It’s 10 years today since our greatest music superstar, Brenda Fassie, died. In this extract from I’m Not Your Weekend Special, a new book of essays about Brenda, Janet Smith remembers midnight’s child
Johannesburg - Brenda slipped in, the life aesthetic. The tastefully weird. People parted ways for her. It’s 2002, and she’s high above downtown Johannesburg, if you can see through the dirt that encrusts the windows of the 50th floor of the Carlton.
There’s a party going on there for the second season of Yizo Yizo, the television show that stroked, taunted and then beat the blood out of the boundaries between real life and theatre.
The producers will jam Weekend Special onto the soundtrack. It’ll swindle Mandoza and Chiskop, big stars, out of some attention. Her music company will get Brenda to sing the theme song but hell, there’s the yoke of Thembi Seete and her bosomy noise on Sure Ntombazana (Bloma Nice).
If anyone can compete… well, can anyone compete?
So Brenda slips into the party, and she’s not looking good. She’s a quiver of herself. She’s a small, twisted fruit. It’s unsettling. But still, people part ways, forming banks as the queen floats down the river. They build the tension around the superstar as the heat of the city 50 floors below eases into dirty darkness.
People can’t help staring. The infernal folklore lies all over her, like a thick ash. They look her up and down, as if they know Brenda is shambling towards her doom.
Two years later journalists camped, merciless, outside Sunninghill Hospital to write the story of her death. The battle to crack the puzzle of how such an astonishing legacy could emerge from such a chaotic life was only just beginning. But if that was not the first jolt, it was the most harrowing.
For the country’s greatest-ever celebrity, simultaneously strange and familiar, it would be the most sad of all endings: the law of diminishing returns.
So we rewind.
It’s November 1986, and Brenda had just built her mother Sarah a house in Cape Town. At the time, she earned R8 000 – the top rate – for a show. Certainly a fortune. Only PJ Powers’ mighty Afro-rock band Hotline and Wendy Oldfield’s Sweatband could attract anything close to that kind of loot.
Sarah Fassie and the new, furnished house quickly became part of the unwinding backstory. There was romantic colouring-in that appeared in all the lore being collected about the star.
When Brenda was 4 years old, her mother would come home from a hard day’s work and tinkle a few bars on the piano. One brother would get two teaspoons, another would get a box and “boom!” said Brenda, “we had percussion”.
Mostly, they entertained visiting ships’ crews. There had been sparse beauty in the Fassie household of eleven children where Brenda was the youngest.
When the story of her mother and the house arrived, Brenda was just 22, and she was climbing, an operator in a prickling, seething political space. How to negotiate it was the trick, so her tongue bumped over the difficult parts like sanctions, which she admitted she knew nothing about – didn’t even know the term – when she was interviewed in London.
“And do you know what they asked me?” Brenda revealed to a newspaper, eyes round, her eyebrows raised. “They asked me what I thought about sanctions. D’you know, that was the first time I had heard the word… I had to ask my public relations lady to explain to me… Anyway, I’m into words in a big way. At the moment, my buzzword is ‘naive’.”
She’d already been wise enough to keep the hell away from the apartheid Department of Information’s Peace Song.
The promotional tour with EMI to London to push her old favourite Weekend Special got her an interview on the BBC’s Breakfast Time and nearly 50 other television and radio shows.
The lure of Brenda saw the velvet rope unhinged at the Limelight Club, where she had her picture taken with Boy George. He rumbled recognition, then disappeared into the bathroom.
After Brenda died, much of the anguish over her fame seemed to zone in only on her missing money. Only the purely reverential kept her happy-ghetto-girl-in-the-Eighties image tantalisingly intact.
Yet both positions are flawed. Under the dust sheet of bad memory, Brenda was huge. She was enormous. She teetered on the verge of the enormity of Winnie Mandela.
Brenda & The Big Dudes collected eight platinum discs together. That’s more than 500 000 copies. Weekend Special alone moved more than 200 000. Brenda’s other solo albums took close to that.
These are numbers few can reach today, and she held her head high for a while. She wouldn’t let even the savagery of the times damage her.
“When interviewers asked questions concerning politics, I said that with the State of Emergency, it would be dangerous to say anything… it would put me in real trouble.”
When Brenda landed at then Jan Smuts Airport, dolled up in a shiny red dress, in a dazzle of blue contact lenses, there were television cameras. There was screaming. Rebecca Malope was a slip of ivy on the railing, and Brenda was Miss World. People clutched bouquets.
A hundred thousand people paid R4 each to watch her play at Ellis Park at the second Concert in the Park. The meticulously famous Margaret Singana and The Rockets were backstage with The Soul Brothers. Such beautiful flash.
