Brenda Fassie’s revolution without harmony

Brenda Fassie was a woman who stepped out of line, talked out of turn, wore the pants, pulled up her skirt and loved women and men.

The cover art for Brenda Fassie's "I'm not a Bad Girl" (1991) album.

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, of the period..

Brenda Fassie, MaBrrr, in fact, sizzled in the 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.

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 Jacobs and I happened upon this famous photo of Brenda Fassie at an exhibition of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town City Hall in July 2013, in which the DA city government 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.’”

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.