By Njabulo Ndebele
I first heard Brenda Fassie sing on a languid, sunny, spring Saturday morning in the Roma valley of Lesotho. It must have been in 1984. It was one of those mornings when the world demonstrates the notion of slowness. There was the blue haze in the horizon, rural smoke rising slowly against the sky until it seemed as if the sky was floating. I remember the distant kra-a-a-k of a white-necked raven gliding somewhere in the sky, and the trees so still as if they had sucked in through their leaves, all the motion there ever was. That is the scene I saw when I finally got out of bed after waking to the sounds of ‘Weekend Special’ on Radio Lesotho somewhere in the house.
The music had reached me while I was hovering between the states of waking and sleeping, suspended between re-emerging consciousness and the continuation of sleep. I had not heard the song before, nor did I know who was singing it, but I will never forget the pounding thrill of it, the rhythms that I felt certain could keep a party going endlessly. And that is exactly how it turned out at many parties in Maseru those years. Much later, in the Sowetan, Elliot Makhanya was to capture what many felt: ‘Brenda Fassie is a unique creative energy and an overwhelming talent. …Fassie has been singing for just over two decades, but every time you listen to her, it seems as if she has just begun’. It is of personal significance for me that I remember my first experience with ‘Weekend Special’ so vividly. Over the years, I have accumulated a repertoire of songs that first came to me at precisely that time of the morning, in that same floating state of being. That is how ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ first floated towards me from the dining room of our four-roomed home, where my father played his vinyl of classical music records on a gramophone, on a Sunday morning as he typed away a School Inspector’s report on a Royal typewriter.
Some songs invaded my home from outside, and found their way into my ears, particularly on Saturday mornings. There were neighbours who loved to show off their hi-fi sound systems by turning on the volume so high that I would wonder if they could hear one another from where they were, being so close to their booming sets. Only now I know why they shouted so much when they spoke, especially when they greeted people passing by in the street. It is such neighbours who would be the subject of many disapproving sermons in township churches. ‘The devil comes in dancing into your house through your loud hi-fi sets,’ many a preacher warned. ‘And as you fry in the flames of hell, the hi-fi sounds ringing in your head and driving you to unfathomable madness, you reap the terrible fruits of showing off your worldly possessions.’
But many neighbours loved their sets and their music too much to be intimidated. In that way, ‘Rosie my girl’ of the Dark City Sisters, floated into my mind, to stay there to this day. So did ‘Darlie Kea Lemang’ by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks. So did ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Natalie Cole. So did Jim Reeves of the ‘Distant Drum’ also wake me up to his cruel lover who was the ‘judge, the jury all in one’.
Many years later in Duduza, visiting my sister’s home, I would wake up, on Sunday mornings, to other sounds. A few houses away, a Zionist Church held its all night service of prayer through singing, dancing, clapping, and the beating of drums. The drums had pounded away until I could not hear them anymore, as my mind succeeded in fusing their rhythms with the general background of life inside and outside, filtered out until unheard, as such, and I could fall asleep. But something happened in the morning: the rhythms shook me awake, when the worshippers finally came out of the house of worship at first light of dawn, to perform the grand finale to the nightlong service. This they did in the street. They come out in single file, and once they are all out in the street, quickly form into a fast spinning, whirling, and frenzied circle of prayer in movement and song. And then they break up for the day, ready for the next week.
The mornings and the particular state of waking have given me many musical epiphanies. They remain as lasting memories, capturing the manner in which vital bonds were established between myself, the songs, and where they were first heard. To remember songs is to remember time and place and circumstance. In the same way, memories of place can trigger memories of song and circumstance. Memories of events can bring a flood of songs associated with them and the places where they were heard. Thus, music can become one of the vital ways by which we connect with the world. How we map the trajectory of our feelings about where we have been, and where we are; about personal and historic events that we live through. Music yields us a complex of intuitions about being there in the world. It connects us to our neighbourhoods, be it through blaring hi-fi sets, or singing and drumming in the streets, or the quiet of the home where we listen to the gramophone and the typewriter (which evokes the world of work, beyond). Music connects us too, to far away places across the seas from where we hear their plaintive voices, evoking familiar joys and pains of bonding and loss, striking intimate chords that link people across unimaginable distances.
