The late, great, beautiful South African diva, Brenda Fassie.
Brenda Fassie – who was once called “Madonna of the Townships” by Time magazine – was one of South Africa’s most renowned divas, as well as one of the country’s most troubled artists. The daughter of a pianist, Brenda grew up in the Langa Township near Cape Town, and began performing by singing for tourists in 1969 when she was just 5 years old. Destined for fame, Brenda left Cape Town for Johannesburg when she was 16; within four years she made her first album and a breakthrough hit single, “Weekend Special.” Over the passing years Brenda became an immensely popular artist throughout Africa, producing multi-platinum albums and winning many South African Music Awards (SAMAs) and an all-Africa Kora Award for Best Female Artist in 1999. But throughout the ups and downs of her music career, Brenda’s life skidded wildly off-track through recurrent cocaine addiction and paparazzi-fueled personal problems that are often tied to fame and money. In a tale sadly reminiscent of the trajectory of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston’s tragic star power – Brenda died unexpectedly of a drug overdose on May 9, 2004. And just as with the passing of Michael and Whitney, there was a tremendous shock wave of collective national grief as South Africans mourned the loss a charismatic diva they had grown-up with and loved deeply. She was only 48.
This essay grew out of a literary exchange with a dear friend of mine, South African Rolling Stone music and culture critic, Bongani Madondo. Bongani wrote a biography of the “Queen of African Pop,” as Brenda was affectionately known throughout Africa; the title of his book is I’m not Your Weekend Special: Conversations on the Music, Style and Politics of Brenda Fassie. This essay is in his book as “Love and Loathing from the United States of Eldos.” Through my intriguing correspondence with my fellow soul-brother writer, I found a much greater meaning and depth to my personal encounters with Brenda as well as the beautiful soul of Anneline Malebo, another legendary South African diva who died before her time. Anneline was the lead voice behind the singing group Joy, which created one of South Africa’s most iconic songs of hope – the dreamy anti-apartheid love anthem, “Paradise Road.” Anneline was infected with HIV after being raped at a party in Johannesburg; she died on August 14, 2002, ironically, also at the age of 48… It breaks my heart to think about both of these deaths, but the poignant memories I have of these phenomenal women will live on in my heart, forever.
Love and Chaos: Feeling the heart and soul of Brenda Fassie
On June 16, 1994, at FNB Stadium in Soweto, the mythology of the great Brenda Fassie became tangible to me. Of course, South Africans know this date very well – the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the explosion of seething youth angst and pain, the violent yearning that would not be denied until Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and apartheid was transformed into democracy. For an African American visiting South Africa for the first time, June 16 and 1994 was about jubilation, excitement, “jowling” like I never ever partied before in my life, celebrating in ecstasy with people who waited many long decades for the light of their humanity to be released. And I was there! Joyful, jubilant, perplexed, pensive, drinking, dancing, laughing, crying and smiling, celebrating… I was mostly in Johannesburg, wandering around places like Yeoville and Rocky Street, hanging out in Newtown and Kippie’s and the Market Theater, hearing people shouting, “Viva, Viva!!!” everywhere, witnessing the triumphant birth of a great nation. It was the time of a lifetime. It was glorious.
I’d known South Africa for many years before, as an activist – studying politics, sanctions, war in the frontline states, youth resistance, the UDF, MDM, Zimbabwe’s independence – but no outsider really knows or understands anything about South Africa until you touch down in Johannesburg and feel the sprawling people and energy and the irrepressible, conflicted love of that special part of Africa. To help prepare my journey, an acquaintance of mine in Denver, Precious, a student at Denver University – shared her music with me. I noticed that among the few CDs she lent to me, nearly half of her music stash was Brenda Fassie joints. I gave all the Brenda tracks a faithful listen, but looking back, I can hardly remember which Brenda CDs she gave me or any of the songs. Maybe I was thrown off by the packaging. It appeared to lack the creativity and polished artistry of the CD sleeves I was used to seeing from the American star-making machinery. I promptly dismissed them, and in that act, Brenda…
But on June 16, 1994, I saw and experienced something entirely different, something completely outside of my expectations. The concert was, of course, a musical celebration of Youth Day, and Brenda was the opening act for Speech and Arrested Development – who at the time seemed to be peaking along with the early 90s Golden Age of creative, intelligent, thoughtful MCs who were exploding out of nowhere all around the world, from just about every race and culture, mostly on small and independent labels. I suppose Speech and Arrested Development were just the right kind of act for a Soweto Youth Day concert in 1994; but ironically, the Divine Ma Brrr, Ms. Badass Local Girl, the opening act – owned the stage and the energy of that day. Not that Arrested Development didn’t generate some hype and cheers in the crowd – it just seemed that Brenda and her band stood out with a more substantive, powerful performance, at least to this starry-eyed, impressionable African-American visitor. The inimitable Brenda stole my heart and mind with her rendition of “Black President” – she burned through all my preconceptions until there was something else, rising in the ash. No, this couldn’t be the same girl in those Afro teeny-bopper tunes I heard in those CDs back in Denver! There was something in Brenda that was more captivating, more emotional and more truthful than all of Speech’s ramblings about Tennessee, Mr. Wendell and Diggin’ in Dirt. I was a little awestruck; Brenda spoke about how she wrote her song several years before, when she dreamed about a man named Mandela becoming her “Black President.” She obviously loved this song, and bad, bold, beautiful Brenda sang her heart out.
