Weekend Specialby Brandon Edmonds / 05.09.2013 Image © STEVE GORDON/Musicpics.co.za
Wikipedia says Brenda Fassie was in and out of rehab “about 30 times in her life”. She died at forty. The math alone demands a word like “troubled” when trying to fit her life into language.
She never had a dad really and may well have felt lost in the tumble of 8 siblings in Langa, raised by her piano-playing mom. Like Michael Jackson, she was made to earn early, singing for tourists as a kid. She must have felt it in herself in the eyes of Germans, Americans, and Danes, seen the value of her voice in the jingle of their coin. Even as a kid she’d have known, her gift was something special. By 16, she was in Soweto, in the action, free of the claims of family, free to cavort, singing her ass off, heading, all the while, towards that debut song, “Weekend Special” that would change everything.
This wonderful synth-spattered bubblegum ringtone is at the heart of all South African culture, the closest we’ve ever come, give or take some Fugard and Coetzee, some Can Themba, Yizo Yizo and Tommy Motswai, to seeing exactly the kind of people we are: desperate.
Desperation is what being South African’s really about. Look at the numbers. The inequality. Desperation is a collective experience here, our birthright. Beggars aren’t kidding. They’re desperate. Murderers aren’t kidding. They’re desperate. Rapists aren’t kidding. They’re desperate. Strikers aren’t kidding. They’re desperate. This song gets that desperation and figures it, displaces it, makes it danceable. Only special songs can.
We measure our place in this society by the reality of our desperation. Are we essentially satisfied, our goals getting actualized, our needs met, great, you’re spared the kind of desperation that breaks laws, that violently protests, that can’t sleep right or see straight for hunger.
The elemental South African emotional forces unleashed by divisive structural conditions (unhappiness at being used & exploited, longing, broken dreams, bottled up passion, frustration, anger, defiance) “Weekend Special” is unafraid to confront is staggering. That’s why it never goes away. Why it keeps refreshing its hold on fresh swarms of artists.
It goes deep.
That a song this candid about our country – the play of master and servant at its core for starters, the weak waiting on the strong to be delivered, is how mass politics operate under the ANC – was once considered throwaway pop not worthy of the Struggle is a joke. There are few richer bulletins from South African culture to its own users. Few that acknowledges and sublimates our collective desperation so well.
And we haven’t even touched on the handclaps, the futuristic synths or the syrupy marvels of Brenda’s voice, and how she strokes both thighs on ”waiting for you”. The woman was a barn on fire. She had heat. They should lock up corrective rapists who prey on lesbians in C-Max, with Brenda playing 24/7. Let her music and her life choices, her lovers, her freedom and independence, her waywardness, her life, be their corrective. Let them see anyone can be anything they want to be: she showed us that much, repeatedly.
But she was troubled.
In 2004, the year she overdosed, she told a journalist she felt “lonely, deserted and empty.” That’s what was waiting every time the high fritzed. So in and out of rehab 30 times, trying to mend. Working hard: she made 15 records and over 150 songs. Many are essential. She programmed the pathway out of places like Langa for anyone with talent in their bones. And, like Mandela, we don’t want to be finished with her. We don’t want to lose her to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”.
Nobody wanted to let her go during her epic two-week coma and this year she returned to perform with her son, Bongani, as a reportedly disappointing Tupac-y-hologram. “There are too many songs she hasn’t sung yet – for her fans; for the country; for herself,” her brother, Themba, said at her bedside.
But beautifully, Brenda has found a home.
One of the loveliest, most democratic and satisfying gestures in post-apartheid culture has to be that empty bar stool Angus Taylor left alongside Brenda in his life-size bronze memorial sculpture outside the Bassline in Newton, Johannesburg.
Anyone can sit next to the “Queen of Pop”, and you must, for the memorial feels empty without you, it waits for someone to join her, to be complete. Its perpetual hunger for human contact, touch and companionship is a revealing x-ray of the troubled woman it celebrates. An assemblage designed to keep its subject interacting with the present forever; there isn’t a sharper public inversion of the insular impulse of the selfie anywhere in this country.