Life is Goin' On

Anneline Malebo, leader of the ’70s band, Joy, roped the 18-year-old Brenda Fassie (left) into the group. With Fassie, Joy released Paradise Road, which became a chart topper. Thoko Ndlozi (middle) and Felicia Marion were the other Joy members.
Anneline Malebo, leader of the ’70s band, Joy, roped the 18-year-old Brenda Fassie (left) into the group. With Fassie, Joy released Paradise Road, which became a chart topper. Thoko Ndlozi (middle) and Felicia Marion were the other Joy members.
Photographer and © unknown.

When Brenda Fassie died three years ago, Bongani Madondo was so diva-stated he swore never to write anything about her again - but not before this swan song.

Sunninghill Private Clinic, where Brenda Fassie has being fighting for her life and orchestrating - by tabloidised osmosis - a hurricane of media headlines. The place is abuzz with media hounds, promoters, hangers-on, fans, voyeurs, stargazers and well-wishers as I arrive. Outside Brenda's ward, I'm part of a small band of close-but-not-close-enough friends.

This means I'm allowed onto her floor but not into her ward. An elderly woman I recognise by her lustrous '60s wig as one of the several "aunties" Brenda had in Yeoville, sis Yvonne, walks out of the ward - rivulets of tears streaming down her face - to share with us: "She... she moved her fingers!"

Elated, we want to roar with happiness, but "hey, no party time here, you can't even raise your voice", the security guard reminds us. "This is the ICU, the closest to where death and angels reside. Please people. Show some respect."

"Wow!" I think. "Security guards gripped by poetic seizures?" Only Brenda could get that right.

In the two weeks before she finally dies, Brenda lies motionless in the Sunninghill Hospital. We, participants in her lifelong drama, pace the halls. Any news of her is devoured. Brenda, true to form, slips in and out of death, and in and out of the headlines, with the swiftness we've come to expect from her. From the minute she is wheeled into the private hospital's Intensive Care Unit to minutes before she dies, Brenda owns the media.

Hanging on through the forces of expensive life-support machines, her ancestors' spiritual strength, her family's prayers and her fans' tears, Queen Bee manages to chalk up the most extensive media coverage in the history of South Africa's pop culture.

Of all the well-wishers the most consistent is Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who - besides being Brenda's equal in headline hogging - has been her foster mother for a decade. It was Winnie who took the then spiralling-out-of-control young woman into her own malfunctioning but cohesive home in Orlando, Soweto.

Though she evoked the troubled African diva pain, her larger-than-life legacy was not a race thang but a pop thang.

It was she who tutored the delinquent pop star on the joys of motherhood and the dangers of being "mother of the nation" when one didn't have enough time to mother one's own family. It was she who offered counsel. And it is she who stays, day and night, next to Brenda's deathbed, praying to her ancestors to "please spare the child, nina ba ka Dhlomo".

After 14 days of high drama, at 4.50pm on Sunday, May 9, 2004, the Queen calls it quits. Her record company of over 20 years, for whom she had recorded over 15 albums, over 150 songs and over 10 000 hours of her childlike, overwrought, drug-and beer-strained voice, issues a statement: "A hero has fallen." A hero? What does that mean?

Brenda Fassie came like a typhoon, and departed like Halley's comet. That natural. That strange. That wild. The first township wonder to defy South Africa's parochialism, Brenda belonged to the constellation of tragic black musical stars immortalised by Billie Holiday, Tupac Shakur and Miles Davis.

Though she evoked the troubled African diva/diviner/perfomer pain, her larger-than-life legacy was not a race thang but a pop thang. Brenda was a troubled spirit, just like Princess Diana, James Dean and Elvis Presley. And like Billie Holiday before her, her lust for life, mood swings, childlike voice, mutually abusive love affairs and financial woes made her an explosive minefield waiting to go bang at any moment.

Publicity was like oxygen to her. At the age of four, Brenda was lead singer and dancer in Tiny Tots, a group who made a big name for themselves in Cape Town under the tutelage of Sarah Fassie, a woman Brenda knew as her mother, but about whom she said: "There are controversies about whether she was my real mother or not. For the sake of the media records, I will say she was my mom, right?" Right.

"Whatever you wish for, B," I told her. Either way, at the age of 14, Brenda went in search of the greener - albeit neon-lit - pastures of Joburg, the Vegas of Africa. Just four years later, her hit Weekend Special made her the first local act ever to make it to Billboard's Top 100.

