Brenda Fassie

Brash and brilliant queen of African pop
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The Independent Online

Brash and brilliant, Brenda Fassie was Africa's undisputed Queen of Pop, a talented diva whose continent-wide appeal was dwarfed only by the scandals and addictions of her turbulent personal life.

Brenda Fassie, singer: born Cape Town, South Africa 3 November 1964; married 1989 Nhlanhla Mbambo (marriage dissolved 1991), (one son); died Johannesburg, South Africa 9 May 2004.

Brash and brilliant, Brenda Fassie was Africa's undisputed Queen of Pop, a talented diva whose continent-wide appeal was dwarfed only by the scandals and addictions of her turbulent personal life.

Time magazine once compared Fassie to Madonna, but the American star's contrived controversies paled beside the drug battles, failed relationships, lesbian affairs and headline-grabbing tantrums that became pillars of the Fassie legend. But behind the tabloid tattle, she was simply Africa's greatest pop star.

Although her music was rooted in South Africa's gritty townships, Fassie's army of fiercely loyal fans spanned the continent. From sweaty bars in Sierra Leone to nightclubs on the Indian Ocean coast, Africans adored her piercing voice and throbbing, anthemic pop songs. "Out of 1,000 people you talk to in Africa, maybe two would say they don't know Brenda," her agent, Sello "Chicco" Twala, once boasted.

Fassie was plunged into a world of music from childhood. Born in Langa, on the rundown Cape Flats, in 1964, Fassie was named, by her piano-playing mother, Sarah, after the American songstress Brenda Lee. Inevitably, the mischievous teenager was drawn to the stage. She sang at school assembly and, according to friends, was composing her own songs by the age of 20. Hearing of her distinctive vocals, the producer Koloi Lelbona tracked her down in Langa. "I knew it was the voice of the future," he said later.

Moving to Johannesburg in the early 1980s, Fassie eventually formed Brenda and the Big Dudes and shot to fame in 1983 with the bubble-gum hit "Weekend Special". Her domination of the music business was to last almost two decades, bolstered by swaggering antics and a scandal-filled personal life that made her a favourite of the tabloid press. "I'm going to become the Pope next year. Nothing is impossible," she declared after winning one award in 1999. When she lost another award to a rival three years later, she raged at him publicly and spewed a torrent of obscenities at a journalist who had written critical articles about her. "I'm a shocker. I like to create controversy. It's my trademark," she said in a 1998 interview.

But the dark shadow of drug addiction threatened Fassie's rising star. By her own admission, she developed a chronic cocaine and alcohol problem in the early 1990s, following her separation from her husband Nhlanhla Mbambo amid accusations that he was a wife-beater. (Mbambo was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in jail for murder.) Fassie's son was thrown out of boarding school for non-payment of fees, and she was convicted of assaulting a photographer.

The turning point came in 1995, after Fassie was found lying in a seedy Johannesburg hotel room next to the body of her best friend and lesbian lover, Poppie Sihlahla, who had apparently died from a drug overdose. The singer was revived in hospital and checked herself into a rehabilitation clinic.

But predictions of the imminent demise of Fassie's career were proved wrong when she bounced back with a string of hit albums and some of her best work. She collaborated with the Congolese music legend Papa Wemba on the acclaimed album Now is the Time (1996) and went on to record Memeza ("Shout"), South Africa's best-selling album of 1998. She became a leading exponent of Kwaito, the pulsating fusion of American hip-hop and township jive, and brought out another three albums, all of them best-sellers. As her popularity amplified across Africa, Fassie toured the United States in 2001 in the hope of becoming an international star.

At home in South Africa, her mixture of brassy attitude and human vulnerability endeared her to many. The ruling African National Congress party capitalised on her popularity in the 1999 election by using the wedding song "Vulindela" ("Make Way") in its campaigning. Fassie, who had taken part in the anti-apartheid struggle, also gave her personal support to the ANC. At one election rally, the crowd reportedly cheered her more loudly than even Nelson Mandela, the national hero.

Still, the outrageous antics continued. When her breasts popped out at a US concert in 2001, an unabashed Fassie shouted "This is Africa!" In the same year the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi - then considered a pariah to the West - fell under her spell. After a concert in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, he sent a group of armed soldiers to bring Fassie to his personal residence, where he reportedly took a ruby-and-diamond ring from his hand and slipped it onto her finger.

But the battle with drugs never abated. Checking into another rehab clinic in 2002, she told the Sowetan newspaper, "I hope that when I come out of this place I'll be the real Brenda people used to know." A year later, her neighbours in the plush, formerly whites-only, Johannesburg suburb of Sandton were complaining of raucous parties that dragged on until five in the morning.

On 26 April, shortly after the release of Mali, her last album, Fassie had a severe asthma attack, suffered brain damage and fell into a coma. News of her deteriorating condition dominated South Africa's front pages for weeks. Famous visitors flooded to see her in Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg, including Mandela and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

Her death brought tributes from across the continent, but the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, offered the most eloquent eulogy. She was, he said, "a Pan-African griot, making souls rise in bliss wherever her voice reached".

Declan Walsh