South African Queens

Today I am thinking about female African pop stars, the ones who inspired and interested me when I was younger. Intrepid women who kicked down doors and destroyed barriers with the power of their vocals.

I am thinking in particular of three South African women who made a special place for themselves in the music industry and in my heart.

“Princess of Africa”

Ask anyone who lived in Africa during the eighties and they will be happy to sing some kind of localized version of Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s song Umqombothi. It is a song about home brewed beermade from sorghum or mealie-meal. It is first and foremost a party song, and I have fond memories of watching the adults get drunk and dance to it at parties when I was a child. It is also about the women who made umqombothi, and ran shebeens (speakeasies) in order to entertain the working men and feed their children in the poverty stricken townships. During Apartheid especially, shebeens were a cultural centre, an oasis of peace hidden from the burning South African sun of oppression.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka grew up under that sun; in fact she was the first black child to ever appear on South African television. When asked who she admired most, Chaka Chaka said

“My mother because she has always been there for me. My mother raised three daughters single-handedly on a domestic workers salary. That took great courage and strength. She is my mentor and hero. When I was born in 1965 in Soweto, it was during apartheid, and those were extremely difficult times. My dad was a great musician who could never realize his dream. He died when I was 11 years old. I inherited my talent from both parents, so music has always been in my blood .When I was little I would strum an empty tin and blow into a broom stick pretending it was a microphone. I sang in church choirs. I loved singing. I am blessed that I achieved my destiny, and been able to accomplish what my father could not.”

Another famous African songstress Miriam Makeba or Mama Africa as she is affectionately known, says of Chaka Chaka, “she’s my baby”.

“Queen of African Pop”

Even before Brenda Fassie’s untimely death, I would watch her sing passionately “Too Late for Mama” and cry. This song is my soundtrack for African mothers, women who brought me up, women who I watched sacrifice unselfishly for something so much bigger than themselves they will never get to benefit from it.

Brenda Fassie was not much like the silenced woman she sang about. She was loud, outrageous and a frequent visitor to the poorer areas of Johannesburg. Time magazine nicknamed her “The Madonna of the Townships.”

Her father died when she was 2, and with the help of her mother, a pianist, she started earning money by singing for tourists.

From the Time article:

“Making her U.S. debut at Washington’s Zanzibar club in 2001, South African singer Brenda Fassie sang passionately from the diaphragm for almost three hours straight. As if that wasn’t enough strain on her petite body, Fassie determinedly put on a frenetic dance show. Suddenly her breasts popped out of her costume. The audience gasped, but Fassie unabashedly grabbed her bare bosom and thrust it at the crowd. “This,” she proclaimed, “is Africa!” But America, it seems, was not yet ready for that part of Africa. “The promoters asked me not to do that again,” she said afterward. Which is too bad, because back home Fassie is known (and loved) for her outrageousness.”

In 1995 it seemed that Fassie’s hit making career was over. She was discovered unconscious with the body of her lesbian lover, Poppie Sihlahla, who had died of an apparent overdose. But after going to rehab Fassie got her career back on track in 1998 with the bestselling album Memeza (shout). If umqombothi was the party song of the eighties then Vulindlela (clear the way) was what we danced to at every party in the nineties.

Despite her continued success Fassie still struggled with her addictions which eventually led to her death in 2004, when she slipped into an overdose related coma after an asthma attack. Her fans who gave her the affectionate nickname MaBrr keep her memory alive.

“Drama Queen”

When Lebo Mathosa was just 14, Brenda Fassie arranged for the budding singer and dancer to come and live with her. In TV footage Brenda pulls a young Lebo in front of the camera and announces that Lebo is going to be the next Brenda Fassie.

Mathosa first burst onto the scene as part of kwaito dance group Boom Shaka. She was well known for her dyed blond hair, her live shows and outrageous stage outfits, and was openly bisexual. She launched a successful solo career, won numerous awards and performed all over the world, including in the United States with the Vagina Monologues.

Mathosa died in a car crash, aged 29, after her driver lost control of her vehicle in Johannesburg. Lebo used to say that Brenda made her strong. Of the constant comparison to Fassie and her drug-speckled career she said,

“You learn from the negative and the positive aspects […]Peer pressure really is hard to get out of, when you’re so deep in. I think that was the position she was in. Everything she wanted she could get … It is like me for instance. When I walk into a club, I want to pay. If it is my night, and I’m performing, only then do I want to be treated like a star.”

Her fans called her Sis Lebo, because despite her crazy hair and outrageous style, she was one of us, a big sister.


This post was first published at

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