Weekend Special was written by Melvyn Matthews, the key to her success as a hit-maker. I finally corner Melvyn at Brenda's memorial service in Soweto, a week before she is cremated. Matthews has been off the scene for 20 years. Too emotional for comfort, I switch on the tape and let him talk: "I taught Brenda the lyrics and worked with her, verse for verse.

"She had difficulty pronouncing English and cut corners quite a lot. She sang in her Xhosa-ised English, tinged with clicks. But her passion made up for everything. Even at that age [18] she was an emotional artist who would turn any song into a Brenda song. She had feeling, timing, melody, heart and rhythm. She lifted my lyrics to a chaotic beauty I had never imagined."

The single became a radio and club hit long before it was released as an LP, and Matthews - then just a 17-year-old teenager himself - made sure she had another hit to go with it. Life is Goin' On, a gospel-like tune dipped in the blues, is what made Brenda a megastar.

Dragging and slurring her sometimes tenor, sometimes falsetto, on Life is Goin' On, Brenda's voice reflected a tortured soul. The Sowetan's powerful showbiz editor, Elliot Makhaya, gushed: "A star has been born." That song alone elevated Brenda to a select group of the world's most evocative female blues singers - Dolly, Aretha, Billie.

Matthews' songs may have assured her fame, but Brenda's talent had been spotted long before - by Anneline Malebo. Known as Sis' Anneline, Malebo (who died on August 20, 2002, two years after being diagnosed with HIV) was leader of Afro-pop band Joy, when she gave Brenda a kick into the big time. In 1979, Malebo was about to go on maternity leave, so she roped in the 18-year-old girl-child to take her place.

With Brenda, Joy released Paradise Road, a sing-along rhythm-and-gospel smasher that topped the charts and instantly transformed Joy into an object of both ridicule and obsessive affection.

Black urban sophisticates adored Paradise Road for its pure soul, yet despised it for sounding so "un-African", and whites wanted to despise it and couldn't help falling for it. But everyone started wondering, "Who's that singer?"

Back to 1984, and the release of Life is Goin' On, the year poet Dambudzo Marechera would refer to as the "mid-point of the scream". Black consciousness brothers in black berets held the moral ground on the streets, but Brenda was starting to rule the waves.

In no time, crack cocaine replaced heroin and dagga as the drug of choice for those who could afford it. Her stream of hits ensured Brenda could definitely afford it.

In the wake of her hit debut album, Brenda and The Big Dudes - comprising of pianist Dumisani Ngobeni (who would father Brenda's only child, Bongani), bassist Sammy Klaas and drummer David Mabaso - set about launching the loudest pop revue of all time. It would last over a decade.

Their work was studded with unforgettable hits, but was also weighed down with mediocre commercial tracks articulating the emptiness of the townships. But when Chicco Twala produced Too Late for Mama, an Afro-feminist dance manifesto promoted by a video clip depicting African rural women's struggle and hope, Brenda's mournful chorus moved her to another level.

This song forged a new signature style for her and audiences were introduced to a combative but teary Brenda - a side of the pop star the dives and dodges of Hillbrow were becoming increasingly familiar with.

"Both women and men vied for Queen Bee's attention," remembers Oscar Tyumre, a musician and one of Brenda's closest friends. "Once, while she was dating a woman called Buli Arosi, she was also seeing one of her dancers Ludwe Maki - though not in public. It wasn't that she was promiscuous. She dated Ludwe because her girlfriend had double-crossed her with him. So she says, 'Aha? Well, let's play this game. By my rules.' She had both of them."

Though both (Jenny) Mkhize and Tyumre refuse to comment on this, it was also at this time Brenda started serious drugging. By the mid-'90s, the Quirinale Hotel in Hillbrow's Kotze Street was not only the scene of degenerate clubbing, but also a meeting spot for the notorious Civil Co-operation Bureau operatives such as Slang van Zyl, Staal Burger, Ferdie Barnard and co - which meant drugs, guns, prostitutes and gore galore.

In no time, crack cocaine replaced heroin and dagga as the drug of choice for those who could afford it. Her stream of hits ensured Brenda could definitely afford it. Interestingly, for all their high-flying debauchery, the majority of the gay brigade was not on drugs. In retrospect, Brenda's friends say drugs created a chasm between the Queen and her true friends.

