The contentious legacy of Brenda Fassie, South Africa’s pop princess

Chisomo KalingaChisomo Kalinga is an academic, editor and writer based in Blantyre, Malawi. She received her PhD in English literature from King’s College London (2014) after completing a cross-cultural review of responses to the AIDS epidemic produced by Malawian and New York City-based writers. Most recently, she was a postdoctoral fellow at IASH where she conducted archival research on the writings of the first medical missionaries from the Church of Scotland to settle in the Nyasaland Protectorate (Malawi). Her primary research interest is the medical humanities–particularly artistic and literary representations of illness, healing and witchcraft in African health narratives. She is currently writing a book about the literary response to the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.


 

The late South African pop singer, Brenda Fassie (3 November 1964 – 9 May 2004) was affectionately titled ‘Mabrrr’ by her fans and proclaimed by Time magazine as the ‘Madonna of the Townships’. Her outspoken, brazen and rebellious personality garnered unparalleled notoriety across Africa. She has long reigned supreme in my memory as the embodiment of the ultimate African diva (and you need only do a quick image search to see the variety of personas she inhabited).

On stage, she played the muse; her voice was pure and her dancing, particularly when she wore traditional beaded Zulu-inspired miniskirts, was playful, vivacious and entrancing. In her personal life, her indulgence and bacchanalian exploits were well documented in the media. Her drug and alcohol abuse also drew comparisons to other fallen idols as Vice magazine branded her the ‘African Edith Piaf’. She neither hid her addictions from the public nor did she retreat from inquisitions into her tumultuous relationships with both men and women lovers, which played out in the tabloids for most of her two-decade career. [1]

By traditional and conservative African standards, she was by all means not a ‘good girl’.

The full force of her provocativeness only made her superstardom across the continent even more enigmatic. This is taking into account the double standard that embraces the same level of self-destructiveness from male artists as a nuance that compliments their creative genius. And yet despite her over-the-top and out-of-control diva personality, she was respected by her contemporaries throughout Africa and transcended the standard of success for black women set by her dignified elders such as singers Dixie Kwankwa, Dorothy Masuka and Miriam Makeba.

On the one hand, her popularity was justly gained through her presentation of powerful ballads about injustice such as Black President (1990), a call to arms for the release of the then incarcerated, Nelson Mandela, which became an international hit and a rallying cry against apartheid. In Sum’bulala (Please Don’t Kill Her/Him) (1997), she pleaded with South African taxi drivers to end escalating violence amongst rival operators in townships.

On the other hand, it was her carefree stage persona as evidenced in a 2001 performance of her best-selling, upbeat wedding song Vuli’ndlela (Open the Gates) (1997) that embodied everything that the public loved about Brenda. [2]

She pranced barefoot in a short dress, jumped in the air, landing in the splits position with her underpants exposed in the presence of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and then President of the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Every audacious move was met with cheers of support. Moments later, she leaped offstage and danced her way towards his table, first into the arms of his wife, Graça Machel, and then his. She pulled him away from his table and coquettishly pleaded with him to sing with her: ‘Madiba… please, sing! Please, please!’ He offered one abrupt syllable into her microphone before giving up. Her message was clear. At that moment, she, and only she, was in charge. And she had won him and the entire audience over.

Perhaps few outside the African continent are familiar with her legacy as a singer, a cultural icon and an outrageous success story to rise from the segregated townships of Cape Town. When IASH introduced the Dangerous Women Project and called for essays reflecting upon the question ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman’, I felt compelled to share Brenda’s story within the context of the black Jezebel narrative and stereotypes of black female sexuality that should have hindered her rise to fame.

Brenda was known as the ‘bad girl’ whose music even gogos (grandmothers) liked to dance to. Her success was in part defined by an unapologetic command of her sexuality both on and off stage. She was a libertine and l’enfant terrible, yet she strategically confronted the Jezebel stereotype by challenging racial binaries and heterosexist patriarchies that sustained this narrative within the South African apartheid social construct. Her celebration of South African traditions in her image and sound created an important space for deconstructing black female autonomy.

Despite the turbulence that affected her personal relationships, her fame and popularity were buoyed by her fans’ acceptance of her narrative of empowerment against detrimental interpretations of black identity promoted by the apartheid regime. From the late 90s onwards, she abandoned singing in English altogether in favour of Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu. On stage and in her videos, she adorned herself in personalized traditional costumes reflecting the versatility of South Africa’s indigenous textile cultures. Her music, which was first infused with Western pop sounds, soon adopted the local kwaito beats, a late 20th century African aesthetic that emanated from South African townships. [3]

Watching Brenda Fassie in recordings of her performances, interviews and music videos, I often feel that she did not contrive to brand herself into an African feminist icon. Rather, there was an innate and raw disdain for injustice and oppression that informed her style, performance, imagination and sound. If her rebellion was ingrained, it perhaps was tested by a combination of her nature and a reaction against the apartheid state that she grew up in.

