Brenda Fassie: The Woman That Begged Mandela To Sing

But "Madonna of the Townships" isn't just about her anti-apartheid hit "Black President".

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Dec 8 2013, 12:57pm
As news of Nelson Mandela’s death broke in South Africa this week, one song became inescapable – from giant soundsystems erected in Soweto to pop stations that normally exist on a diet of Katy Perry and Bruno Mars, you could hear “Black President” by Brenda Fassie, arguably South Africa’s biggest pro-Mandela anthem, everywhere.

The song was released in 1990 following Mandela’s return to freedom and became part of the pantheon of spectacular anti-apartheid songs in South Africa. Both then and now, the song has surpassed its aim of rousing the masses to thank Mandela for his enormous sacrifice. But it is only a very small part of the Brenda Fassie story.

Also known as Mabrrr, Fassie grew up in the rough township of Langa in the 60s. She formed her own band, The Tiny Tots, aged five and would charge tourists to hear her sing.

Fassie rose to fame at the age of 19 with her all-male band, The Big Dudes and their hit "Weekend Special”, a song in which Fassie shouts down her part-time married lover, hollering "I’m no weekend, weekend special." It became popular with white audiences because of its American disco style.

It wasn’t until three years later, when she had split from the Big Dudes – and her then husband, Dumisani Ngubeni – that Fassie started making the kind of music that the world would know her for. She started recording with producer Sella “Chicco” Twala, resulting in the 1989 album, Too Late for Mama. Departing from the disco feel of her early tracks, the album was much truer to township music Mbaqanga – but with added drum machines and slick production. This Mbaganga-pop hybrid, known as Bubblegum, was a style Chicco was famed for, and one that Fassie’s impressive range and childlike intonations lent themselves to.

Among several political tracks on the record was “Black President”, written around Mandela’s release from prison. It opened with the verse, “The year 1963/The people's president/Was taken away by security men/All dressed in a uniform/The brutality, brutality/Oh no, my, my black president”. It was immediately banned by the de Klerk government.

Fassie was becoming synonymous with provocation, but the frenetic energy of her stage performances was beginning to bubble over into her private life. She married again the same year, only to divorce two years later amid rumours that her husband, Nhlanhla Mbambo had been subjecting her to physical abuse. It was the start of Fassie’s public descent into drug addiction, as she checked in and out of rehab facilities, sued promoters and began to accrue serious debts. Few other township musicians had reached the same heights of fame, and it was clear that Fassie was struggling to live under the strain of the spotlight. In 1995 she was found in a hotel room next to the body of her lesbian lover Poppie Sihlahla, who had died of a drug overdose.

Many thought Fassie’s career was over, but in 1998 she teamed up with Chicco again to create Memeza. It went on to be the biggest selling album in South Africa of that year, containing her best-loved and most enduring hit “Vuli Ndlela”.

Meaning ‘Clear the way’, the song tells the progressive story of a mother giving away her son. One line translates to: “My son has been accepted (woman say yes)”, which Fassie sings smugly to her cynical, gossiping neighbour, the woman who won’t let her through the gates to see the wedding ceremony. The footage of her performing the song to Mandela at the 2001 Kora Music Awards will leave you teary eyed, with Fassie in an orange dress, doing the splits and at one point jumping off the stage and trying to coax Mandela into singing. For a minute it looked as though he might just snap, as if twenty-seven years in jail didn’t compare to Fassie being up in your grill, begging, “please, please, please.”

Mandela stood his ground and Fassie returned to the stage. This was typical. She continued to provoke right up until her death in 2004. In a story for the AFP in 2001, a journalist recalls how during a gig in Washington DC, Fassie’s breast fell out of her top only for her to grab it, thrust it in the direction of the audience and declare: “This is Africa!”

Fassie stood as the emotional, reactive voice of black South Africa: strong and gutteral in the one instance, girly and vulnerable in the next. While the country found its stoic and saintly leader in Mandela, it was music, and Fassie in particular, that provided the emotional soundtrack to the lingering wounds of apartheid.

Following an asthma attack, Mandela and his ex-wife Winnie visited Fassie in hospital. She died soon after. During her funeral at a Cape Town stadium, police lost the struggle against 10,000 fans who stormed the barricade to catch a glimpse of her gold coffin. The mayor of the city, stood in front of it on a three-tier stage, had to order the press to stop taking pictures. “Let’s not sensationalise it,” he pleaded.

In an interview in Time magazine in 2001, Fassie was dubbed "The Madonna of the Townships", a name that has stuck with her legacy ever since. But the comparison ends at record sales and fame. Brenda Fassie was spirited, but not in the steely, measured way of Madge. If anything she’s more like the African Edith Piaf. She inhabited the voice of a people, ultimately to her own destruction. Now she is being remembered once again as we remember Mandela, hopefully to be reinstated as one of the great popstars of the last fifty years.

Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah

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