Excerpt from I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Njabulo Ndebele Still Thinks of MaBrrr
I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life + Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie is Bongani Madondo’s fascinating collection of essays on the life and times of the legendary pop star, including contributions from people who knew her professionally and personally.
Funny, crazy, poignant, insightful and tragic, I’m Not Your Weekend Special traces the highs and lows of Fassie’s life, celebrating the significance of a South African icon. The collection includes reminiscences, criticism, elegies, essays and appreciation by friends, ex-lovers, critics, poets, academics and musicians, reflecting the endless and boundary-crossing legacy left by the “Vul’indlela” singer.
The Cry of Winnie Mandela author and academic Njabulo Ndebele wrote a heartfelt tribute to Fassie in a chapter titled “Still thinking of MaBrrr”. Read his contribution in the excerpt below:
Still Thinking of MaBrrr
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 on 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 was 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 to be at the many parties in Maseru during those years. Much later, in the Sowetan in 1999, 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.’
There are few controversial characters in contemporary South Africa who stand out like Brenda Fassie. Besides her musical talents, she had some highly marketable qualities. For example, there is a great deal of outrageous brazenness about her that newspapers simply loved. That they quickly recognised what a musical catch they had in their hands came through in many headlines. At first, the headlines reflected the 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 ‘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 of 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 in the hands of the press like a bird. The profiling of Brenda as a musician shifted dramatically from her music towards the drama of her private life.
There is a telling sequence of pictures in the supplement to Drum magazine of December/January 51/91, depicting township life over 40 years as captured by the magazine’s photographers. There are many pictures of musicians and dancers, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s that 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, her producer and manager, is shown leaning against his Mercedes-Benz with his huge double-storey house in the background. At the bottom is a head-and-shoulders 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 Denzel Washington’. Further, the headline runs, boldly: ‘Affluence and confusion strike a chord in the 90s’. The music and performance of these artists are downplayed in favour of gossip about their private lives.
Indeed, in 1987, three years after Brenda had broken into the musical scene, she was on the cover of Drum with half of the picture, in which she is seated on the floor, dominated by her exposed right thigh, knee and boot. 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 on about men and love, building on what was 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: ‘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, had been a defensive method to maintain self-respect. If the public had a problem with lesbians, Brenda was merely experimenting. She was not one herself. But because a part of her really was, she had to protect herself against herself and protect her self-esteem to herself: ‘I am always nice to lesbians. I don’t snub them. I hope I will never be- come a lesbian.’ This was a verbal distancing effect for the public, and was designed to facilitate and maintain an internal coherence. And so, Brenda kept ‘telling all’ to the excitement of Drum magazine and many shocked readers whose appetites were whetted for more stories, more of Brenda’s musical hits and more appearances at festivals, where they would endure long hours waiting for her to appear.
‘One malicious columnist,’ complains Brenda in an article ‘wrote that I look like a horse. And some people say that I am ugly.’ Revealing another talent for the art of reversal, she continues, ‘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.’ Once, she was asked why she hadn’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 of her best assets.
Covering the next major episode in her life, Drum magazine is 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 the 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 clothing. There is no smile on Brenda’s face. She is looking pained and sad, but also decidedly petulant; her husband is trying to smile. 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, marital bliss is not for them. After a separation announced in November, the Sowetan announces on 10 December: ‘Curtain falls on Brenda’s marriage’. And so it did.
Since 1984 when she broke into the musical scene Brenda Fassie, MaBrrr, and her music lived through some of the most significant changes in the history of South Africa.
In all that time, she floated into our personal and public lives as sound and rhythm. As sound she came at us in two ways: music and speech. In a way, whether she was on stage or off it, hers was a continuous performance. That is why it seems inappropriate to separate her public from her private persona. They were 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 was at centre-stage. Some of these events are captured so well in a book called Mandela, Tambo, and the African National Congress by Sheridan Johns and R. Hunt Davis. In the summer of 1984–85, the time that we were listening and dancing to ‘Weekend Special’, a
… new pattern of protest grew [in South Africa]. It consisted of stay-at-homes, roving demonstrations challenging the police patrolling the townships, and attacks on the businesses, houses, and persons of Africans 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 mo- belied by student participation in school boycotts and broader involvement in the anti-constitution campaigns.
Beyond that, the struggles progressed through several other phases. We witnessed the State of Emergency, necklace killings, economic sanctions, rent and rate 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, then years after ‘Weekend Special’. And when we entered the phase of democracy, governance and delivery, Brenda was still there, continuing to make an impact.
