It was Brenda Fassie’s birthday anniversary on Thursday, a perfect opportunity to celebrate the life and legacy of the late South African singer, lost too soon. Fassie died May 9, 2004 in Johannesburg at 39 years old; she would have been 52 today.
Brenda Nokuzola Fassie was born on Nov. 3, 1964 in Langa, a township near Cape Town, and rose to international fame at the age of 19 with the disco-lite hit “Weekend Special.”
Fassie rose to carry the titles “Queen of African Pop” and “Madonna of the Townships,” although when an interviewer brought up this latter nickname, she corrected him. “No, no, no, sweety,” she explained. “Madonna is the Brenda of America.”
Even if she had kept making bubblegum pop music, she still would have been politically significant for being South Africa’s first black pop star. But she also became a more politically aware and active singer, releasing protest songs such as 1990’s “Black President,” a tribute to the then-still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Declaring “I am proud to be African,” she stopped singing in English, and sang only in Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho.
Fassie was also open about her bisexuality, at a time when few public figures in Africa or elsewhere were. She had romantic relationships with women after her 1989 marriage ended.
As exceptional as Fassie’s career was, it was frequently in danger of being derailed by the trappings of fame and fortune that are no less tragic for being common: drugs and alcohol. In 1994, just as South Africa was holding its first democratic elections, Fassie was checking into rehab. She had a successful comeback, the top-selling South African album in 1998, and an album a year for the four years following. As success returned, so did her demons, and in 2002 she checked back into rehab for cocaine and alcohol abuse.
Afropop’s Sean Barlow recalled watching her last performance in South Africa on an Easter Monday in Soweto. “At a celebration of female musical artists, she was on stage with—or as one of—the greats, like Yvonne Chaka Chaka,” Barlow says. “Brenda was ailing by then. She arrived in an ambulance, gave a blistering performance, got back in the ambulance and went back to the hospital. It was just a story of her total dedication to her fans.”
Fassie slipped into a coma on April 26, 2004, and died two weeks later. While she was in the hospital she was visited by Mandela, as well as the then-sitting president, Thabo Mbeki.
Although gone for 12 years, her legacy lives on. Her songs are still played at parties and weddings. In honor of her birthday, fans have been posting tributes to her across social media.