So, my conception of the world has grown partly as a result of the intangible worlds of sound, which formed vivid impressions in my mind of the possible social worlds from which those sounds originate. Through my imagination, from my still position in bed, I have travelled extensively: first to other rooms in my home, then out into my neighbourhood, and through the music floating towards me from these sources, on to distant places far beyond. I will not be surprised that many of us have most probably encountered music in a similar manner. Not necessarily lying in bed in the morning and emerging from sleep. Time and place and circumstance will be different, for each of us, but the impact, if we have been receptive to those special sounds coming at us, will have been profoundly similar. Time and place and events converge in sound and rhythm. In this way we have another means by which we accumulate memories that define our journeys through the world.
And so do we become members of musical communities distinguished by rhythms, voices, and instruments. Sometimes these kinds of musical communities will coincide with national communities and become a part of how national communities define their identities. It is this difficult question of identity, within the context of our own unfolding national identity, that I am struggling with as I try to unravel my intuitions about why I have found the phenomenon of Brenda Fassie so particularly intriguing. It turned out not to be a particularly easy task to undertake.
There are few controversial characters in contemporary South Africa, who stand out like Brenda Fassie. Besides her musical talents, she has some highly marketable qualities. For example, there is an unmistakable outrageous brazenness about her that newspapers are bound to love. That they quickly recognized what a musical catch they had in their hands comes through in many headlines. At first, the headlines reflected a genuine discovery of a major musical talent: ‘THERE’S NO STOPPING BRENDA,’ says Bona magazine in April 1984, soon after Brenda’s dramatic entrance into the entertainment industry through her hit song ‘Weekend Special’.
But even back then, there were signs of another media prize: Brenda’s mouth. ‘I have been through a lot of difficulties paving my way to success,’ she told Bona. ‘Now that I have reached this stage in my career, I am not going to turn back. My ambition is to become a number one musician in this country and….well…make a lot of money’. Here was a rags to riches story that landed on the press’s hand like a bird. The profiling of Brenda as a musician shifted dramatically towards the drama of her private life.
There is a telling sequence of pictures in the supplement to Drum magazine of December/January 1991 entitled: ‘1951 to 1991 – Then and Now. A 40 year perspective of township Life as seen through the eyes of Drum’. There are many pictures of musicians and dancers, particularly in the fifties and sixties, who are shown performing on stage. Dancers, in particular, are captured in dramatically frozen motion. In contrast, Brenda Fassie, a dynamic contemporary performer, is shown in her wedding dress, on her wedding day, with Yvonne Chaka Chaka, her senior bridesmaid, mopping the bride’s brow on a ‘steaming hot Durban day’. Chicco Twala is shown leaning against his Mercedes Benz with his huge double-storey house in the background. At the bottom is a shoulder and head picture of Mbongeni Ngema, accompanied by a comment on how he ‘is now a wealthy playwright and music producer who counts among his friends Quincy Jones and Oscar-winning actor Denzyl (sic) Washington’. ‘AFFLUENCE AND CONFUSION STRIKE A CHORD IN THE 90’S’ goes the summative headline. The music and performance of these artists are downplayed in favour of gossip about their private lives.
Indeed, in 1987, three years after Brenda has broken into the musical scene, she is on the cover of Drum with half of her picture, in which she is seating on the floor, dominated by her exposed right thigh, knee and boots. The other half is her smiling face. Her face radiates a mix of innocence and calculated sexuality. ‘BRENDA – I CAN’T BUY ME LOVE’ goes the cover headline. The story inside has a juicy heading: ‘SHE’S LOOKING FOR A LIFETIME SPECIAL! Brenda tells all on Chicco, a lesbian fling, and one-night stands.’ And Brenda, the star of ‘Weekend Special’, rises to the occasion and rattles off about men and love, building on what is to be her characteristic style of self-exposure: ‘I know that most of them are just lusting after me. They don’t love me. They just want to go to bed with me’. And then follows her characteristic sudden shift in focus as something strikes her mind: ‘I can also seduce a man if I want to.’
