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brenda fassie: south africa’s disruptive township madonna

June 3, 2019
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The year is 1990 and South Africa is a country living on the brink of war and freedom. On one side, there was the incessant resistance of the anti-apartheid movement that brought the country to its knees, teetering on the edge of an all-out racial civil war. On the other, there was the oncoming release of the face of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela. It was a time of great hope interlaced with crushing fear. It was a moment uniquely identified by a song playing in every Black township and locations across South Africa: “Black President.”“They broke rocks, But the spirit was never broken. Never broken, Oh my Black president,” crooned Brenda Fassie, her voice blaring out of car radios, spilling out of pool halls and wafting down the street from a stereo sitting shotgun on someones’ shoulder. It was a time of change and uncertainty and Fassie’s voice was the perfect voice to define the moment, as the poster child for thriving in the face of uncertainty.

Brenda Nokuzola Fassie was born in Langa, Cape Town on November 3rd, 1964. She was an Afro-pop goddess who served as South Africa’s introduction to the term “pop star” as the highest-selling South African artist of her time — she outsold local and international acts. With Black womanhood suffering its own bout of hypersexualization in racist and sexist apartheid South Africa, Brenda brought a sense of provocateur and unapologetic sensuality to — she was dubbed the “Township Madonna” or “Black Madonna,” although she would often remind people who would claim such that she was just “Black Brenda.” She was Township Queen with a voice that would grab hold and never let go, earning her the additional nickname of “Queen of Vocals.”

Brenda’s powerful African vocals combined with international pop sounds blended with local instrumental influences like maskandi guitars made her a sensation in the Black community. She performed in front of 120,000 people in 1985 as part of a telethon for charity with each and every person bought and sold by the mystifying talent of Brenda Fassie. It’s likely because she wrote and sang from a personal and passionate space, wearing her politics on her musical sleeve for Black South Africans to witness. Her music was packed with a message but the most magnetic aspect of her appeal was that she was the message. She moved in the spirit of her own gospel and lived life as the uncompromising Black women that commanded those stages in front of thousands.

In the documentary Not A Bad Girl which explores the star’s life at the height of her career, Brenda explains how the inspirations for her songs sometimes come from things she heard on the streets, writing songs almost as a response. Even though she was known for the political commentary in her music, her inspirations didn’t always yield political songs that were explicitly so in their messaging. “Weekend Special” was one of Brenda’s biggest hits, combining a Blues guitar and R&B elements (bass and synths) that are transformed with South African melodies to form the loose basis of Afro-pop in the 80s. Written by Melvyn Matthews and produced by Blondie Makhene, the international hit tells the story of a woman who is sick of being treated like a hit & run or side-chick when she laments her imaginary lover by belting, “I’m your weekend, weekend special!”

Brenda bypassed the conservativeness gripping the Black community thanks to decades of immorality acts and centuries of hypersexualization and went straight for laying it all out there. She was a lover and was open about the power of her sexuality, displaying confidence in her sexual prowess that was still attributed to the ‘Jezebel’ trope imposed on Black women. She paid it no mind, opening up about love and relationships in a way that Black South Africans had never been taught. The most controversial comment she made (for that time) was a decadent admission of the obsession men had with her. “I don’t say I’m the best, but I think I can do it,” she says in the documentary. “Some men cry because I sing. I sing when I make love, sing for them. And one guy said to me: ‘Oh I wish the world could see that I’m f*ucking Brenda Fassie.”

SOUTH AFRICA – JANUARY 16: Brenda Fassie on stage on January 16, 1985. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Joe Sefale)

She was iconic. Men wanted to sleep with her. Woman wanted to be and dress like her. Her brazen nature was alluring and her talent amplified that ten-fold. As a public figure and artist, her class of musician served as the teachers and preachers of anti-apartheid times. Her choice to lean into her sexuality made her obviously made her controversial but even those who supported her message wished that she would use her platform to engage the youth – who came to Fassie because her art openly discussed sex and relationships – to focus on more “productive” goals. Fassie rejected that brand of respectability politics: “I let the politicians do the political work. Let me sing the political songs.” Fassie knew the power of reach of her music as she was recognized in townships from Johannesburg all the way down to Cape Town. She knew her strength was her voice and her singular goal to be as authentically herself as possible. “I’m trying to change whatever I can, my, with my music.”

She did, and she was so loved and revered for the love she had to give. The documentary also managed to dig into that relationship she had with her family, friends and fans — the connection she shared with people, near and far, and how that made her more of a cultural and community treasure. She could never be alone at home and even left the gate open because she wanted to provide the kind of haven she was provided as a young girl growing up poor in Cape Town. The picture of Brenda offered by the film is a Brenda who gave of her talents and herself, to the point of destruction. At one point while on tour, she was performing in four different cities in a single day — unsurprising considering the tendency of the music business to overwork talent to the point of substance abuse in order to keep up with near-impossible schedules and fend off fatigue. Brenda passed away from a cocaine overdose in 2004, at the age of 39.

The story of Brenda Fassie tends to be overshadowed by its end but her legacy could never allow that to stand. The Queen of Vocals still holds South Africa’s two highest selling albums of all time with Memeza and Nomakanjani. What Brenda managed to do was that thing Black women do when they perform alchemy and turn talent in purpose.

From “Vul’indlela” to “Nomakanjani” to ‘Too Late For Mama,” Brenda introduced an African version of pop that served as escape and reminder of a collective fight for our freedom. Our freedom to sing. Our freedom to dance. Our freedom to vote. Our freedom to be Black — the most radical idea of them all.