The black Jezebel narrative, within the context of feminist thought, is a trope that establishes a distorted and dehumanising framework to hypersexualise and objectify black women’s sexuality; it historically demeans and overshadows the complexity and diversity of romantic experiences faced by women of colour. In its historical roots, particularly in the context of the European colonialisation of Africa and the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas, it attributes shame and culpability for sexual interactions between white men and black women as a result of entrapment due to the manipulative and lascivious nature of African women. [4]

The stereotype traces its origins to hermeneutical interpretations of the New Testament in the Book of Kings; Jezebel was a Phoenician princess and idol worshiper who persuaded her husband, King Ahab, to abandon worship of Yahweh (God) in favor of pagan deities. In artistic representations, she is portrayed as a lascivious, dangerous woman who uses her sexuality to lure men into sin and other misdeeds. Hence, applications of the black jezebel stereotype during colonialism, post-colonialism, slavery and the Jim Crow-era justified rape, sexual exploitation and degradation of black women by emphasizing their feral sexual nature. Augustine Assah affirms that dominance over the African female body in creative representation continues to be framed by histories of postcolonial patriarchy, particularly in depictions of women’s sexuality. [5]

In African culture, the question “Is she a good girl?” at face value is a polite inquiry; however this question can also be a thinly veiled code to ascertain the level of promiscuous behavior that a woman engages in. It reflects the conventional way that women are viewed within the troubling binary of either a ‘respectable’, ‘honorable’ African lady or a ‘prostitute’. The Anglophone African application of the word ‘prostitute’ classifies a spectrum of women who engage in sexual activities that involve premarital sex, particularly with multiple partners. This is contrasted with common applications of the word in a Western construct where it either identifies sex industry workers or is meant to insult a woman’s sexual agency by associating her with sex workers.

The woman who has been labelled a prostitute in African discourse is devoid of humanity and is usually depicted as the source of demise, particularly through disease; she exists only to entrap the morally conflicted male to teach a lesson about promiscuity.

She is a Jezebel.

Paula Treichler examined the dialogue about female sexuality during the AIDS epidemic and revealed that although scientific discourse had a tendency to present women in general as ‘incompetent transmitters of HIV, passive receptacles’, this consideration did not apply to African women and sex workers. She argues that these two specific types of women in the public imagination were ‘seen as so contaminated that their bodies are virtual laboratory cultures for viral replication. […] [Their] exotic bodies, sexual practices, are seen to be so radically different from those of women in the [West] that anything can happen in them’. [6] It demonstrates the severity to which the black Jezebel narrative had become entrenched in anthropological, communal and scientific understandings of black female sexuality.

Brenda Fassie used her music as a platform to confront both the African ‘good girl’ and ‘Jezebel’ narratives.

In her song Good Black Woman (1989) she woefully pleaded against her brother’s imprisonment to apartheid police officers. Her frustration powered the melody as she chastised the officers for having a bad attitude towards her and appealed them to respect her value as a “good black woman”: one who fights against injustice.

While her music provided one avenue to discuss injustices against women, particularly during apartheid, she also used it as a platform to challenge perceptions that a measure of a woman’s ‘goodness’ is conditional on her sexual demureness. In her aptly titled dance track, ‘I’m Not A Bad Girl’ (1990), she responded to media criticism about her behaviour by declaring that she’s not a bad girl seeking publicity but just ‘an ordinary girl’ seeking acceptance to be ‘the way I am’. In interviews, she matched these sentiments very candidly, particularly about her same-sex partnerships, and offered that her unrepentant stance of self-acceptance had a slight negative impact on her fame:

I am a lover. I’ve always been with women. When I was still married I was also with women. […] People knew. […] Before people thought it was a bad thing in God’s eyes. […] They don’t bother me. It’s nice to be the way I am. [7]

In her last years, she had come out as a lesbian. She was particularly adamant that who she loved should not prohibit her from also self-identifying as a good African woman.

The impact of the Jezebel narrative is most troubling in its tendency to both overtly and subconsciously undermine sexual expression, identities and desires of black women. Many black women across varying cultures feel compelled to counter this stereotype by projecting an overemphasized demeanour of wholesomeness, piety and chastity. Assah argues that this is also reflected within African self-representations of female sexuality in particular: ‘in spite of their thematic interest in the subject of sex, [African narratives], at the stylistic and technical levels, are muted and euphemistic portrayals of the sexual’. [8]

Brenda Fassie, whose life and music was defined by racism, sexism and a counter narrative of empowerment, set forth an important dialogue that resonated across the continent through an interrogation of oppressive ideologies against Africans and women. Privately, she was a complicated and self-destructive character, but as an artist, she was a self-assured revolutionary. She offered herself and the South African music scene to the entire continent as a platform to converge and rebel against the legacy of ownership of black bodies and their sexuality. She seemed unnerved by the public exposure of her private life and allowed it to inform her activism and legacy.

