Affectionately known as MaBrrr and the “Queen of African Pop” by her adoring fans, and dubbed “The Madonna of the Townships” by Time magazine in 2001, Brenda Fassie was voted 17th in the Top 100 Great South Africans.
The anti-apartheid Afropop singer’s musical success was a combination of her powerful, versatile and textured voice, her imperfection and accessibility. Fassie was vocal about human rights issues, singing about life in and frequently touring townships.
Well-known producer Koloi Lebona prophetically described Brenda Fassie’s voice as “different to anything I had heard until then. I knew it was the voice of the future”. His words would echo through the mic as Brenda dominated the industry for over 20 years.
Brenda Nokuzola Fassie, the youngest of nine children, was born on the 3 November 1964 in Langa, Cape Town. By the Age of 5, Brenda started her first band called The Tiny Tots and would charge tourists to hear her sing.
In 1979 at the age of 16, Koloi Lebona came to Langa to see Fassie sing, after impressing Lebona, she asked with her characteristic boldness, ‘so when are we going to Joburg!’ She returned to Soweto with lebona to take up residence with her family to finish her schooling.
After filling in for Anneline Malebo in the female vocal group called Joy in 1981, Fassie joined Blondie and Papa before forming her own township music group called Brenda and the Big Dudes. Brenda’s crystalline and potent voice was poised to catapult her onto the international stage.
Her big break came in 1983, at the young age of 19, when she recoded her first hit single, Weekend Special. A funky, disco-grooved track, Weekend Special, became the fastest selling record of the time.
Brenda and the Big Dudes toured the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and Brazil. Fassie’s new-found fame manifested it’s self in excess and her lifestyle of lavish cars, houses and extravagant parties.
Her lifestyle, provocative and energetic stage performances and rivalry with fellow township superstar Yvonne Chaka Chaka proved sensational as her career switched lanes to solo superstardom.
In 1985, Brenda had a son, Bongani, with Dumisani Ngubeni, a fellow Big Dudes musician. The couple was married in 1989 but divorced a year later.
By 1991 after a second divorce, Brenda’s life started falling apart with her public descent into alcohol and drug addiction.
By 1995 it was all over for Brenda when she was found in a hotel room with her lesbian lover who had died from a drug overdose.
But MaBrrr’s story was not over. Her tale is one of extraordinary talent and a woman who overcame adversity and triumphed.
In 1997, Fassie teamed up with producer Sella “Chicco” Twala for a second time to record Memeza. Memeza became the bestselling album in South Africa in 1998, announcing that Brenda was back. She followed this up with Amadlozi in 1999, Nomakanjani in 2000 and Mina Nawe in 2001.
Her career peaked in 2001 when she won the SAMA for Best Selling Release at the 8th South African Music Awards for a record-breaking fourth year in a row.
Tragically, MaBrrr’s life was cut short when she passed in 2004 when a severe asthma attack resulted in cardiac arrest.
In her illustrious career, she recoded over 10 studio albums and contributed to Miriam Makeba’s album Sangoma in 1988, Harry Belafonte’s anti-apartheid album Paradise in Gazankulu in 1988, and a number of others.
She will be remembered for her activism and rejuvenating a stale music industry with some of the bestselling songs in South African history.