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African Legends

Brenda Fassie

By Tom Pryor
Published November 14, 2006

Dubbed “The Madonna of the Townships” by Time Magazine, South African singer Brenda Fassie was one of the most beloved, controversial and ultimately tragic figures of contemporary South Africa.

Born in 1964 near Cape Town, Fassie came from a musical family and began singing early. While still in her teens, her big voice attracted the attention of a talent scout who brought her to Johannesburg. There she cut her teeth as a backup singer, eventually getting her first big break fronting a group called Brenda and the Big Dudes. It was with this band that she cut her signature hit, “Weekend Special,” in 1984. That song, like much of her material, was about the difficulties of love and sex in the Townships. While not overtly political, Fassie’s subject matter and vocal delivery were pure street, and millions of fans responded to the suffering, liberation and pure raucous joy in her voice.

Fassie went solo not long after this breakout, scoring other hits like “Too Late For Mama” and the banned “Black President” throughout the ’80s and ’90s. But Fassie’s wild lifestyle, cocaine abuse and numerous affairs with both men and women, began to take a steep toll on her art. She became notorious for missing gigs and turned in some rather poor records. Her low point came in 1995, when she was found in a drugged stupor next to the dead body of her girlfriend, who had OD’d. Shocked, Fassie worked hard to get clean, and her 1998 release, Memeza, was one of her best ever, becoming the top selling album in South Africa that year.