Brenda Fassie: Africa: The Madonna Of The Townships

Brenda Fassie, the bad girl of South African pop, finally gets her shot at musical (and media) stardom in America

  • The moment was pure Brenda. Making her U.S. debut at Washington's Zanzibar club in July, South African singer Brenda Fassie sang passionately from the diaphragm for almost three hours straight. As if that wasn't enough strain on her petite body, Fassie determinedly put on a frenetic dance show. Suddenly her breasts popped out of her costume. The audience gasped, but Fassie unabashedly grabbed her bare bosom and thrust it at the crowd. "This," she proclaimed, "is Africa!"

    But America, it seems, was not yet ready for that part of Africa. "The promoters asked me not to do that again," she said afterward. Which is too bad, because back home Fassie is known (and loved) for her outrageousness. Ask a South African if he likes her music, and he's likely to reply with some vivid, raucous tale. In the townships, Fassie is nicknamed "Madonna," after the provocative American pop star. Fassie is the protagonist of countless tabloid stories involving drug use, bisexuality and tantrums of diva proportions (one local paper even reprinted--verbatim--an interview with Madonna, replacing her name with Fassie's). Last April, as she accepted a prize at the South African Music Awards, she flashed her legs at the crowd. "Nice, eh?" she asked, as the audience cheered. But when she returned to her table, Fassie abruptly hurled obscenities at a tabloid reporter who was sitting nearby, calling him "a homosexual who sleeps with men to get stories." Later, as a rival performer did a TV interview, she snatched away the microphone. "This is my night!" she insisted.

    Fassie has been shocking people all her life. When she was born in 1964, her surprised family was expecting a boy, so Fassie's mother, casting about for a name, borrowed one from U.S. country singer Brenda Lee. By her fifth birthday, Fassie was already earning money by singing for tourists. As a teen, she landed gigs with popular acts and got on the charts with a single, Weekend Special, which received international air play. Fassie's 1980s efforts--bubble-gum pop sung mainly in English--were musically unremarkable. But young South Africans loved the lyrics of songs like Too Late for Mama that reflected the realities of the apartheid era, so Fassie became the princess of local music.

    In recent years, with her girly, high-pitched delivery ripened into a strong-woman wail, Fassie has entered a new phase of her career. The kids call her the Queen of Kwaito, a pulsating pop style that exploded out of the townships in the early '90s and that Fassie quickly adopted. Kwaito (slang for "these guys are hot") fuses slowed American house and hip-hop, British garage and Jamaican reggae, held together with laid-back bass lines and percussion from traditional African chants. Like hip-hop, kwaito has become a cultural movement that incorporates lifestyle and fashion. And like hip-hop, it sells. In South Africa, where a platinum album means sales of 50,000 units, kwaito records regularly sell more than 100,000. Fassie's 1998 album, Memeza (Shout), was the first South African recording to go platinum on its first day of release. It has sold more than half a million units, spurred by the single Vuli Ndlela (Accept the Situation), which still remains on the South African music charts. Her latest album, Amadlozi (Ancestors), has sold more than 300,000 units.

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