Iconic South African singer Brenda Fassie would have been 52 today. Whether you know her as “the Queen of Afropop” or “the Madonna of the Townships,” she was a larger-than-life influence on the music of the continent.
I met Fassie once. It was the mid-90s and she arrived at the music store I was working at in Hillbrow, Johannesburg just before closing time on a weekday evening. I immediately grabbed a 12” copy of “Kuyoze Kuyovalwa” and asked her to autograph it. After spelling my name for her, I still ended up as “Graig.” I think she probably heard me, but she wasn’t beholden to anyone but herself.
Fassie then insisted on listening to all our latest cassettes while she sat on the security guard’s stool at the shop’s door. The security detail was jittery—we closed the shop like clockwork at 10:30pm, and this was Hillbrow. But this was Brenda. The rest of the world stopped for her.
MaBrrr’s life is way too rich for this piece alone—for anyone interested check out Bongani Madondo’s book, “I’m Not Your Weekend Special,” or this documentary. We’ll just concentrate on her musical legacy here with her ten best songs.
10. “Kuyoze Kuyovalwa” (1994)
Kwaito pioneer Arthur Mafokate had just exploded with “Kaffir” when he was drafted in for production duties on “Kuyoze Kuyovalwa.” While the results ended up in sale bins, it hinted at a future-forward dance music route Fassie could have taken: big beats, taut basslines, her voice smeared across the mix. “Zimb’ izindaba” are the singer’s opening words: “We’re not leaving this party. We’ll be here until daybreak.”
9. “No! No! Señor” (1986)
Taken off her last album with The Big Dudes, this has Fassie imploring her man “please don’t do that to me” over a deadly bassline, fractured Chic-like guitar licks and synthy atmospherics.
8. “I Straight Lendaba” (1992)
Named for “the way people talk in the townships,” according to Fassie—phrases like “I’m telling you straight”—this restrained piece of pop also prefigures kwaito with its snail’s pace four-four kicks, bubbly electronics and back-and-forth vocal chants.
7. “Ngeke Unconfirm” (1995)
Fassie does kwaito again. Released around the same time as the ascent of the Kalawa Jazmee label—and her heir apparent, Lebo Mathosa of Boom Shaka, who tragically died two years after Fassie—this Arthur Mafokate-produced song trades in the same kind of Robin S. organ-bass and marimba keys that Kalawa were peddling at the time with acts like Trompies and Alaska—with the added bonus of MaBrrr’s voice.
6. “Higher and Higher” (1985)
While the production reeks of the 80s—all proto-drum machines and garish keyboards—“Higher and Higher” shows off Fassie’s serious lyrical skills: “Primal scream, she’s got the body of sin / Should be a law against such an invention / A little smile to let you see that she knows / And can sense the smell of your intentions.”
5. “Black President” (1990)
A straightforward tribute to Nelson Mandela, this track tells his life story and looks forward to a time—four years ahead, in fact—when Mzansi would have its first black president. “Viva, viva, my people,” Fassie sings over a joyous bed of uplifting chimes, cooing backing vocals and neatly-programmed percussion.
4. “Memeza” (1997)
Over minimal backing—a single kick and trickling cymbals—Fassie showcased her still-pristine pipes along with a choir. “Memeza” means “shout” or “scream,” and on this the singer is screaming against “the ones with no mercy” who have “caught” her.
3. “Too Late For Mama” (1991)
“Too Late For Mama” tells the story of a mother who is killed while fetching water after being struck by lightning. The tragedy: she’s trying to protect the baby on her back by hiding under a tree (the baby presumably dies too). Mournful synths accompany.
2. “Vul’indlela” (1997)
So good our president decided to dance to it during a state visit to Kenya earlier in 2016—on the same day Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was indicted for fraud and the #FeesMustFall protests raged. With its church organ intro and lyrics—“Clear the way / My baby boy is getting married today”—it was always destined to be a wedding day staple in South Africa, but Chicco’s synthetic backtrack also mark it out as one of the greatest bubblegum hits. It was voted Song of the Decade at the South African Music Awards on 26 April 2004, a month after Fassie’s death.
1. “Weekend Special” (1986)
The song that started it all, “Weekend Special” was originally released in 1984 but only caught on a couple of years later. The ultimate side-chick anthem, it was recorded by Brenda & The Big Dudes (Blondie and Pappa Makhene) and its success catapulted MaBrrr to stardom. The tune is also a Fassie blueprint: a compelling African tale told in inimitable style, accompanied by super-catchy afro-disco grooves. A masterpiece.
Greg has been writing about African music since the kwaito era and has been published in the Mail & Guardian, Elle, DJ Mag, Boiler Room and many more. He also deejays as DJ Dexterity and consults on digital campaigns. He’s on Twitter as @dexterity.