"She had nothing but Poppy and her haunted voice," says Tyumre. "She lost weight, lost her friends, lost her money and lost trust. The joy of the late '80s turned to despair. By '93 her ship had begun to sink. It's amazing that it took 10 years to hit rock bottom. What a pity. What a talent."

It's 1998, and away from the media spotlight, Brenda has just finished recording a new demo, produced in collaboration with Chicco Twala. The name is not yet finalised: Vuli Ndlela or Memeza? Memeza wins.

Memeza took off like five Boeings all at once, 500000 units - the biggest and fastest-selling album that year by far. The ANC used the lead hit Vuli Ndlela as their 1999 general-elections theme song.

Two weeks later, I produced an exclusive hour-long radio documentary on her 25-year career with Metro FM DJ Evidence Kemp. Brenda kept going to the rest room during the interview, each time coming back more animated than the last. But when she wasn't pulling faces at Kemp, or singing, she was sharper than an abattoir's knife.

No question was too heavy or too small. She meditated on some and volunteered on others. She cried when a sobbing fan called in the middle of the interview just to say, "I love you." Brenda, live, was explosive.

Memeza took off like five Boeings all at once, 500 000 units - the biggest and fastest-selling album that year by far.

A year after Memeza adjusted the local pop scene's scales, selling 600 000 albums, Brenda released Nomakanjani. It was monotonous and predictable. I'd listened to this woman for over 20 years and with this album I could tell her voice was kaput. Brenda had lost her natural timbre. What she still packed in abundance was that compelling gift for telling stories, a touch for acting, a feel for the absurd and an inherent ability to please. But it was not enough.

It is 5.30am, May 16, 2004, when Fidel Mbhele, a young Mother City-based hack, knocks on Room 718, Victoria Junction Hotel. "Ndoda - hey dude - you still dreaming of MaBrrr? She's gone, man, wake up." It's time to drive to Langa before the funeral traffic jam starts.

At 6am we are on the road to Langa and, as Jack Kerouac said, "Nothing beats the smell, the junk, the acceleration, the madness of it." Cape Town is all white, thanks to the morning fog. Mbhele complains, "It has never been like this before." We hit the hooter and the lights, and plunge through nonetheless.

The roads and back alley leading to Langa are decorated with posters of MaBrrr. They group, disband and regroup into a continuous collage of her face.

Number 26 Makana Square in Langa stands out because it's one of those extended face-brick homesteads in a tight chain of township matchbox-dwellings. Today it stands out because its last-born child is back home after a 25-year public journey.

Two hours later, there's nowhere to walk in the small yard. Two priests in their nicely pressed frocks look on in suppressed irritation as a Xhosa poet in Afro-regal attire attempts to steal his two seconds of fame by reciting right into the middle of a prayer. Queen Bee would have been proud.

Back in the early '80s, far away on the other side of the world, paranoid and cocaine-crazed soul-singer Marvin Gaye asked the question, What's Goin' On? and from Africa Brenda responded, Life is Goin' On.



back to the Brenda Fassie memorial page

"I like to create controversy. I'm going to become the Pope next year. Nothing is impossible."
Brenda Fassie
Brenda Fassie, 1984
Picture: Joe Sefale © Sunday Times


Newspaper sources: An exercise in image-making

In this lesson plan, learners are asked to think about different images that the media communicate. They will see that one person can be represented in many different ways, or that one person has different sides. Brenda Fassie was a very complex person.

Lesson page
You′ll need the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader to view these lesson plans. Download it here.
Archive Photo Gallery
MaBrrr channels Madonna and other great divas.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Watch the Brenda sculpture develop from clay mould to glowing likeness of the queen of African pop.
Orbituary audio archive
Listen to SAfm/Metro FM’s obituary of Brenda, broadcast on May 10, 2004 (5’42").
Go on a 360° virtual tour of the Brenda Fassie memorial, located at Bassline, in the Newtown precinct of Johannesburg.
Madiba remembers Princess Brenda
Madiba describes his surprise when he heard Princess Brenda coming down the stairs in his house
Zola Budd Track
The Sunday Times Heritage Project’s first memorial is to Brenda Fassie, a woman variously described as the Queen of African pop and the Madonna of the Townships
Brenda Fassie and Zola Budd
MaBrrr struts her stuff and takes on taxi drivers with her big hit, “Zola Budd”