  Going into exile because of her stance, Makeba discovered the warmth of the Liberian people, and made it home in the 70s.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone was already a highly regarded artist around the world by the 1970s when she moved to Liberia, and was known for being highly outspoken and active in the struggle of black people for human rights. 

Her first LP for the Mercury label, 1964’s In Concert, signaled Nina’s undaunting stand for freedom and justice for all, stamping her irrevocably as a pioneer and inspirational leader in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Her own original “Mississippi Goddam” was banned throughout the South but such a response made no difference in Nina’s unyielding commitment to liberty; subsequent groundbreaking recordings for Philips like “Four Women” (recorded September 1965) and “Strange Fruit” continued to keep Nina in the forefront of the few performers willing to use music as a vehicle for social commentary and change. Such risks were seldom taken by artists during that time of such dramatic civil upheaval.

For years, Nina felt there was much about the way that she made her living that was less then appealing. One gets a sense of that in the following passage from I Put A Spell on You where she explains her initial reluctance to perform material that was tied to the Civil Rights Movement.

“Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like [Civil Rights activist] Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”

Nina was deeply affected by these two events. In 1962, she had befriended noted playwright Lorraine Hansberry and spoke often with her about the Civil Rights Movement. While she was moved by her conversations with Hansberry, it took the killing of Medgar Evers and the four girls in Birmingham to act as catalysts for a transformation of Nina’s career.

In Liberia, Nina was free to express all she believed in, and enjoyed the spirit of Liberia’s open and free society.

Many others came, some just for the simple atmosphere and vibe for 70s Liberia came, including Bill Russell, 11 time NBA champion.  Russell would come to Liberia every summer to check on his rubber farm and it was his plan to immigrate to Liberia at the end of his playing career. 

Samuel "Sam" Perkins

Sam Perkins is an American retired professional basketball player and gold medalist with the US national team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  Picked in the 1984 NBA draft by the Dallas Mavericks, he played in the National Basketball Association (NBA) from 1984 to 2001.  Sam says he attended the American Cooperative School in Liberia during his younger days.

Spellman University President, Johnetta Cole also lived in Liberia.

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