Miriam Makeba

"She was at the United Nations ages ago, before it was even fashionable," said the South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka of Miriam Makeba, who died Nov. 10 at 76. The first African woman to win a Grammy, Makeba, known affectionately as "Mama Africa," traveled to New York City in 1963. She appeared before the U.N.'s special committee on apartheid to plead for intervention in South Africa. Her nation repaid Makeba by exiling her until 1990, when President Nelson Mandela personally asked her to return.

Though much of Makeba's influence resulted from her political involvement and her topical lyrics, she shied...