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Brenda Fassie's death made local and international headlines | © Wayne Conradie / EPA / REX / Shutterstock
Brenda Fassie's death made local and international headlines | © Wayne Conradie / EPA / REX / Shutterstock

South Africa's 'Madonna Of the Townships’: Who is Brenda Fassie?

Picture of Andrew Thompson
Updated: 20 February 2018

South African singer Brenda Fassie was one of the country’s most iconic anti-apartheid voices. She earned a slew of nicknames, as well as a reputation as the bad girl of South African pop, and her death in 2004 was as mired in controversy as her career.

Fassie was born in the Cape Town township of Langa in November 1964, and she performed all the way up to her untimely death in 2004. Though just 39 years old, she left an indelible mark on South Africa, from the dark days of apartheid right through to the early days of democracy.

She was born into a musical family, and named after a country singer

That Brenda Fassie became the voice of a generation was no accident. She was the daughter of a pianist, and was named after American country singer Brenda Lee. She began singing to her mother’s accompaniment on the piano, and busking to tourists, at a very young age.

Fassie was in her first band at the age of five

Fassie started a band, the Tiny Tots, at the age of just five. Her powerful voice quickly gained her recognition. In 1979, when she was just 16 years old, legendary producer Koloi Lebona travelled to Cape Town to hear her sing. According to Lebona, she was already the talk of the town and her voice was known throughout Langa and the Cape.

BRENDA FASSIE, SINGER AND NIECE OF NELSON MANDELA - 1991

Brenda Fassie in 1991 | © Action Press / REX / Shutterstock

She moved to Johannesburg to pursue her singing career

After that first meeting, Lebona encouraged Fassie to move to Johannesburg to pursue her singing career. She moved in with Lebona and his family in the sprawling township of Soweto, and received instant recognition when she filled in for Anneline Malebo in popular group Joy. Her career skyrocketed from that point and soon she was a household name and was touring the country.

She had more than one nickname

Brenda Fassie was a larger-than-life singer who had several nicknames. Her fans usually called her ‘MaBrrr’, but some referred to her as ‘The Black Madonna’, ‘Madonna of the Townships’ or ‘the Queen of African Pop’.

Memeza broke a South African record

Fassie’s 1998 album Memeza sold 50,000 copies almost instantaneously. It was the first album in South Africa to go platinum on the day of its release, and it went on to sell over half a million units. According to MusicMag, Fassie Memeza still holds the top spot on the bestselling albums list in South Africa, with her 1999 album Nomakanjani in second place.

In spite of the fame, she had a tragic life

Fassie’s provocative stage act, offstage antics and vibrant personality meant that she regularly appeared on the pages of local tabloids. She had a child at age 20 with a fellow band member, married and then divorced a now-convicted hijacker and later became addicted to cocaine.

Her struggle with drugs became public knowledge, and she later lost her lover Poppy Sihlahla to an overdose in a dingy hotel room. Fassie struggled through rehabilitation after her death, but ultimately succumbed to the same fate in 2004, when she collapsed in her Johannesburg home as a result of a drug overdose. Several dignitaries visited her in hospital, including Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela and then-state president Thabo Mbeki, but she never regained consciousness and died on April 26.

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Brenda Fassie in France in 1991 | © Sipa Press / REX / Shutterstock

Her first recorded track is still an influential song in South Africa

In spite of the controversy that surrounded Fassie’s career, she was much loved throughout the country. Her first recorded song, ‘Weekend Special’, was a breakout hit and launched her international career with a string of international tours. To this day it is a common item on music radio playlists, and it’s consistently cited as one of the most powerful pop tracks of all time in South Africa.