Later on in the same interview, she pronounces: ‘it was a good experience,’ referring to what the article calls a lesbian fling. ‘I was just curious. I wanted to know how they make love to other women.’ Just an experiment, which, it turns out later, has been a defensive method to maintain self-respect. If the public have a problem with lesbians, Brenda was merely experimenting. She was not one herself. But because a part of her really is, she has to protect herself against her self and maintain her self-esteem to herself: ‘I am always nice to the lesbians. I don’t snub them. I hope I will never become a lesbian.’ A verbal distancing effect for the public designed to facilitate and maintain an internal coherence. And so, Brenda keeps ‘telling all’ to the thrill of the magazine and many shocked readers whose appetites are whetted for more stories, more of Brenda’s musical hits, and more appearances at festivals, where they will endure long hours waiting for her to appear.
‘One malicious columnist,’ complains Brenda, ‘wrote that I look like a horse. And some people say that I am ugly. I don’t want to be beautiful. My ugliness has taken me to the top. I have proved that I have style, and all that glitters is not gold,’ she says, revealing another talent for the art of reversal. Once, she was asked why she hasn’t been to the United States where she could build on her fame. She retorted that Michael Jackson did not come to South Africa to be famous. Very early, Brenda firmed up her mouth as one her best assets.
Covering the next major episode in her life, Drum is later found standing diligently on Brenda’s side in March 1989 when she does indeed, find her ‘Lifetime Special’ in Nhlanhla Mbambo. ‘MASS HYSTERIA AS BRENDA SAYS “I DO”,’ announces the cover of Drum with a picture of the smiling couple dressed in white. Drum dubs it the ‘pop wedding of the year’. However, in August 1990 Drum announces a dramatic end of Brenda’s marriage with another cover story. It shows us another picture of the couple. This time they are dressed in black leather clothes. There is no smile on Brenda face. She is looking pained and sad, but also decidedly petulant. Her husband is trying to smile, while the headline goes: ‘BRENDA AND HUBBY: “OUR MARRIAGE BASED ON JEALOUSY AND INFIDELITY”’. It is not long after this announcement that the couple makes up. But marriage bliss is not for them. After a separation announced in November, the Sowetan later announces on December 10, ‘CURTAIN FALLS ON BRENDA’S MARRIAGE’. And so it does.
Since 1984 when she broke into the musical scene with ‘Weekend Special’, Brenda Fassie, Ma Brr, and her music have lived through some of the most significant changes in the history of South Africa. Today, she still ‘wows audiences,’ as a typical Sowetan headline may put it. In that time, she floated into our personal and public lives as sound and rhythm. As sound, she has come at us in two ways: as music and as speech. In a way, whether she has been on stage or off it, hers has been a continuous performance. That is why, in this connection, it seems inappropriate to separate her public from her private persona. They are one.
It is useful to recall some of the major public events through which we travelled with Brenda Fassie, and during which, for sixteen years, she has been at centre stage. Some of these events are captured so well in a book called Mandela, Tambo, and the African National Congress. We were listening and dancing to ‘Weekend Special’ when:
…a new pattern of protest grew throughout the South African summer of 1984-85. It consisted of stay-at-homes, roving demonstrations challenging the police patrolling the townships, and attacks on the businesses, houses, and persons of African charged with collaborating in the new Community Council system. Local grievances became the vehicle for protest against the apartheid system as a whole, spreading from township to township through a population thoroughly mobilized by student participation in school boycotts and broader involvement in the anti constitution campaigns. At the same time, the existence of national bodies such as the UDF provided new means for coordination or protest, epitomized in the Transvaal stay-at- home of November 5-6, 1984, in which an estimated 800,000 participated.
