The Complex and Controversial Brenda Fassie

"I am a shocker. I like to create controversy. It's my trademark." – Brenda Fassie

This week we are excited to begin our celebration of Black History Month! To start off, we will be looking at some more recent history, specifically the life and times of Brenda Fassie(1964-2004). Brenda Fassie was a South African pop star who gained international fame for her work and for the many media storms that built up around her. She was the niece of the famed activist-turned president, Nelson Mandela, and also held many of the same political stances throughout her life. Enough so, in fact, that some of her songs were banned in America. She was incredibly influential during her lifetime, exchanging the safety privacy could have offered her for a dramatically public life. It seems only right that we explore that life now.  

Brenda Fassie was what many of us would refer to as a “child star.” She knew that she wanted to be a singer from a very young age and she began pursuing that dream as soon as she could. She was in many singing groups before she gained real popularity with her band, Brenda and the Big Dudes. Their song, “The Weekend Special,” sold enough records to seal her fate as one of the most popular musicians in South Africa at the time. To say she only went up from there would be an oversimplification of a very complicated life because while she did continue to garner fame and awards, her personal life was filled with more than her fair share of struggles.

When Brenda was 20, she had a son with one of her band mates in Brenda and the Big Dudes, and in 1989 four years later married Nhlanhla Mbambo. Three years after the two divorced, and after the divorce, she became addicted to cocaine, a struggle that would always remain with her.

Her addiction was not a quiet one, and most of the press knew about it as she never seemed to try too hard to hide it. She discussed her drug use publicly and even reportedly took drugs in front of members of the press. This addiction led to what Fassie remembered to be one most difficult moments of her life. She awoke to find her lover Poppy Sihlahla had died of an overdose in a motel room the two had shared. After this tragedy Fassie seemed to change, reportedly working intensely with her music and discussing her addiction publicly with a new attitude focused on recovery.

She began attending rehabilitation centers not long after Sihlahla’s death and came out publicly to the press as a lesbian. While there is much dispute over the term she used to describe herself, we want to pause here and give our stance on it.

Brenda Fassie used the label lesbian; therefore that is the label we will use for her. She had access to other words and could have used them if she thought her identity fit under another term better, but she chose the word lesbian. We want to make a clear distinction here because while we often put labels on people (and as we have stated before that is theorizing not fact), there is a clear difference between providing new words to describe an old experience and speaking over how people identified themselves.

And sometimes there are difficult calls, for example, our article Kristina, King of Sweden, used she/her/hers pronouns for Kristina even though there is a distinct possibility that she was a transgender man and may have - if given the option - preferred he/him/his. But in the end, we decided on she/her/hers because those are the ones she used throughout her life and while we may discuss the possibility that she may have preferred others we can not make that decision for her. The line may be thin at times but there is a line, and in Brenda Fassie’s case the line is crystal clear.
Though she had relationships with men throughout her career, she described herself as a lesbian, and we will do so as well. A person can be a lesbian even if they have had romantic or sexual relationships with men in their lives and it is no one’s duty to override how people describe themselves. So by announcing herself as a lesbian, she not only ended debate on how to describe her sexuality, but she also gave herself (and the people who would come after her) space to openly begin queer public relationships.
Like her previous relationships with men, she and her girlfriends caused many scandals, but none were too damaging to Fassie’s image. She said herself in an interview that her sexuality never affected her career too harshly, in fact, she said that not only did it not harm her “But I became more interesting to people.”
And Fassie’s fame is never to be understated. She was often called “the Madonna of the Townships” to which she responded, “No, no, no sweety, Madonna is the Brenda of America.” A remark that is quite reminiscent of Magnus Hirschfeld’s response when told he was the “Einstein of Sex” responding with “Einstein is the Hirschfeld of Physics.”

In a rare occurrence for someone who burned so brightly Brenda’s flame never faded, but not as uncommon, the vibrant star died far too young at the age of 39. In 2004 Brenda Fassie overdosed on cocaine and slipped into a coma; thirteen days later she didn’t return to consciousness when her life support machines were turned off, and she died with her long-term partner Gloria Chaka, and the rest of her family by her side.
By the time she died, circumstances of her passing had been announced and corrected and then misreported on enough times that it is hard to find the truth of it even now. Her funeral had thousands of her fans in attendance, so many that some got injured in the crowd and had to be brought to the hospital. In the end, her death was just as controversial and wildly reported on as her life had been.

Because there are so many people who have looked at Fassie’s life, there are many ways to discuss the woman herself, but since we are looking at her because she is queer, that is the lens with which we look through her life. A problem that many have fallen into when exploring how her sexuality played a role in her life is the desire to take Fassie as an accurate representation of what life in South Africa was like for queer people at the time, and that is not a correct assumption.
While Fassie was undoubtedly a part of the queer community and deserves to be recognized as such, she did not have the same experiences as many other South African queer people did at the time.

She inadvertently touches on this fact herself in an interview discussing whether she wanted to marry her then girlfriend, saying “We’ll get married, when we decide, we will. As a South African music icon, I think I should have my rights given to me.”
And while that was not the case, in the end, it is an interesting comment because it wasn’t legal for same gendered couples to marry in South Africa until two years after her death. This quote is a good representation of the different attitudes Fassie faced because of her fame. She did not experience the same struggles or hurdles that many other queer South Africans did when discovering and publicly discussing their identities. She was a rich and famous woman who was the niece of one of South Africa’s most revered leaders, so her experiences should not be taken as common.

But that is not to say that South Africa was in any way behind in the fight for queer rights, in fact, they were the fifth country in the world to legalize same sex marriage and regarding laws, they are pretty fantastic. They have an equal age of consent, anti-discrimination laws in employment and all other areas, legal adoption, right to change legal gender, and men who have sex with men are allowed to donate blood. So we are not trying to advance the narrative that Africa is as a whole a bad place to be for queer people because that is not accurate, but we have to acknowledge that there isn’t any “universal” queer narrative in South Africa, and that is because there is no universal queer narrative anywhere. This is something we want to keep in mind as writers and ask our audience to keep in mind as well as we continue with Black History Month.

No queer experience is universal, and the queer experiences we will discuss within this month aren’t exceptions to this. While the stories we discuss this month will be interesting and many will give us clues to what it was like to live in the places and times that the people we view were living in they are not the last word so don’t take them as such. If you want to learn more about how queer people lived in specific places or times, we encourage you to research that but never fall into the trap of believing you understand it all. People are wonderfully complex things, as we see so clearly with Brenda Fassie. Humans are complicated both as groups and individuals, and neither can be used to explain the other completely. The desire for knowledge is a great thing but always remember that there is no end to what we can learn and this month should not be the limit of how long we look.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

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