Let us rejoice for our president
Let us sing for our president
Let us pray for our president …
I will die for my president
In the hazy Soweto winter Sun, in the low light of that cold day, it suddenly hit me – what an emotional and spiritual upheaval Mandela’s ascension to power really was. It was an honor to be in South Africa and Soweto on that day, to celebrate with the brothers and sisters in Orlando… Looking back over 20 years and the long ocean crossings that have passed since then, the unbridled elation of 1994 feels like a distant, euphoric dream. And in my wildest visions, I could never have believed that within 15 years America would experience the same sea change of mass emotion in inaugurating our own “Black President.” The song was symbolic prophesy for both nations. But in 1994, no one could have seen that, no one could have known that; it was more than enough just to savor that fantastic moment, the Soweto youth who sparked the living flame and Brenda’s iconic music. Later Arrested Development took the stage with a great band and there was some good music and a pair of lovely female dancers in African dress; to be sure, Speech and his crew created a cultural bridge and a feeling of unity, but it was anticlimactic. It was not Arrested Development’s Black President; not yet, at least – not on that day. Brenda ruled the stage, and she left an indelible impression.
♦ ♦ ♦
In 1997 I encountered another side of Brenda the Diva, under completely different circumstances… My lovely Xhosa girlfriend, Nosipho, liked taking me to see her friends around Yeoville and Berea, and we had some very memorable visits. We spent one phenomenal afternoon hanging out with Anneline Malebo of Joy, who lived in a comfortable flat in Hillbrow back then; a once famous diva, Anneline lived quietly, anonymously hidden in that unknown space. Anneline took me on a magical mystery tour with her photo album into the history of South Africa’s dream song “Paradise Road” and her triumphant night when Joy reigned supreme at the 1980 Sarie Music Awards.
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Joy took home honors for Best Vocal Group and Album of the Year, and they were also the Awards’ first black recipients. Anneline Malebo and Joy had broken down racial barriers with their hit song – literally and figuratively – while pointing toward a future where South Africa’s urge for love, unity and transcendence could no longer be repressed or denied. And during that time South Africa’s fight with apartheid was raging in its full intensity, violence and fury, entering its final, most polarizing and deadly phase; and there was great, great pain. The beautiful mystique of “Paradise Road,” its iconography and place in South Africa’s imagination, the power of those glorious, exquisite black girls – and Brenda Fassie’s shining, prophetic “Black President” – those ineffable human connections were part of what I had been searching for, unknowingly, unconsciously, in my South African journey.
And then again, there was Brenda, the full-on Diva femme fatale, live, and in-person… Nosipho may have even been closer friends with Brenda, but she always laughed dismissively, shaking her head and saying things like, “Oh, but Brrrreenda – hayi, hayi…” She told me that she was seriously worried about Brenda’s drug habit. We drove over to Brenda’s Flat in northern Berea; at the time Brenda was living in a very elegant circular high-rise building with spacious balconies and pleasant views of the surrounding area. Driving up Louis Botha, as we approached the building, Nosipho burst out laughing, waving her arm out of the car window, pointing at Brenda’s balcony. “Hayi, uBrenda – you can see her flat, because everybody else looks normal!!! eish…” There were all kinds of dull, dingy blankets and sheets hanging across the balcony, looking like something very ghetto and chaotic was happening in an otherwise classy high-rise apartment building.