Beyond that, the struggles progressed through several other phases. We witnessed the state of emergency, necklace killings, economic sanctions, rent and rates boycotts, the calls for ‘liberation now, education later,’ increasingly successful ANC guerrilla attacks against the apartheid state, the release of Mandela, the constitutional negotiations, and the historic elections of 1994, ten years after ‘Weekend Special’. And now, we have entered the phase of democracy, governance and delivery. Brenda is still there, continuing to make an impact.
In that time she hungered for love, made money, got married, divorced, confirmed her bisexuality, wrecked her life through drug addiction during which she experienced one of the painful moments of her life: the death of her lover Poppy, seemingly from a drug overdose. Through a difficult struggle, thanks to her producer Chicco Twala, she recovered and is falling in and out of love once more, while continuing to make new music, which continues to enjoy enormous popularity. As an interviewer, Immanuel D’Emilio, observes in the Namibian:
…controversial songstress Fassie has an honours degree from the University of Hard Knocks, but she never let traumatic life events get in her way having a good time. Now that she has made peace with her odious past, she’s embarked on a mission to regenerate her reign as the inimitable queen of the South African music industry. Her Highness spoke to me about love, drug addiction, loss and power of fame.
Although the tone of D’Emilio’s writing is exploitative and disparaging, it shows how the media, in reflecting the ups and downs of Brenda’s life, took advantage of her. But it is Brenda’s own words than ring loud: ‘I am a born again musician,’ she announced to the Sowetan. Remarkably, these ups and downs are reflected in many of the lyrics of her music. Her life and her music are inseparable. What could it all mean?
For one artist to remain at the centre stage of South African popular music for sixteen years is a phenomenon that necessarily has to resonate with special meaning for the times. Allister Sparks +makes an interesting observation of crowds at political rallies in the 1980s in his book The Mind of South Africa:
Here the anonymous individuals of a humiliated community seemed to draw strength from the crowd, gaining from it the larger identity of the occasions and an affirmation of their human worth. Their daily lives might seem meaningless, but here on these occasions the world turned out, with its reporters and its television cameras, to tell them it was not so, that their lives mattered, that humanity cared, that their cause was just; and when they clenched their fists and chanted their defiant slogans, they could feel that they were proclaiming their equality and that their strength of spirit could overwhelm the guns and armoured vehicles waiting outside.
Similarly, in the apparent futility of daily life under oppression, Brenda seems to succeed in giving meaning to the daily details of life by affirming them in song. When her audiences recognise those social facts, and sing along, imprinting them anew in their minds, and dancing to the rhythms that carry the picture or message-bearing words, they participate in a vital process of self-authentication and regeneration.
‘Zimb’ izindaba …’ begins the song ‘Kuyoze Kuyovalwa’ in the CD Abantu Bayakhuluma:
Mina Ngihamba ngo-7
Kuyoze ku clozwe
bese bayavula vele
kuyoze kuyo valwa-ke
Thina siyalala la
Thina siyahlala la
[We’re not leaving this party. We’ll be here until daybreak. They may close and lose the keys, but will surely open again until daybreak.]
This mock defiance of hosts is partly a result of known characters who never take hints, and over stay their welcome. But is also an expression of pure pleasure: just how fun it is at the party. However, hosts must be warned, the partygoers may just stay until daybreak. The popular format of 6pm to 6am festivals (dusk to dawn) replays this potentially anarchic social game at an immensely grand scale.
‘Lyrically, Fassi’s [sic] songs are a mish-mash of the latest township lingo, sometimes barely comprehensible even to locals, but they stick in the minds of her listeners,’ says a report on Brenda Fassie in WorldMusic: The Rough Guide. ‘Mish-mash’ suggests confusion. Not necessarily. What Brenda does, and this seems in part an ingrained pattern of behaviour, as we shall see later, is bring together unusual, apparent unconnected juxtapositions that make sense only in context. For example, the bumper sticker on her car reads: HULLO BU-BYE KOKO COME IN. This may look like incomprehensible ‘mish-mash’ to the socially uninitiated. But it is a free spirit expression of the social energy in the endless comings and goings in the township, the meetings and the partings, and the opening and the closing of doors. It is a dramatic validation of common experience.
