Brenda Fassie: a revolution without harmony

In 2002 when it debuted, I went to see ‘Amandla: a Revolution in Four-Part Harmony,’ American Lee Hirsch’s film about the role of music in the anti-apartheid struggle. Uplifting and solemn at the same time, I admit, I cried. But I also doubted that the music in the film was the only, or even most interesting, music going on.

Brenda Fassie, MaBrrr, in fact, sizzled in 1980 and 1990s, at the very height of the United Democratic Front‘s pitched battles with the apartheid state. She broke records with the sales of her albums, scandalized audiences and society with her embrace of drugs, alcohol, and a variety of lovers (male and female). Her catch-me-if-you-can game with the media made her a tabloid favorite. This Guardian obit reflects some of that from afar. A life-sized sculpture of her and giant murals proclaim her outsized significance to South Africans: Brenda Fassie still matters. Brenda Fassie is heritage.

Bongani Madondo’s edited volume, I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie (Picador Africa, 2014) is an homage to Fassie with contributions from eighteen different contributors: some journalists, some famed literary critics, some former lovers. Madondo warns that in no sense is this collection “definitive” rather it is partial, full of cant and love: “Some stories have to retain their secrets to keep their vitality. Brenda the person and ‘The Brenda Fassie’ story, perhaps like her music, is the ultimate, contested fantasy tale.”

Like Brenda Fassie, intimacies blister convention in this book. Tholang Tseka’s “Every Breath I Take: Loving & Living with Brenda in Her Last Days,” recounts Fassie’s death by overdose, her fragile self, and their love laced around it.

Writer and literary critic Njabulo Ndebele’s famed “Rediscovery of the Ordinary” called for writers to redirect their efforts from the spectacle of apartheid violence to everyday life. While several pieces in this collection show the political interventions of Fassie’s work in “Black President” and the album “Too Late for Mama” (here‘s the single) and her relationship to Winnie Madikizela Mandela, her power sprung from her everydayness. This was popular music, often dismissed as ‘bubble gum.’

Fassie troubled middle class pieties as much as apartheid boundaries. Ndebele argues, in “Still Thinking of MaBrrr,” that Fassie “brought the experience of freedom very close” because she disrupted the divide between private and public with “her verbal ungovernability.” That had wide ranging social and cultural implications, like turning apartheid stadiums into boisterous cultural sites at her concerts, others have yet to be fully realized.

Brenda Fassie was a woman who stepped out of line, talked out of turn, wore the pants, pulled up her skirt, loved women and men … Oops. In 1997 Charl Bignaut paraphrased music critic Gwen Ansell’s take on Fassie’s roller coaster ride with the music industry: “she’s a woman they couldn’t control; a woman who makes her own rules.”

Sean and I happened upon this famous photo of Brenda Fassie at a DA exhibition of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town City Hall in July 2013, in which the DA attempts to lay claim to Madiba.


Were they trying to capture and tame the legacy of this Langa talent at the same time? Because in her lifetime, she surely would have said to the DA what she once said to Blignaut (author of “In Bed with Brenda: a White Moffie Falls for a Black Vixen” in the volume) when he went to interview her: “ ‘I don’t know your paper, but anyway, today you work for me. If I feel like it.’”



Marissa Moorman

Marissa Moorman is a historian of southern Africa and on the editorial committee of Africa is a Country. She is the author of 'Intonations: a Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, 1945-Recent Times.' (2008).

  1. Interesting piece. I have to admit, I never really knew much about her. I was teaching in Swaziland in 1989, when apartheid was still in brutal effect. I also remember with vivid recollection the music that played on the radio: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Paul Simon, King Sunny Ade, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Miriam Makeba, Peter Tosh, Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading, Eric Clapton, Brenda Fassie, Bob Marley, Thomas Mapfumo, Lucky Dube and a host of others. I’m not sure if it was my personal leanings that basically steered me away from Fassie, or if was my friends’ influence, all of whom were locals. But one thing is clear, I don’t think she had the kind of rebel reputation then that she has now. Most people I knew dismissed her as a pop-tart, singing bubble gum music, and occasionally trying to inject political consciousness into her otherwise poppy melodies. If you were to go from listening to Lucky Dube’s “Prisoner” to Fassie’s music, well, you’d change the station pretty quick. There was a gulf between the likes of those who listened Dube and company, versus those who listened to Fassie and company. Still, I’m sure it’s no revelation to say that the apartheid era had an undeniable effect on her rebelliousness, and clearly helped to shape who she was, her antics, drug use and lyric.

    Still there was something about a couple of her songs that got air time that lured me in, and I think they were Black President and Good Black Woman. I’m glad I gave her music a chance (not that it made any difference to her!!) because before I left I bought her newly minted CD, simply titled, “Brenda Fassie”. It doesn’t get played very often, but every time it does, I have to say it brings back very good memories. And one thing has become quite apparent, that it is not nearly poppy sounding today as it was back then. My how things change.

    A couple of years ago I had a party, and one of my friends who immigrated here from South Africa during apartheid (and decided to stay) asked to see what African music I had. I pointed to the stack and she nearly leapt out of her skin when she saw Fassie’s disc. She was clearly a fan, and I had to practically pry the disc from her fingers before she left the house (I burned her a copy). Fassie has no real legacy here in Toronto, Canada, I cannot ever remember hearing her hear on the radio, even on so-called community radio stations that would play “world” music. I wonder what her legacy is in South Africa and Swaziland? Hopefully, it lives on. I think I’ll pop in her disc and muse over Brenda Fassie in 2014. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks, Jared! Great to hear your reflections.

    You should check out Madondo’s book. Ndebele begins his piece saying he first heard Fassie while in Lesotho. And Masekela remembers meeting her in Zimbabwe. So, there is that regional story that apartheid produced in the texture of the music and in her life for sure.

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