By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)
An interview with Bongani Madondo, the editor of ‘I’m Not Your Weekend Special: ‘Portraits on the Life+Style+Politics of Brenda Fassie’
1.You say you ‘fell in love’, or rather, had a ‘teenage crush’ on MaBrrr after you saw her in concert at the Kudu Cinema as a boy. What was the initial allure?
At that time, early 1980s, the country was deep under the jackhammer of Apartheid, although the burning ambers of rebellion fed off by the late 1970s student uprisings and early 1980s organising of the labour force and unions could still be felt in the cultural and political sphere. Elsewhere traces of Punk and New Wave spirits could be discerned, especially in the Thatcherite England. As in South Africa, the working class youth in the UK had had enough of the old country. Brenda Fassie’s music and imagery synthesized the anger, style, art and street attitude of the time. That appealed to me in a huge way.
2. How did that love of MaBrrr grow and change over the years given all the access that you had to her?
People get it totally wrong. I also think South Africa lacks a sense of humour, and is blind to metaphor, irony and conjuncture. A pity! This book is NOT my memoir with Brenda. I have never had a romantic love crush on Brenda but a star-crush. Her work and attitude appealed to me. In a way Lady Gaga might appeal to her ‘monsters’.
3. Blondie Makhene tells Sam Mathe how at the time Weekend Special dropped in 1983 ‘‘people were still into American music’’, but yet Fassie was able to top the South African charts and became ‘Africa’s biggest pop song, ever’. What did that do for South African music?
South Africa was still reeling from major world cultural storms going back to The Bee Gees’ hit songs ‘Night Fever’, ‘Staying Alive’, John Travolta’s films ‘Night Fever; and ‘Grease’, a couple of years earlier. Also Donna Summer and the disco queer Sylvester ruled the airwaves and township shebeens. Sure, both the local female trio Joy, Margaret Singana and young Blondie and his family band Spankk were all kicking real butt and real hard. Brenda’s arrival on the scene changed the game. It said to the young women out there and everyone in the performance business: you too can do it.
4. You have also been known to call Brenda and Chicco Twala the ‘mother and father of Kwaito’ respectively, explain?
5. Who is Brenda Fassie without Chicco? How essential was he to her story?
He basically rerouted her sound and style into a more African based pop with more local flavours derived from wedding songs, more bass, added faster dance tempo, and re-imagined her as Pan African rock star than just a black girl with talent but working in the Western confines of what pop music is. That’s a significant intervention their collaboration brought. Just as Quincy Jones knew what buttons to press in his charge, Michael Jackson, Chicco knew how to extract gold from Brenda Fassie. It was less a producer and an artist situation. Remember Chicco Twala was also a major performing artist that time. What came out of the pairing was more of a collaboration duet of the dancing and rebellious spirits, in fact.
6. What do you make of TIME’s labeling of Brenda Fassie as the ‘Madonna of the townships’?
Why South Africa continues entertaining that nonsense beats me. Has anyone paused and asked: Actually how is Brenda Fassie ‘the Madonna of the townships’? Why should African artists be reduced to playing second fiddle or appreciated through the language and standards of the West, when the very pop the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Elvis, and so on, played is Trans-African in origin?
7. In a recent article you wrote about Yvonne ChakaChaka, you said Brenda is to Yvonne, what Rihanna is to Beyonce. What does that comparison mean?
Thought it is obvious. Go figure … All I can say is: there’s a huge problem to Beyonce’s curated squeaky clean image, premised, ironically, on some inflatable doll kind type of sexiness bereft of any sense of liberating erotica. It’s a ruse. There’s a lack of danger in there. Whereas with Brenda and Rihanna, their fingers were on the auto-self destruct button for way too long.
8. Fassie often told interviewers that she didn’t care what people thought of her. How much does that kind of attitude speak to the title of the book ‘I’m Not Your Weekend Special’?
She was defiant through and through. The book’s title is a play on that. The title is a play on her biggest and best-known song and album, ‘Weekend Special.’ In that song, she basically was both lashing out as well as desperate for acceptance. It also said, you will deal with me on my own terms. That spirit permeates through the book’s title, its content and overall conception and execution. Deal with it on its own terms, not what you believe books, biographies, narratives, and so on should be performed. As its androGenius mother-dad and its curator I’m also saying, I’m Not Your Weekend Special.
9. What is the genesis of this book? Did you or the publisher pitch it? Why?
I pitched it. It was not a commissioned book, no. I had wanted to do something substantial on Brenda Fassie, the phenomenon of a black rebel female artist working in pop as opposed to what many expected about black radicals as Africanist political artists per se. I was interested in a black act that can synthesise rock & roll ethos with African musical sensibility. But also, I was interested in shining-a-light on aspects of Brenda the media has been too lazy to explore, such as her roots, the routes she traveled, what lasting impressions her family left on her, what shaped and anchored the resilience of her character and so on. I was interested in both a psychological biography as well as a punk-rock musical and political criticism as an act of love. Brenda Fassie is that which results if you can imagine Tsietsi Mashinini channeling the spirit of James Brown and or Billie Holiday. The story of how the book came about, the conceptual idea, the process of creation and so on is a story worth a book or a stage play on its own. For the sake of this interview though … so in 2011, I was drafted in the making of a stage play on the life of Brenda Fassie. In the end co-wrote and acted as a dramaturge in a musical stage revue directed by the veteran actor Jerry Mofokeng. I must credit Mofokeng and the process of working on his play for re-igniting my long gestitating dream to work on a Brenda Fassie book of this nature, not any other tabloid-hack hatchet job or blind fan’s hagiography.
Author Bongani Madondo is, among other things, a journalist, essayist, stage musical writer, curator and reader based in Johannesburg. His books include ‘I’m Not Your Weekend Special: The Art, Life+Style &Politics of Brenda Fassie’ (Picador Africa), and ‘Sigh the Beloved Country’ (Jonathan Ball) which drops this winter. He can’t get over Adele, especially now that all of you are so over her. No kidding.