She’s crazy, they say. “Ugly”, some even call her. She sits on her barstool, a foot propped on the chair, her arm casually draped over the knee pulled up to her chest. She seems oblivious of her surroundings, a mischievous, knowing smile dripping at the edge of her mouth. The mic waits, as uninterested an observer as those who choose to ignore her.
“People were mostly talking shit about her. They told her that she was ugly,” says Prince Sithembiso Twala (45).
But the jabs always made her sing harder, silencing her critics with her carefree voice. At other times, it’s pained and raspy, drawing on the grey areas, where life truly happens.
Like the building behind her, she has become an institution for South African artists. But, still, she seems lonely. The chair next to her is empty, and there are no benches around for people to sit and watch. Instead, youngsters chat animatedly among themselves.
A few older men in a tuk-tuk cab smoke a joint, lounging in the courtyard like they own it.
Twala, the self-declared Prince of Newtown, is one of them, his dark headband makes his loud blond hair even brighter. “We used to play drums next to her. Maybe somehow she might be lonely, but we always remember her,” he says.
The guys in the tuk-tuk watch a young man in maroon pants and a white shirt cycle in circles around her. Still, she seems unmoved, her gaze confident rather than embarrassed by the attention. She knows she deserves the attention.
The men animatedly speak of how she nonchalantly defied the rules of what was expected of her and womankind. “She used to come in, drinking Black Label. She was not even drinking with the glass like a woman would,” says 37-year-old Sebonela Rangata, who calls himself King Bzorobzarabza.
Twala and Rangata are happy in the courtyard, watching the singer in front of them, but their surroundings encroach. They heckle a passing policeman, and gesture in disgust at what Newtown has become – a place where development has become more important than artistic soul; a place they think is now unrecognisable to the woman who built her career in the city, and who drew global attention to the power with which she sang.
“We respect her. You check the sun, it’s blazing on that statue. You can see the light, you can see the dark. It’s like she changes with the day,” Rangata says. She helped write South Africa’s future with every song that shot to success, on the international stages where she roared, giving many black people a glimpse into the possibilities apartheid never wanted for them. Some walk past her, not knowing her name, but to the great many who remember her, she will always be MaBrrr.
Angus Taylor’s bronze statue of Brenda Fassie was unveiled outside the Bassline in Newtown in 2006.