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Celebrating The Legacy Of Brenda Fassie, Africa’s First Pop Diva

©Andrew Whaley

My first glimpse of the power of music was watching South African singer Brenda Fassie mesmerize the audience with a jaw dropping performance at the KORA All Africa Music Awards in 2001. Dressed in a pleated black mini-skirt and a white button-down shirt, her braids in pigtails and carrying a makeup box, she waltzed past security and handed former South-African President, Nelson Mandela, a banana. The late Mandela gave her a hug and then she proceeded to dance with other attendees and finish her thrilling performance with a full split on stage. Regardless of what country the audience came from, everybody was hypnotized by the electrifying Fassie, or ‘Ma Brr’ as her legion of cultic fans called her. She was like a magnetic force that brought everyone together and made them forget their differences and troubles. For a young Kenyan girl, she was both Superman and Santa Claus rolled into a goddess. I watched her music videos on Channel O and Trace Urban (formerly MCM) as if they were religion. My eleven-year-old brain worked tirelessly to learn her songs, most of which were in either Zulu or Xhosa. I spent hours dancing to her music and wishing that I too, would someday, become a prolific musician like her.

Nelson Mandela and Brenda Fassie, 14 August 1993. Source: Gallo Images/ Oryx Media

Brenda Nokuzola Fassie was born in Langa, a township near Cape Town, South Africa, in 1964, sixteen years after apartheid was legalized in the country. Named after American country singer Brenda Lee, Fassie first joined a band at the age of five, and just a decade later, her vocal talents were renowned throughout the township. She relocated to Soweto when she was sixteen, and three years later, she released her debut hit, “Weekend Special” in 1983. The disco-flavored bubble gum pop number became the fastest selling record of that year, and ushered Fassie into a long career of smash hits, cultural influence and becoming South Africa’s first popstar.

Despite touring in America, Australia, Europe and Brazil, Fassie’s fame in her home country only extended to the Black majority population of South Africa. The white minority either didn’t know of her or wasn’t bothered until she released, “Black President” in 1990.

Unlike her previous bubble gum pop jams, the song highlighted the brutality of apartheid, the struggle for liberation and called Mandela, “The People’s President.” When the apartheid regime banned the song, Fassie stopped singing in English, and instead, used Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu, proclaiming, “I’m proud to be an African!”

Taking a stand like that is what makes me continue to admire her as a role model for my artistry. She continues to inspire me to sing and write in the languages from my country, Gikuyu and Kiswahili. And also following in her footsteps, I don’t shy away from speaking about issues that affect us, such as my record “Humankind,” where I detail the pandemic, racial injustice and America’s voting system. While writing the song, I listened to Fassie’s “Black President,” “Nomakajani” and “Too Late For Mama” for inspiration. I thought about how much fun I had learning those songs when I was ten but now as an adult living in America in the middle of a slew of -isms affecting the lives of Black people, it feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Not to say that the current state of race issues is like the apartheid Fassie grew up in but reading about the high statistics on Black women’s maternal mortality, police officers killing unarmed Black people with no consequence or the Republican Party’s efforts to suppress Black voters, makes her music a relevant soundtrack for today’s world.

Fassie was a woman before her time, following nobody’s rules but her own. She fought to survive being a popstar amidst a media frenzy that seemed more interested in her controversial off-stage life than her music. She quickly married and divorced her first husband after two years, developed a cocaine habit and had high profile relationships with women. The metallic bras and cutout-spandex pants she wore on stage angered conservatives who felt she should have been a more “respectable” role models for the teens she influenced. Instead of cowering to the pressure, she pushed the envelope further by sometimes doing drugs in front of reporters and discussing taboo topics such as sex with both men and women. In a 1992 clip, now available on Tik Tok, Fassie states, “I’m pretty hot, some men cry because I sing. I sing when I make love, I sing for them. And one guy said to me, ‘Oh I wish the world could see that I’m fucking Brenda Fassie.’ And I said, I’ll tell them, don’t worry. And he came eighty-five times.” Though the video is hilarious, it’s empowering to see a Black woman embrace her sexuality with such boldness. Long is the list of male entertainers bragging about their conquests, some going as far as writing entire albums to expose the women they’ve been with, so it’s only fair that Fassie get afforded the same privilege.

Source: Brett Eloff/ Sunday Times

Source: Sally Shorkend

In 2001, Time Magazine featured Fassie, nabbing her “Madonna Of The Townships” and “Black Madonna” but when asked, she said Madonna was the “Brenda of America.” While the two are great artists in their own rights, Fassie had the added responsibility of paving the way for artists like myself to control the narrative of our sexuality. Generations of Black women have long been hypersexualized yet never allowed to benefit from their sexuality, but Fassie found smart ways to make sure that when she was referred to as a Jezebel, it played into her advantage. For any artist, especially a Black female artist, having this kind of power and awareness is an important tool for survival in an industry and a world that prides itself in destroying women, as most of us have seen in the recent documentary, Framing Britney Spears.

Before Britney, there was Brenda. In a similar documentary about her life, Not A Bad Girl, now available on Vimeo, journalist Charl Blignaut conducted an interview in Fassie’s home and asked if he could lie on her bed while they talked. Blignaut, a white man working for the anti-apartheid publication Vrye Weekblad, interrupted Fassie every time she started talking about her struggles, stating he wanted her to talk about “juicy stuff” like her love life. He went as far as to say he wasn’t conscious of race issues, only gender because Fassie was “very sensual.” And if that wasn’t cringey and disrespectful enough, when he published his interview in the magazine in 1992, it was titled, “In Bed With Brenda.” The sad irony is that around that time, a different reporter began calling her a bad girl and writing negative things about her when she wouldn’t sleep with him.

Fassie’s life came to a tragic end on May ninth, 2004, at the young age of thirty-nine. Although I’d already moved to America, her death hit me hard. I consumed every article written about her passing and felt lucky that I had grown up watching her music videos. Each time she was on TV, I saw myself reflected in her, among a sea of bands, male-dominated hip hop and European female pop stars. Fassie’s fierce stance against apartheid taught me that as an artist, I have the responsibility of using my voice to speak out against issues that affect our world, and particularly Black people. And her transcending fashion choices remind me that the only person who should dictate my sexuality is me.

This Sunday marks seventeen years after her death but Fassie’s music remains an influential force. Africans have a saying that it’s not an African party, wedding or graduation, unless “Vuli Ndlela,” her 1997 hit, is blasted through the speakers. Recently, younger artists like South Africa’s Zahara and contestants of the country's version of The Voice began singing the song, introducing a whole new generation to her music. Even actor Vin Diesel jumped on the train when he posted a Tik Tok video of himself dancing to the song in October 2020.

Brenda and Bongani Fassie, Kora Awards 1998. Source: 'Brenda Remembered', Andrew Whaley

Brenda Fassie left behind a complicated legacy of exceptional vocal talent, electrifying stage presence, fighting for justice, provocative controversy and compassion for her people. Throughout her successful career, she gave away all her money, sometimes ending up broke. She battled a cocaine addiction for years but her brave decision to get help inspired other celebrities to do the same and opened doors for people to talk about addiction. Her relationships with women shined a spotlight on struggles faced by queer Black women. Regardless of how dangerous it was for Black South Africans to stand up against apartheid, Fassie never allowed anyone to silence her voice. And she gave little Black girls like me everywhere hope. She’s a pioneering icon and I hope as we commemorate her death this year, people will take some time to read about her, listen to her music and understand the indelible mark she left in the world.

Writing: Sonia Grace


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