“I had to [change],” she scampered, after recording in New York with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. “You can’t go [there] and come back the same ghetto chick you were when you left.”
She’d seen where that could go when she teased a crowd about being bigger than Yvonne Chaka Chaka at the uMtata Music Festival in 1985. Missiles were thrown at her. Fans went berserk.
Two died of bullet wounds. A child was trampled. A young man was knocked down as the crowd stampeded.
If there was spin going on behind the scenes, that was clearly the right time to put forward a more gentle Brenda, a mother to Bongani, born at the Marymount Clinic in Kensington, Johannesburg. But when the dust cover is lifted again, it is not the softness but the excess of Brenda’s celebrity and the amounts of money it took to keep it alive that bedazzle.
When Bongani was 4 years old, there was pandemonium at the third leg of his mother’s wedding to Nhlanhla Mbambo at the Princess Magogo Stadium in KwaMashu. Thirty thousand showed up. It had been billed as free, but large numbers had paid conmen the majestic sum of R10 to get through the gates. The couple landed on the field in a helicopter.
The second leg had been at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Parow, where thousands arrived to see Brenda wearing a skin-tight, R12 000 silk brocade gown made by The Boys of Rosebank. It swept the floor with its delicate mushroom pleating and dozens of hand-beaded drop pearls, followed by a 7-metre organza train.
Her long braids were dragged into a sky-high ponytail, her arms were full of drooping arum lilies.
The wedding party was in white, but both Brenda – who arrived in a 1973 black Cadillac – and Mbambo were late. The bride’s party had battled to make it through the crowds which had been gathering outside her mother’s house from the early hours.
There were ten bridesmaids in lace apricot frocks, and Chaka Chaka was the maid of honour.
“I am what the people have made me,” Brenda enchanted a journalist, waving her R7 000 ring. Mbambo had paid the Fassie family R13 000 lobola. The wedding would cost R300 000, even though the couple had already eloped and been wed in a secret civil ceremony.
By the late 1980s, Brenda’s legend was explicit. She had everything she wanted: a red Porsche, a wireless Janet Jackson-style microphone and a CD player. The descent would be desperately steep.
We miss her today. Sometimes it feels as if she has only fallen into a deep and terrible sleep and cannot be woken. It should only take us to revive her. But the forest around her has become thickly overgrown. All the open spaces are covered.
At the turn of the century, there was no trace left of that old innocent ease. Brenda had long turned ugly. The persecution and purge of the fans’ belief in her had been building for ten years.
The atmosphere around the star was increasingly apprehensive. There were fraud charges, spells inside the anarchic low-life of Sun City Prison, cupboards of drugs, and assault.
She didn’t turn up for shows. Mbambo, like so many around her, lost his head. The magical album Memeza had been set up to save Brenda after her lover Poppy Sihlahla died of a drug overdose next to her in a bed in the mid-1990s, but she could never again live up to the poetry of her own imagination.
By the turn of the century, Brenda had made and lost millions, most recently on her single Vulindlela and album Nomakanjani.
A refugee of her own enterprise and arrogance, she had abandoned her mansion in Fourways and hidden herself in a R29-a-day Hillbrow hotel room with a Cameroonian gem dealer.
A year later, there was shrieking and shouting at the South African Music Awards. Brenda had been drinking all night, and she attacked Mandoza and Sunday Times writer Lesley Mofokeng.
Her son Bongani, her companion, tried to calm his mother down, but pictures of a snarling, cruel Brenda were all over the papers the next day.
The simple truth was, it was getting too late. Midnight’s child would soon be gone.
* Born in Langa, Cape Town, in 1964
* The youngest of nine children, she was named after American singer Brenda Lee.
* Arrived in Joburg in the early 1980s, joined the band Joy and then became lead singer for Brenda and the Big Dudes
* Her son Bongani was born in Kensington in 1985
* Years of huge hits, including Weekend Special and Too Late for Mama followed
* In 1995 her lover Poppy Sihlahla died of an overdose next to her in a Hillbrow hotel
* In 1998 she released the multi-platinum album Memeza. Most of her albums were massive sellers
* She went into drug rehab dozens of times, mostly for cocaine
* On April 26 2004, Brenda collapsed at home in Buccleuch after an overdose of cocaine which put her into a coma
* She died aged 39 at Sunninghill Hospital without regaining consciousness
** This is one of the essays in I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie, edited by Bongani Madondo (Picador Africa). The book has a foreword by Hugh Masekela, and includes pieces by Madondo, Njabulo S Ndebele, Charl Blignaut and others.