Remembering Brenda Fassie

Brenda Fassie in her element.

May 9th 2017 marked 13 years since Brenda Fassie, nicknamed “Madonna of The Townships”, died from a cocaine overdose at her home in Johannesburg. I was scrolling through my Twitter when I stumbled on a video from 1985 of Brenda (or Mabrrr if you’re nasty) performing her first hit song “Weekend Special” at a filled to capacity Ellis Park Stadium. In the video, Fassie belts out to her married lover, crying out “I’m no weekend, weekend special.” This song sold over 200,000 copies & its cover by American singer Vann Gibbs went on to spend 8 weeks on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. I was still a kid when Brenda Fassie was at her musical peak — so this video was my first real glimpse at the immense talent she wielded.

Going through internet stories about her gave me some interesting insights as to who she was and what defined her. She was discovered by producer Blondie Makhene in 1983 while barefoot, front-teeth missing and with a voice to die for. In classic African fashion, her guardian wanted her to focus on school but her eyes were set on something else. While she was an exceptional singer, she didn’t have her own style. In interviews, Blondie mentions how tough it was convincing EMI executives of her potential.

“Quite frankly, she was lacking in the looks department...We managed to convince the executives to pay for her dentures and my wife took care of her image and wardrobe.”

That year, Blondie & his team went on an aggressive marketing campaign in order to her popularise Brenda Fassie among locals. She went to the townships where she performed Weekend Special on top of tables. Soon, the townships were all buzzing with talk about her. After this song’s success, Brenda looked forward to a bigger career. She told Bona Magazine:

“Now that I have reached this stage in my career, I’m not going to turn back. My ambition is to become a number one musician in this country and make a lot of money.”

She did make a lot of money. Her 1998 album, Memeza (Shout), may have been the first South African Album to go platinum (i.e. selling 50 000 copies) on its first day of release. This is the very album that brought us Vulindlela (Accept the Situation). Her other album Nomkanjani reportedly sold 525,000 copies — an incredible number especially when you compare that number with what artistes make today.

Brenda Fassie had an interesting persona. A Time Magazine feature details a time during her American tour when mid performance, her breasts accidentally popped out of her costume Janet-Jackson-style. Her response? Grabbing her bosom, thrusting it at the crowd and saying “This, is Africa.” Thinking about it, she was Africa.

Brenda wasn’t without her faults. In 1994, when asked about her recording with the recently deceased Papa Wemba, she confessed;

“I can’t remember a thing, I was so high.”

In 1995, her shambolic lifestyle resulted in her waking up next to the dead body of her lesbian lover, Poppie Sihlahla, who had suffered a drug overdose. All through her life, she endured many broken relationships and reportedly tried committing suicide three times. Bongani Madondo, an author of a book about Brenda Fassie’s life, is quoted by the Sowetan Live saying this about her:

“She had died even before the hit song Vulindlela came out. Fassie’s voice had gone, and there was no chance to recover it. She was completely in decline as a vocalist.”

Brenda’s story led me to reflect about where African music is at the moment. I recently read an interview on where Jason ‘Poo Bear’ Boyd, the songwriter responsible for such hits as Justin Bieber’s Where Are U Now, What Do You Mean & Usher’s Caught up gushed over African music.

“I honestly I really love African music and I have really been trying to get into that as well. I love the rhythms and the cadences and the melodies, so that’s one of those things I would love to break into, into more African — like real original African — music.”

Original African music is what Brenda Fassie used to do. In the years since her tragic death, it is refreshing to see that artists such as Black Coffee & Wizkid (among many others) have picked up the mantle & are pushing these African sounds to global audiences. We pray that they won’t succumb to Brenda’s waterloo of missed performances, diva tantrums & drug overdoses though. RIP Mabrrr.

Edit: As I finished writing this article (at 1AM in the morning), one of the bars near my house started playing Vulindlela. No shit.