Once we were inside Brenda’s flat, Nosipho introduced me, James, her American friend. Brenda glanced at me with disdain and said, “Hey wena, he’s not American – he’s from Eldorado Park!” Nosipho just laughed… Half-offended, half-amused, I just smiled and tried to blend in and observe. There was a blond-haired white girl hanging out at Brenda’s flat, although she never seemed to say anything to Brenda, or vice versa. She wore these colorful, loose-fitting, drawstring pants, with some kind of pattern of stars or flowers or something. They looked like pajama bottoms or maybe even something from a psychiatric ward; I figured the girl had to be crazy on some level, judging by the way she floated in and out of that flat. She was obviously – obliviously – high, and I was guessing it was Ecstasy; any white girl who could meander around that side of Berea in looney tunes PJs HAD to be to be intoxicated on some strong hallucinogen, not caring that she looked like an utter fool (or a mark) to the mass of black inhabitants on the street in that hood. And of course, the thought crossed my mind that she might be Brenda’s lesbian lover, probably waiting for me and Nosipho to leave so she and Brenda could do whatever.
Brenda and Nosipho, clearly happy to see each other, started chatting with typical female banter, catching up, bits of Xhosa and English here and there. Then, in an obvious, calculated pronouncement (pretending to ignore my presence) Brenda blurted out, “Wena, you need to get fucked!” I looked at Brenda thinking, “Yea girl, I know you’re both getting turned out – or you would’nt have said that.” After more female repartee, Brenda paused, and with a desperate, guilt-ridden look on her face, she pulled out a little glass crack pipe – took one toke as fast as she could – and quickly stashed the pipe back in her pocket. Sitting there with a straight face, smiling to myself, I felt like saying, “Hey wena Brenda, I’ve seen crack-heads and crack pipes before – this is nothing new to me; I could care less about your toxic rock and your glass pipe. Go ahead and get lit, if you want.” Later, a Nigerian brother walked in, wearing baggy black pants, a long solid, pastel blue shirt, baseball cap and open-laced Timberlands; it’s obvious this dude is Brenda’s boyfriend. He and Brenda started talking and they got into some little half-playful, half-serious, irrelevant argument, as lovers often do. “Dat’s what I keep telling you, but you, you know every-ting – you don’t listen!” he proclaimed, and in that instant he somehow sounded a little more realistic and sensible than Brenda. I could feel their energy intuitively; I know he’s her drug dealer, and he’s fucking her – fuckin’ her pussy and fuckin’ her mind up real good, taking her cash – but he digs her. He cares about his lover, but when you get down to it, he’s a businessman of the street – I doubt this can amount to much good, because this cat makes his living off selling crack.
Yea, this is déjà vu; I’ve seen this before… I’ve seen this in Denver and New York, and now there are all these Nigerian dudes in baggy pants and baseball caps, looking like African Americans, hanging out in the hotels and clubs of Hillbrow, taking over the streets – slinging crack and pimping is in full effect. I see the Nigerians in Hillbrow and it feels like they are taking the most embarrassing, debased African-American stereotypes and acting them out in the worst parts of Hillbrow, that forlorn, taboo-laden inner-city of Johannesburg. It’s dismaying for me because deep inside, I really don’t want to accept the common belief that all Nigerians are criminals. (It’s even more searing and painfully unfathomable to see the violent, glamorized African American “gangsta” meme actually being emulated by Nigerians, somewhere in the very Motherland of Africa itself… I find myself feeling mesmerized, wounded and disgusted.)