Over all this time she hungered for love, made money, got married, divorced, confirmed her bisexuality, wrecked her life through drug addiction and experienced one of her most painful moments: the death of her lover Poppy, seemingly from a drug overdose. Though a difficult struggle, thanks to Chicco Twala she recovered and was falling in and out of love once more, while continuing to make new music which continued 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 of 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 ad- diction, loss and [the] 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 that 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 were inseparable. What could it all mean?
For one artist to remain at the centre of South African popular music for sixteen years is a phenomenon that 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.
Similarly, in the apparent futility of daily life under oppression, Brenda seemed to succeed in giving meaning to the daily details of life by affirming them in song. When her audiences recognised those social facts, and sang along, imprinting them anew in their minds, and dancing to the rhythms that carry the picture or message-bearing words, they participated in a vital process of self- authentication and regeneration.
‘Zimb’ izindaba …’ begins the song ‘Kuyoze Kuyovalwa’ on the CD Abantu Bayakhuluma (People Talk):
Mina ngihamba ngo-7
Kuyoze ku clozwe Izikhiye zilahleke Bese bayavula vele
Kuyoze kuyo valwa-ke
Sihanba ngo 7
Thina siyalala la
(We’re not leaving this party. We’ll be here until daybreak. They may close and throw away the keys, but will surely open again until daybreak.)
This mock defiance of hosts was partly a result of known characters, which never take hints and overstay their welcome. But it is also an expression of pure pleasure: how fun it is at the party. However, hosts must be warned: the party-goers may just stay until daybreak. The popular format of 6:00 p.m.-to-6:00 a.m. 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 town- ship lingo, sometimes barely comprehensible even to locals, but they stick in the minds of her listeners,’ says a report on Brenda Fassie in World Music: The Rough Guide. ‘Mish-mash’ suggests con- fusion. Not necessarily. What Brenda did, and this seems in part an ingrained pattern of behaviour, was bring together unusual juxtapositions that make sense only in context. For example, the bumper sticker on her car read 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 meeting 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 was 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. It is a factor 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 have shocked, she was at the same time admired, not for her courage (for this was not courage at play) but for being representative of the value of expressiveness. She made real in the personal domain the public political quest for an abstract notion of freedom. She brought the experience of freedom very close.
Indeed, long before the issue of sexual preference became a burning constitutional issue, Brenda had widened the doorway. 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 on binding factors that 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 in 1999 that:
[A]n 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 to sing and entertain. 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 Phuthaditjhaba Stadium in Qwaqwa, Brenda Fassie visited all the homelands put together nineteen times. In a hectic schedule, she could move from homeland to homeland in one weekend. In this way her mu- sic, given the political context of a 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 was Brenda Fassie? In Sesotho, I would say Ke sebopuoa (God’s own being).
Charl Blignaut, of the famous interview in the Vrye Weekblad headlined ‘In Bed with Brenda’ ponders 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.
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 was a ‘personal thing’, a feeling that he expressed though a public medium. He lived, for a moment, in Brenda’s world in which the personal and the public not only coexisted but seemed to merge.
Secondly, I doubt that Brenda really had a special ‘love-hate relationship with the media’. While she would never be totally in- different to the media, her swings of mood were 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 were 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 got angry, it was because anger is natural. But whatever the case might be, you never sensed hatred. But affection, even love, was never absent. You find it, however tenuously, even in the most outrageous statement. Being the kind of person she was, essentially trusting, Brenda was likely to experience many moments of vulnerability, and be wont to feel sharply the pain of disappointment. ‘Akusese mnandi, yo/Monday Buti yo/ Ungishaya ngaphakathi’ (It’s not pleasant anymore/Monday Blues/the pain of it, I feel deeply within). She tries to come to terms with the pain of being let down and transcends it through song. It is a quality of innocence that lay 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 imbue them with human attributes.
American journalist Donald G.M. McNeil Jar, confirms this impression when he reflects on the inappropriateness of comparisons between Brenda and Madonna. ‘In interviews,’ he says, 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 to 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 a 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 was who she primarily was, was her innocence, which may have courted notoriety as a method of expression, bumped into 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. Unbridled freedom, though, like the political strategy of ungovernability, can burn the one that wields it.
If this has been a personal, imaginative embrace of 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 that only if we attempt this pouring out of person- al 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 in 1984 in the Roma Valley in Lesotho is far from over. Twenty years later, I am in a free country and Brenda Fassie is dead. But we have her music.