Perhaps the most controversial act of validation is Brenda’s outspokenness on the taboo subject of sex. The problem, for society, comes precisely at the point where, for Brenda Fassie, the wall between the private and the public totally collapses. What could be more outrageous in public, coming from a popular star, than to utter this very private of sentiments: ‘Some men cry because I sing… I sing when I make love… I sing for them,’ as she told Vrye Weekblad. This obliteration of the divide between the private and the public is at the bottom of her verbal ungovernability. Indeed, if the state is to be rendered ungovernable, and if that ungovernability is a factor of not only of the intention to be free, and if the act of rendering the state ungovernable is itself an act of freedom, then Brenda’s voice enters the public arena as ungovernable, the ultimate expression of personal freedom.
While she may shock, she is at the same time admired, not for her courage (for this is not courage at play), but for being representative of the value of expressiveness. She made real in the personal dimension, the political quest for an abstract notion of freedom. She brought the experience of freedom intimately close. Indeed, long before the issue of sexual preference became a burning constitutional issue, Brenda had long widened the door open.
But there is yet another way that Brenda touched a significant chord in a national context. Here we are looking at the impact of the politics of culture in creating a national identity. I had occasion to reflect recently, on binding factors which could explain why it would be difficult for the South African state to disintegrate in conflict. In the essay ‘The Lion and the Rabbit’ I observed that:
An increasingly familiar commercial and industrial landscape has progressively drawn the population into a unifying pattern of economic activities. A replicated landscape of major commercial chains throughout the country has, over the decades, become a feature of how the land is imagined. Spatial familiarity of this sort renders the land familiar, less strange and more accommodating wherever you may be in the country. This kind of familiarity may have a binding effect, which cuts across the particularising tendencies of geographic and ethnic location. Linking the country is a complex network of a communications system, which promised accessibility of every part of the country to every citizen. This sense of universal accessibility was sensed as an achievement even before CODESA was underway.
In this context it is remarkable how extensively Brenda toured the country singing. Particularly noteworthy are the festivals held in the homelands. Between September 1991 when she performed at the Mphephu Resort, in Venda, and December 1994 when she performed at the Phuthaditjaba Stadium, in Qwaqwa, Brenda Fassie visited all the homelands put together 19 times. In a hectic schedule, she could move from homeland to homeland in one weekend. In this way, her music, given the political context of difficult struggle, helped to consolidate a view of culture as social affirmation. Secondly, it contributed to the consolidation of a sense of South African musical space, familiar to millions across the land. Some symbols changed in the process. Stadiums associated with bogus independence became sites for a social assertiveness heavily suggested in Brenda’s style.
So who is Brenda Fassie? In Sesotho, I would say: ‘Ke sebopuoa’ (God’s own being).
Charl Blignaut, of the famous interview in the Vrye Weekblad with the heading ‘IN BED WITH BRENDA,’ ponders on the conduct of his subject during the interview. As we have noticed, she strays from answering questions while she digresses on minor intrusions. ‘Over the years’, Blignaut writes,
I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to write a Brenda interview without its being personal. That’s because there really is no such thing as a Brenda ‘interview’. Every self-respecting hack who’s been around the block has done the ‘Waiting for Brenda’ or ‘Trying to keep up with Brenda’ piece. You don’t ‘interview’ Brenda, you experience her. You could be the recipient of her venom or of her devoted attention. Most likely it’ll be both – with switches happening when you least expect them. Then again, maybe it’s just me. As I said, it’s personal.
One minute she’s outside crying on the balcony because you’ve really upset her and hurt her career, the next she’s feeding you her lunch. And that’s probably because, like any serious pop star anywhere in the world, Brenda Fassie has a love-hate relationship with the media. I’ve interviewed other famously difficult people like Naomi Campbell and Boy George and have remained reasonable calm. But, without fail, each time I prepare to interview Brenda, I’m deeply on edge for days. Because no matter what you’re thinking, you seldom know what she’ll do next; you’re never quite ready for her. That point is that Brenda Fassie, whether she’s topping the charts or lying in the gutter, is every inch a star. She makes her own rules.
There are two observations I would like to make about Blignaut’s experience. The first is how he may not have fully realised the extent to which Brenda subjected him to the rules of her own life. When he says that interviewing Brenda is a ‘personal thing’ a feeling which he expresses through a public medium, he lives for a moment, in Brenda’s world in which the personal and the public not only coexist, but seem to merge.
Secondly, I doubt that Brenda really has a special ‘love-hate relationship with the media’. While she would never be totally indifferent to the media, her swings of mood are not necessarily a calculated desire to be outrageous, to wound and then to make amends in order to keep the lines of communication open. They are part of the fabric of her life. One moment she berates Yvonne Chaka Chaka for living in the suburbs, the next moment she declares her a true friend. When Brenda gets angry, it’s because anger is natural. When she becomes compassionate, it is because compassion is natural. But whatever the case might be, you never sense hatred. But certainly affection, even love, are never absent. You find it, however tenuously, even in the most outrageous statement. Being kind of person she is, essentially trusting, Brenda is likely to experience many moments of vulnerability, and be wont to feel sharply the pain of disappointment, which she then comes to terms with, and transcends through song: ‘Akusese mnandi, yo/ Monday Buti yo / Ungishaya ngaphakathi [It’s not pleasant anymore/Monday Blues/The pain of it, I feel deeply within]. It is a quality of innocence that lies at the core of her life. It makes no sense to be angry at the storm, or, in contrast, to declare love for the sun. They are both facts of life indifferent to how you may feel about them, even though it may be comforting to express attitudes towards them.
American journalist Donald G.M. McNeil Jnr, confirms this impression when he reflects on the inappropriateness of comparisons between Brenda and Madonna. ‘In interviews,’ he writes in A Common Hunger To Sing, the comparison to Madonna seems ridiculous. Madonna is a study in calculation; Fassie is all impulse. She cannot sit still, leaps to answer phones that are not hers, peremptorily sends people out for things like artificial fingernails and ice cream bars. She brags that she’ll tell anybody who her sexual partner was the previous night.
On the other hand, Mark Gevisser in the Mail & Guardian concludes: ‘She is textbook tabloid commodity: her fix, and her downfall, has been notoriety, not cocaine.’ Not quite, I think. Her fix, not really a fix because it is who she primarily is, is her innocence, which may have courted notoriety as a method of expression. She bumped into notoriety along the way. If Brenda had discovered something exciting about being a nun, something about which, as a musician, she could say some outrageous things, and swing her pelvis on the stage in the process, with the kind of zeal some born-again religious people can demonstrate, she would have played around with saintliness as a method of expression. At bottom is the desire to be. To be free, although unbridled freedom, like the political strategy or ungovernability, can bum the one that wields it.
If this has been a personal engagement with Brenda, I have also now made the personal, public. I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also about making the private, public. I think only if we attempt this pouring out of personal feeling and thinking into the public domain, will a new public become possible. We cannot tell what kind of public it will be, but we do need to release more and more personal data into our public home to bring about a more real human environment: more real because it is more honest, more trusting, and more expressive. And so, the journey that began in my bed, on a languid Spring morning of 1984 in the Roma Valley in Lesotho, is far from over. But sixteen years later, I have landed in a free country with Brenda[i]. She, her hundreds of thousands of fans, and I, are all still figuring out, so to speak, how things will turn out. But we have our music, and hope that it can keep opening up and widening the horizons of our imaginations endlessly.
[i] Brenda Fassie passed away on 9 May 2004. She was 39.