I can see the guy with Brenda was not as crude as the nighttime leeches in Hillbrow; but even though he was Brenda’s lover and friend, he was her supplier. We talked for a while, and of course I told him that I was from the States. We had a pretty decent conversation, because despite the improbabilities of our encounter, we are two brothers who understand each other because we’re taking our cues from our girlfriends. There is also a certain commonality – something fascinating about all of us African brothers from places like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Congo, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Angola and the States – for all of us, Johannesburg is an incredibly eclectic place; a slick, modern, happening, King city of Africa, like no other city. A high-tech city of the Motherland’s future with a burgeoning, powerful economy; a city of many African tribes, cultures and languages; a city of multi-ordinal African identities, of all kinds of unknown potentials and possibilities… At some point in the conversation I slipped into some small talk with a meaningless, offhand afterthought, “Ahhhh man, I just can’t believe that…” Brenda suddenly interrupted and mimicked me, laughing. “’Ahhhh, man!’ – American…” Her eyes lit up, with a coy look; she was caught off-guard, and maybe even overwhelmed by that culturally-conditioned loving feeling that South Africans have when they have a guest in their presence. It is a highly-evolved sense of love, yet among the Africans I know, it is virtually instinctual. And Black South Africans – especially around Johannesburg, with their sophisticated linguistic environment – can hear just about every little tone, inflection or accent or tal; it was the sound of language, and it changed the temperature in the room. Brenda the lyricist, singer and musician, heard the sound of my voice, my unconscious language, my tal – and her demeanor changed. Her demure smile said a lot. She finally realized I was not lying or fronting, shortly before Nosipho and I left.
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A few weeks later Nosipho introduced me to Brenda’s brother, Bhut Themba, who was a quite the opposite of Brenda. Themba was much more down-to-earth; he had a slow, mellow, easy gait, seemingly very happy and content with his world. One day I saw Themba outside of Kippie’s after he had just come back from a tour in Africa, and just that fact intrigued me, reminding me that South Africa has its own music scene – even within the Motherland itself – that is wholly separate from black artists in America. Themba and other musicians I met like Vusi Khumalo, Zim Ngqawana, Khaya Mahlangu, Fana Zulu and Paul Hanmer had passports, and they travel all over Africa and other parts of the world. Sometimes they have their own gigs, and other times they tour with people like Hugh Masekela, Bhusi Mlhongo or in Themba’s case, with Brenda. Themba’s personality is something of what I’ve come to expect from certain musicians who have achieved success but are unencumbered by the trappings of fame. They live 24/7 in alpha brainwaves, delving into the natural rhythms and harmonies of their art; music shields them from the stress (unless they get caught up in drinking or drugs) and takes them inward, where they live and move within their own center of gravity. Themba had a certain confidence that came with being a part of that highly talented, Fassie musical family, and of being Brenda’s older brother, and knowing Brenda well enough to put her ego in check in a heartbeat.
At times I would see Themba in Yeoville, mostly in Fitzroy Ngcukana’s cool, funky little shebeen, Ellington’s, a favorite Xhosa hangout. I loved Ellington’s because of the way Monte and Fitroy DJ – spinning everything from Miles Davis, Sakhile, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa to John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Salif Keita, Chaka Khan and R Kelly. Monte and Fitzroy would often give me finer points and liner notes on people like Koloi Lebona, Sathima Benjamin and Pops Mohammed, telling me who produced what and the origins of various tracks and albums. With time Themba opened up to me, and he shared things with me about Brenda’s soul, her music and her family.
“You know, James, our mother was a very beautiful person, and after she died, she has come to each of her children in our dreams – everyone except Brenda,” Themba said. “And that kills her. Brenda always says, ‘But why won’t she come to me?’ And we tell her, ‘But Brenda – YOU were the chosen one. You’re the one who is supposed to carry this family. But you reject us…
“You know James, these things about our Ancestors, our cultural practices here in Africa – these things are very real, and they work for us.”
It was a beautiful conversation, with brother Themba saying many things at once to me. He had enough love to share something intensely personal about his family relations and his struggles. He was also trying to teach me something about African spirituality, just as the great African writer Es’kia Mphahlele once tried to tell me some of these very same things, trying to open my mind to the higher planes of consciousness of Africa and the Ancestors. And I was grateful, because my beautiful son, who was born in Johannesburg came to me in a most, vivid, profound and unmistakably detailed dream that taught me about his soul before he was even born – and so I’ve learned to listen to the power of dreams and Ancestors. That knowledge and inner sense of unity has been essential for finding my own way through this illusory world. “If we listen to the voices of those forces, you get somewhere,” Es’kia told me under the soft summer shade of a beautiful plum tree, during an conversation arranged by a friend in Denver, on his last visit to the States, in 2006. “You realize that you have some protection from other kinds of foes and forces that work on you.” It would have been my hope that Brenda could have reconciled herself to following those Ancestral voices, but alas, it seems she could not end the conflicts raging inside her. But she was very loveable and very inspiring, nonetheless.