Known as the "Madonna of the Townships" or simply as the "undisputed queen of the vocals," and generally deemed one of South Africa's biggest female pop stars of recent years, Brenda Fassie notched a long string of infectious pop hits. Her music was deeply woven into the fabric of South African life, and more than once her music played a role in the country's tumultuous political scene. A major talent whose popularity survived several waves of musical fashion and extended at its height to Europe and the United States, Fassie struggled with personal demons before dying a tragically early death in 2004.
Fassie was born in 1964 in Langa, in one of apartheidera South Africa's black townships near Cape Town. Her mother, Sarah, an amateur pianist, named her after the American country-pop star Brenda Lee. At the age of four she formed a little vocal group called the Tiny Tots. She became something of a local celebrity, and when top South African producer Koloi Lebona came to town in 1979, local musicians raved about her voice and guided the producer to her mother's house.
"There was something special about her voice," Lebona was quoted as saying on South Africa's News24 website. "I knew it was the voice of the future." According to an EMI label biography quoted on the South African music.org.za website, Fassie asked with characteristic brashness, "So when are we going to Joburg [Johannesburg]?" Lebona agreed to let Fassie finish her education while living with his family in segregated Johannesburg's Soweto township, and she soon joined a vocal trio called Joy and then joined another successful act, Blondie and Papa.
By 1983 Fassie had formed an act of her own called Brenda and the Big Dudes, and that year she had a breakthrough hit with "Weekend Special," singing in the disco-flavored "bubblegum" style. "Weekend Special" sold over 200,000 copies and had an extended life in cover versions and remixes, including one by New York producer Van Gibbs in 1986 that spent eight weeks on Billboard magazine's Hot Black Singles chart. The song's international success led to a Fassie tour of the United States, Europe, Australia, and Brazil.
After parting ways with the Big Dudes, Fassie partnered with producer Sello "Chicco" Twala to record the 1989 album Too Late for Mama. Among several hits that became widely known in South Africa's black townships was "Black President," a single that looked forward to the dismantling of the country's apartheid system. That song was banned for a time by the South African government, but Fassie's popularity only increased.
Despite these successes, Fassie's personal life was in disarray. She had a son named Bongani out of wedlock with Big Dudes member Dumisani Ngubeni in the 1980s, and she divorced her first husband, Nhlanhla Mbambo, in 1991, two years after marrying him. The reason for the divorce was rumored to be spousal abuse. In 1993 Fassie faced the twin stresses of her mother's death and the dissolution of her working relationship with Twala. Fassie fell into the grip of cocaine addiction and developed a reputation for missing concerts. Her popularity sank, and she reached a grim low point in 1995 when she awakened in a Johannesburg hotel next to the dead body of her lesbian lover, Poppie Sihlahla, who had suffered a drug overdose.
Fassie checked into a drug rehabilitation center and made a serious effort to reform. She would, however, battle addiction on and off for the rest of her life. She attempted a comeback in 1996 by recording two duets with Zairean vocalist Papa Wemba, but it was after she reteamed with Twala that her career once again really took off. Twala produced her album Memeza, which was recorded in 1997 and went on to become South Africa's top-selling album in 1998. The album's title meant "shout," and Fassie was quoted by the BBC News website as saying that the album and its title track reflected her own life. "I'd been shouting and shouting and no one wanted to hear me. When I sing this song, I want to cry," she said. Another song from the album was used in the 1999 election campaign of the African National Congress party, and Fassie performed at the inauguration of South African president Thabo Mbeki.
Fassie, like R&B star Aaliyah of the United States, had a voice that adapted itself well to the dance beats of the moment. "Her songs," noted the authors of World Music: The Rough Guide, "can seem a barely comprehensible mish-mash of the latest township lingo but they have that quality of sticking in the minds of her listeners." In the late 1990s Fassie successfully made the transition from bubblegum to the hip-hop and techno-influenced kwaito style, with its predominantly Xhosa, Zulu, and Sotho lyrics.
After Memeza, Fassie enjoyed a string of huge successes. Nomakanjani (1999), Amadlozi (2000), and Mina Nawe (2001) were all top sellers, and for four years in a row Fassie took home the South African Music Awards' prize for the Best-Selling Album of the Year. She also won the Kora Award for Best Female Artist twice, and declared, according to the News24 website, that "I'm going to become the Pope next year. Nothing is impossible." In 2001 Fassie toured the United States once again, and her international reputation seemed to be on the rise. In December of that year Time magazine devoted a three-page article to Fassie, calling her the "Madonna of the Townships." Her South African fans referred to her as "Ma-Brrr."
Fassie's recordings, incuding a 2001 greatest hits album, 2002's Myekeleni, and 2004's Mali, continued to sell well, and Fassie remained a top concert draw all over Africa. On April 25, 2004, however, Fassie was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital when a severe asthma attack resulted in cardiac arrest, and she died on May 9. Her funeral was attended by both Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. "It should never be forgotten that Fassie was always enveloped by a deep sadness," editorialized the newspaper ThisDay, as quoted on the SouthAfrica.info website. "In Fassie's case the causes are not hard to find: she grew up black and a woman in a country that hated black people and women. … For every Fassie who makes it out, who knows how many others are lost to drugs, AIDS, and general despair? Who knows how a Weekend Special turns out?"
For the Record …
Born in 1964 in Langa, South Africa; died on May 9, 2004, in Johannesburg, South Africa; daughter of Sarah (an amateur pianist); married Nhlanhla Mbambo, 1989 (divorced, 1991); children: Bongani (son, with musician Dumisani Ngubeni).
Brought to Johannesburg by producer Koloi Lebona at age 16, 1979; formed group Brenda and the Big Dudes, 1983; recorded hit "Weekend Special," 1983; worked with producer Sello "Chicco" Twala; released hit album Too Late for Mama, 1989; suffered from substance abuse problems; strong comeback, late 1990s; released Memeza, 1998; had top-selling album in South Africa for four years in a row.
Awards: South African Music Awards prize for Bestselling Album four times; Kora Award for Best Female Artist, 1999.
(With Brenda and the Big Dudes) "Weekend Special" (single), 1983.
Too Late for Mama, Columbia, 1989.
Memeza, CCP, 1998.
Amadlozi, CCP, 2000.
Myekeleni, CCP, 2002.
Broughton, Simon, et al., editors, World Music: The Rough Guide, Volume 1: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, Rough Guides, 1999.
Graham, Ronnie, World of African Music: Stern's Guide to Contemporary African Music, Volume 2, Pluto Press, 1992.
"Brenda Fassie," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2004).
"Brenda Fassie: a very human hero," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3700309.stm (July 2, 2004).
"Brenda Fassie dies," News24.com, http://www.news24.com/News24/Entertainment/Local/0,6119,2-1225-1242_152488,00.html (July 2, 2004).
"Brenda Fassie, Township Madonna," SouthAfrica.info, http://www.southafrica.info/what_happening/arts_entertainment/brendafassie.htm (July 2, 2004).
"Fassie, Brenda," music.org.za, http://www.music.org.za/artist.asp?id=166 (July 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim