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15 May 2004: Thinking of Brenda - Njabulo Ndebele - PART 2 (2 of 2)  

Thinking of Brenda - Njabulo Ndebele - PART 2 (2 of 2)
www.music.org.za 2004
By Njabulo Ndebele 2000

Indeed, long before the issue of sexual preference became a burning constitutional issue, Brenda had long widened the door open. But there is yet another way that Brenda touched a significant chord in a national context. Here we are looking at the impact of the politics of culture in creating a national identity. I had occasion to reflect just under a year ago, on binding factors, which could explain why it would be difficult for the South African state to disintegrate in conflict. I observed that "an increasingly familiar commercial and industrial landscape has progressively drawn the population into a unifying pattern of economic activities. A replicated landscape of major commercial chains throughout the country has, over the decades, become a feature of how the land is imagined. Spatial familiarity of this sort renders the land familiar, less strange and more accommodating wherever you may be in the country. This kind of familiarity may have a binding effect, which cuts across the particularising tendencies of geographic and ethnic location. Linking the country is a complex network of a communications system, which promised accessibility of every part of the country to every citizen. This sense of universal accessibility was sensed as an achievement even before CODESA was underway".

It is remarkable how extensively Brenda toured the country singing. Particularly noteworthy are the festivals held in the homelands. Between September 1991 when she performed at the Mphephu Resort, in Venda, and December 1994 when she performed at (11 Ibid) the Phuthaditjaba Stadium, in Qwaqwa, Brenda Fassie visited all the homelands together 19 times. In a hectic schedule, she could move from homeland to homeland in one weekend. In this way, her music, given the political context of difficult struggle, helped to consolidate a view of culture as social affirmation. Secondly, it contributed to the consolidation of a sense of South African musical space, familiar to millions across the land. Some symbols changed in the process. Stadiums associated with bogus independence became sites for a social assertiveness heavily suggested in Brenda’s style.


So who is Brenda Fassie? In Sesotho, I would say: "Ke sebopuoa. (God's own, being). Charl Blignaut, of the famous interview in the "Vrye Weekblad" with the heading `in bed with Brenda', ponders on the conduct of his subject during the interview. As we nave noticed, she strays from answering questions while she digresses on minor intrusions. "Over the years", Blignaut writes,

I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to write a Brenda interview without its being personal. That's because there really is no such thing as a Brenda "interview". Every self-respecting hack who's been around the block has done the "Waiting for Brenda" or "Trying to keep up with Brenda" piece. You don't "interview" Brenda, you experience her. You could be the recipient of her venom or of her devoted attention. Most likely it'll be both - with switches happening when you least expect them. Then again, maybe it's just me. As I said, it's personal. One minute she's outside crying on the balcony because you've really upset her and hurt her career, the next she's feeding you her lunch. And that's probably because, like any serious pop star anywhere in the world, Brenda Fassie has a love-hate relationship with the media. I've interviewed other famously difficult people like Naomi Campbell and Boy George and have remained reasonable calm. But, without fail, each time I prepare to interview Brenda, I'm deeply on edge for days. Because no mater what you're thinking, you seldom know what she'll do next; you're never quite ready for her. That point is that Brenda Fassie, whether she's topping the charts or lying in the gutter, is every inch a star. She makes her own rules."
(12 Mail & Guardian. August 8, 1997.)

There are two observations I would like to make about Blignaut's experience. The first is how he may not have fully realized the extent to which Brenda subjected him to the rules of her own life. When he says that interviewing Brenda is a "personal thing" a feeling which he expresses through a public medium, he lives for a moment, in Brenda's world in which the personal and the public not only coexist, but seem to merge.

Secondly, I doubt that Brenda really has a special "love-hate relationship with the media. " While she would never be totally indifferent to the media, her swings of mood are not necessarily a calculated desire to be outrageous, to wound and then to make amends in order to keep the lines of communication open. They are part of the fabric of her life. One moment she berates Yvonne Chaka Chaka for living in the suburbs, the next moment she declares her a true friend. When Brenda gets angry, it's because anger is natural. When she becomes compassionate, it is because compassion is natural. But whatever the case might be, you never sense hatred. But certainly affection, even love, are never absent. You find them framing, however tenuously, even in the most outrageous statement. Being kind of person she is, essentially trusting, Brenda is likely to experience many moments of vulnerability, and be wont to feel sharply the pain of disappointment (Akusese mnandi, yo/ Monday Buti yo / Ungishaya ngaphakathi), which she then come to terms with, and transcends through song. It is a quality of innocence that lies at the core of her life. It makes no sense to be angry at the storm, or, in contrast, to declare love for the sun. They are both facts of life indifferent to how you may feel about them, even though it may be comforting to express attitudes towards them.

American journalist Donald G.M. McNeil Jnr, confirms this impression when he reflects on the inappropriateness of comparisons between Brenda and Madonna. "In interviews," he writes,
the comparison to Madonna seems ridiculous. Madonna is a study in calculation; Fassie is all impulse. She cannot sit still, leaps to answer phones that are not hers, peremptorily sends people out for things like artificial fingernails and ice cream bars. She brags that she'll tell anybody who her sexual partner was the previous night."13

On the other hand, Mark Gevisser concludes: "She is textbook tabloid commodity: her fix, and her downfall, has been notoriety, not cocaine." 14 Not quite, I think. Her fix, not really a fix because it is who she primarily is, is her innocence, which may have courted notoriety as a method of expression. She bumped into notoriety along the way. If Brenda had discovered something exciting about being a nun, something about which, as a musician, she could say some outrageous things, and swing her pelvis on the stage in the process, with the kind of zeal some born-again religious people can demonstrate, she would have played around with saintliness as a method of expression. At bottom is the desire to be. To be free, although unbridled freedom, like the political strategy or ungovernability , can bum the one that wields it.

(13 Z.B Molete. A Common Hunger to Sing: A Tribute to South Africa's Women of Song. (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 1997).
(14 Mail& Guardian. December 1,1995.)


If this has been a personal engagement with Brenda, I have also now made the personal, public. I think the TRC was also about making the private, public. I think only if we attempt this pouring out of personal feeling and thinking into the public domain, will a new public become possible. We cannot tell what kind of public it will be, but we do need to release more and more personal data into our public home to bring about a more real human environment: more real because it is more honest, more trusting, and more expressive. And so, the journey that began in my bed, on a languid Spring morning of 1984 in the Roma Valley in Lesotho, is far from over. But sixteen years later, I have landed in a free country with Brenda. She, her hundreds of thousands of fans, and I, are all still figuring out, so to speak, how things will turn out. But we have our music, and hope that it can keep opening up and widening the horizons of our imaginations endlessly.


NJABULO S NDEBELE
GRAHAMSTOWN FESTIVAL
AUGUST 2000





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