Reflecting on Brenda Fassie’s ‘Black President’

It was an amazing coincidence, but it felt more like magic.

On the night of February 22, an overfull home office drawer that hadn’t been touched in years offered up the programme from Moses Molelekwa’s memorial service from among the jumble of old reporter’s notebooks, yellowing newspaper clippings and fading invoices. The date of the service: February 22 2001, exactly 18 years ago to the day.

On the back of the programme was a message written in blue ink, addressed by name to my kids, who were then eight and five: “With lots of love, from Brenda Fassie. Look after Daddy. Call me if you want,” with her cellphone number underneath.

Reading it again, memories from the memorial service at Mega Music Warehouse in Jo’burg came flooding back. I had covered it for a television station.

In the middle of the rather worthy proceedings, which featured forgettable musical items interspersed with long speeches by very important politicians and music industry heavies, Fassie — gatvol like the rest of us — stood up from her seat in the audience and started singing a cappella, clear-voiced, defiant and sincere.

She ignored the worthies who tried to shut her up because she wasn’t on the programme. Fassie was always on the programme.

It soon became clear that was all the televisual we were going to get.

Packing the camera equipment away in the crew car, we saw a red Beemer roaring towards us. “Where’s the exit?” Fassie asked from the driver’s seat. A fumbling fanboy, I only just managed to ask her to sign the programme for my kids, also huge fans.

Born in 1964, Fassie grew up in Langa township, Cape Town. She was the youngest of nine in a poor family and was destined to be a musician: her pianist mother named her after American country singer Brenda Lee and she started performing at the age of four.

READ MORE: Madonna of the Townships: Remembering Brenda Fassie

With that voice — big enough to fill the FNB Stadium in Soweto on its own — she soothed, reassured and roused poor, black South Africans. As someone with working-class roots, Fassie knew about their pain and aspirations. Even though her songs weren’t always overtly political, she tapped into the militancy of the 1980s.

Her most political song was probably Black President, the title track of her 1990 album, a result of her successful partnership with producer Sello “Chicco” Twala. It detailed the incarceration of Nelson Mandela and other heroes of the liberation struggle:

Him and his comrades

Were sentenced to isolation

For many painful years

For many painful years

Many painful years

Of hard labour

She highlights the brutality of apartheid prisons:

They broke rocks

But the spirit was never broken

Never broken

Oh no, my, my black president

Black President was also a crystalline reflection of the optimism of the time, celebrating the release in 1990 of Mandela and his comrades:

Now in 1990

The people’s president

Came out from jail

Raised up his hand and said

“Viva, viva, my people”

He walked the long road

Back, back to freedom

Back to freedom

Freedom for my black president

As the BBC put it in an obituary when Fassie died at the age of just 39 in 2004, “her career was studded with record sales and awards, but punctuated also by periodic scandals, recurring battles with drug addiction, and lows in her musical career that saw her written off by the press”.

As the ultimate maverick, Fassie’s politics was manifested not through how proudly she donned any party colours, but by being anti-establishment. Under apartheid it was against the boers. After democracy, as was evident at Molelekwa’s memorial service, she took on the cultural desk commissars, industry suits and, perpetually, straight society.

She challenged issues of race, gender and sexuality head-on, without naming her politics with any multisyllabic jargon. Fassie lived according to her own rules. That’s what made her political.

This article was first published on New Frame

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