Mireille Miller-Young argues that contemporary hip-hop culture and its emphasis on pornographic, explicit and crude displays of black sexuality tend to cause anxiety within black communities and incite controversy around exactly what constitutes “appropriate” representation of black sexuality. Though she acknowledges that misogyny and homophobia are rampant in hip hop culture, she advocates against withdrawing or toning down images of black sexuality as a protection and preservation mechanism against the historically rooted exploitation of the black jezebel stereotype. [9] Additionally, bell hooks, a prominent black feminist scholar, has advocated in the past for an “oppositional gaze” or a new way of looking at and challenging the ways society has accepted certain stereotypes about black women. [10]

I found the life story of Brenda Fassie intriguing because she used her celebrity to publicly denounce the principle that sustains the sexual expression of an African woman as an acceptable measure of her character. Instead, her articulation and embracing of her own sexuality encouraged us to theorise it as a practice of resistance against the black Jezebel narrative.

Black African female sexuality receives considerable analysis under heteronormative frameworks of postcolonial resistance and patriarchal subjectivity and fetishism. This engagement is vital to contextualise gender and feminist studies in Africa but we need to engage more with the full range of experiences that the modern African woman faces. As an educator, I aspire to integrate more diverse narratives within the framework of African studies, particularly gender and LGBTQI+ experiences.

Brenda Fassie had an extraordinary ability to convert the discomfort that her sexuality elicited into an invitation to adore her. One of my favorite stories is how she handled a wardrobe malfunction at Zanzibar nightclub, a former venue in Washington D.C. once popular to the African diaspora. [11] Several of my relatives were in attendance that evening and during a vibrant dance set, Fassie’s breasts burst out of her corset in front of a stunned audience. Interpreting their silence as discomfort, Brenda paused her performance and cupped her hands under her bare breasts. She faced the audience and unapologetically declared “This… is Africa!” Once again, she was met with rapturous applause.

Brenda Fassie, at her best, epitomized black female empowerment and sexual liberation.

So what makes a woman dangerous?

The dangerous woman is an African woman who embraces her sexuality, who refuses to conceal it as an act of self-preservation against an antiquated narrative that vilifies her as a dark, voluptuous and indecent being. The dangerous woman is an African woman who is not afraid to challenge traditional perceptions of what it means a ‘good girl’.

Brenda Fassie was a dangerous woman because she was a free spirit who wanted the world to love her unconditionally as a sexual black woman.

And many did.

 


 

[1] In 1995, Fassie was discovered unconscious in a Johannesburg hotel next to the body of her female lover Poppie Sihlahla, who had died of an apparent drug overdose. More here: ‘Brenda Fassie: A Very Human HeroBBC News 10 May 2004.

[2] See video performance ‘Brenda Fassie singing for Nelson Mandela in South Africa’ Posted by Anjara Jahbady on YouTube. This account was also featured in Olah “Brenda Fassie” Vice Magazine.

[3] For a brief overview of her career, see: Liz McGregor’s ‘Obituary: Brenda Fassie: South Africa‘ in The Guardian Online 11 May 2004

[4] Evie Shockley. ‘Buried Alive: Gothic Homelessness, Black Women’s Sexuality, and (Living) Death in Ann Petry’s ‘The Street’.’ African American Review 40, no. 3 (2006): 439-60, (p. 440)

[5] Augustine H. Assah, ‘Images of Rape in African Fiction: Between the Assumed Fatality of Violence and the Cry for Justice’, Annales Aequatoria, 28 (2007), 333-55 (p. 340).

[6] Paula A. Treichler, ‘AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification’, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, 43 (1999), 31-70 (pp. 45-46).

[7] David Stein. ‘Brenda: The 2003 Mamba Interview‘ Mamba Magazine Online 9 May 2014.

[8] Augustine H. Assah, ‘To Speak or Not to Speak with the Whole Mouth: Textualization of Taboo Subjects in Europhone African Literature’, Journal of Black Studies, 36 (2006), 497-514, (p. 505).

[9] Mireille Miller-Young. “Hip-Hop Honeys and Da Hustlaz: Black Sexualities in the New Hip-Hop Pornography ” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 261-92.

[10] bell hooks. Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992)

[11] This account has also been confirmed and reported in multiple news sources including the previously highlighted Time and Vice Magazine articles.