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death of an icon (standard:non fiction, 721 words)
Author: DAVID TUMUSIIMEAdded: Jun 02 2004Views/Reads: 1960/0Story vote: 0.00 (0 votes)
bout singer brenda fassie

Death Of An African Icon 

It is strange how we never see some deaths coming that with hindsight
are so obvious. Brenda Fassie's passing away on May 9, 2004 is surely 
one demise we all ought have been able to foresee. No other well-known 
or equally talented African singer-celebrity seemed more firmly 
railroaded to self-destruction than Brenda Fassie. 

The last born of nine children born in a black township just outside
Cape Town from a domestic worker, no sooner at only 18 had Brenda 
Fassie begun to establish herself as a singer with The Dudes remembered 
especially for their single ‘Weekend Special,' she abruptly decided to 
go solo, a move that for many singers often leads to the end of their 
careers as they fail to hack it on their own. 

As if not content with enmity from The Dudes and their fans (they named
their next album after her departure "Hamba Uzobuya" or "Yeah, Go, but 
You'll Come Back"), Brenda Fassie openly flaunted her bisexuality 
riling the white segregationist South African government and many 
blacks who thought she was doing harm to their cause for dignity and 

To compound her problems when she was not engaging in “love that dare
not speak it's name” with fellow women, she not only fell into 
relationships with men who fleeced her. She married a former jailbird, 
Nhlanhla Mbambo, in 1989 only to divorce him in 1991 allegedly for 
battering her. 

Nhlanhla not only beat her, along with many hangers-on, he was emptying
her purse too. Meanwhile Brenda had taken to missing one too many 
concerts lost in an alcohol daze on her good days. So badly off were 
her finances that one time her son, Bongani, now 20, was asked to leave 
his grammar school when she could not pay tuition. This when she was 
very famous already! 

But to cap it all was her cocaine addiction that should have alerted her
fans all was not joi de vivre. She was found in 1995 a seedy 
Johannesburg hotel next to the body of her lesbian lover. Yet when she 
was rushed to Sunninghill Hospital north of Johannesburg unconscious we 
were still surprised. All these incidents factored in, you could say 
her death was long overdue, that the past five years she had been 
living on borrowed time. 

But Brenda Fassie was unique from other greats who live a sort of
posthumous existence because their legendary exploits belong to the 
past. Even as Brenda was unraveling, her music, her glorious voice 
seemed to not be a part of her wrecked body, getting better and better. 
Take one of her latest 1999 hits Vulindlela. 

The opening of this song is breathstopping. The pure high siren voice is
spine tingling and immediately transports a listener into regions he or 
she has not long visited, places of innocence and freshness. She forces 
the listener off to memories of childhood and it is astonishing to 
realize a 34 year old woman could sing with such heartbreaking candour 
that reminds you of a child's innocence and at the same time a timid 
virgin's trembly expectations for her wedding night for Vulindlela is 
Brenda's wedding song. 

In many tributes from around the world, Brenda Fassie was compared to
American pop singer Madonna with the implication that this was high 
praise for Brenda. Time magazine dubbed Brenda "The Madonna of the 
Townships.”  Various commentators bemoaned her untimely death just when 
she was on the point of “becoming Africa's first superstar” in tributes 
that not only smacked of underhanded attempts at trivializing her 
accomplishments but were an insult. 

Brenda would have been more fairly compared to early 20th century Grande
dame of American jazz Bessie Smith. Like Bessie Smith, Brenda Fassie 
was not just a performer, she was a spirit of her time and her people 
made flesh in her and her piercing golden voice was the upsurge of a 
community. She was the spirit that after the Sharpsville massacres 
refused to be cowered, she was the will that like Steve Biko and so 
many thousands beaten and tortured and left to die slowly in dark 
closet space cells while the bruised body gave out the heart refused to 
capitulate. Like Bessie Smith for the American Negroes, Brenda Fassie 
was the crying voice in the wilderness singing of the Promised Land. 


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