Brenda Fassie is a name that brims with memory and prophecy, a name equally full of principled power as it is full of controversy.
Born in the Cape Town township of Langa to a pianist mother, Brenda Fassie was a forecast for the freedom, power and disruption that we call #blackgirlmagic today. Captivating local and international audiences with her diverse vocal range and ability to adapt to various genres, Brenda Fassie was truly South Africa’s first and biggest pop star.
After leaving home at the age of 16 in pursuit of opportunities and fame in the City of Gold and landing a gig as a stand-in member of the all-female vocal group Joy, Brenda got her breakthrough moment with the pop group Brenda and the Big Dudes, with their smash hit ‘Weekend Special’ [hyperlink to video] topping charts and catapulting the dynamite songstress into stardom.
From using her voice as a tool of advocacy on ‘Black President’, to beefing with Senyaka on ‘Amagents’ and belting life lessons on Ngek’umconfirm, being Brenda Fassie was not just about musical prowess, it was the encapsulation of performance as an attitude and a way of live.
Not exempt from the melancholy of genius, the life of fortune and fame was marred with loss, addiction and depression. After her lover Poppie Sihlahla died from an alleged drug overdose in a room at the Quirinale Hotel in Hillbrow in 1995, Ma Brr checked in and out of rehabilitation centres several times during her career.
She belonged to South Africa in ways she couldn’t belong to herself, trapped by the need for approval and adoration, she was an overgrown adolescent robbed of self-esteem and self-discovery by childhood stardom. Infamous for freely spending her money and spoiling her friends, she shared both her money and light too often and with too many people. For all her extravagances and overindulgence, Brenda seemed as lonely as she was lively.
Where issues of queer representation in mainstream media are concerned, Brenda Fassie is central. Infamous for spewing the words: “Ngiphila kayi one futhi ngiyaz’philela (I live once and I live for me),” no one could prescribe to Brenda Fassie how to talk, how to be or who to be. MaBrr was the epitome of ghetto fabulosity, she was bad and boujee and – despite ‘Indaba Yam iStraight’ – unashamedly queer. That said, she always insisted she wasn’t a bad girl, so much so that it became the title of her 1991 album, as well as for the famous 1997 documentary on her life.
Whether she knew it or not MaBrr informed and continues to inform what it means to be black, queer and proud in a space like South Africa where misogynoir is guised under the name of respectability and tradition. Her magic and defiance, in all its glitzy splendour and honesty, reincarnates itself in the work and voices of performance duo and queer activists, FAKA. Born out of the necessity for real representations of black queer identity, FAKA epitomise the glamourous wizardry of Ma Brr. Inspired by the vulnerability and honesty of Fassie’s live performance of Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’, Fela Gucci and Desire Marea released a video of their own gqom inspired rendition, which they described in an interview with Okayafrica as “a gqom-gospel lamentation for dick”, in honour and invocation of Brenda Fassie’s resistant spirit. Speaking to her influence as a cultural icon, the pair said, “Brenda Fassie symbolized self-actualization’’
Singer and songwriter Thandiswa Mazwai, mirrors the legacy of Brenda Fassie in multiple ways, culturally, fashion-wise and even politically. As Ma Brr did in 1989 and 1990 with ‘Good Black Woman’ and ‘Black President’, Thandiswa uses her voice and artistry to challenge and address various forms of oppression still prevalent in post democratic South Africa. Spotlighting issues such as #FeesMustFall in her third and most recent album, Belede, King Tha employs music as a vehicle for political discourse. And like Brenda, for Mazwai politics extend to agency. Thandiswa, probably the only female artist since Brenda Fassie and Lebo Mathosa, defies the notion of hetrosexuality as an ideal for black, female entertainers. She defines her own path and is as unapologetic about her sexuality as Brenda Fassie was 20-odd years ago.
The spirit of our brightest pop music star also finds embodiment in the frame of a soulful, blue-haired, electro songstress named Moonchild. A fashion designer and singer- songwriter, Moonchild’s aesthetic is as daring as her content. From contrasting Brenda’s ‘Ngiyakusaba’, a song about an untrustworthy friend trying to steal Brenda’s man, with her confrontational ‘Red Eye’, an erratic warning from a jealous girlfriend not to mess with her man, to singing about the necessity of foreplay in ‘Kiss n Pop’, Moonchild exudes a sensuality and confidence that is both endearing and, for many, unsettling. Like Brenda Fassie, Moonchild is fearless and unapologetic about her opinions, body and sexuality.
Brenda Nokuzola Fassie was and continues to be the clearest reflection of life’s possibility and tragedy, flawed and fabulous, troubled and ordained. A renegade by any definition of the term, the defiant legacy of Brenda Fassie is well and alive in the today’s musical landscape. Her style, originality and audacity continue to serve as guidance for current and future generations of artists.
For the full story of Brenda Fassie’s life up ’til 1997 and a fascinating insight into how hard she worked, her greatest worries and concerns, her entry into the canon of a ‘unified’ ZA pop music landscape around ’94, her relationship with her early life and her mother in kwaLanga township and more, you should watch the famous and fascinating documentary ‘Not a Bad Girl’. It’s available on Showmax, which is offering a 14 day free trial membership if you sign up here.
Ed’s note: This article was sponsored by Showmax.
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