Growing up one of three young girls in a family full of boys I knew there were certain rules I was supposed to be governed by that didn’t apply to them.
I was being reared to be a responsible homemaker, a thoughtful, intelligent, decent young lady and above all else, a ‘respectable’ woman. My aunts frowned upon my habit of sitting with my legs up, my constant slouching and my inability to grasp why there were certain things I had to do simply because of my gender. The older I got the harder it became for them to decide whether I was stubborn and unruly or just really incapable of understanding ‘how things were’. I clashed often with the women in my family because I wasn’t as I was expected to be, and I visibly showed no interest in learning how to be that.
They became role modes before I even knew what role models were and despite the fact that most parents considered them the worst kind.
I used to wonder if maybe, just maybe, I was the problem. Was I going to grow up to be an undesirable woman without any suitors? Would that be the end of my existence, simply because I wasn’t a ‘good, homely woman’?
It was during this time that I came across women who’d help me answer these questions through the way that they themselves lived their lives. They became role modes before I even knew what role models were and despite the fact that most parents considered them the worst kind.
Brenda, although an icon, was notorious for her outbursts, drug use and overall ‘immoral’ behaviour. She smoked. She drank in shebeens [pubs] even though she was a star. She dated other women. She was constantly in and out of rehab and she simply did not care enough about social opinion of her to let it dictate how she lived.
As much as our community adored these women, they did not want to raise young women like them.
Lebo had left a successful group – Boom Shaka, and pursued a solo career at the age of 20. She was gorgeous, young and vibrant and dazzled on stage as she gyrated and sang, all the while flashing a brilliant smile that made anyone who beheld it certain that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. She had a pierced tongue and belly button, blonde hair and looked like one of the women our fathers never wanted us to become because that was the kind of woman they ogled at. She too, was headstrong and proud of it. Lebo could tow the line between naive young lady and street-smart, sturdy young woman. As playful as Lebo could be, she simply wasn’t one to mess with.
As much as our community adored these women, they did not want to raise young women like them.
My mother’s eyes would light up whenever a Brenda Fassie song came on, and she would gleefully start to sing along to whatever was playing but after every joyous moment would come a despondent ‘Hai, Brenda. She’s so great but the drugs will kill her. Why is she so troubled?’ and a head shake. She echoed the thoughts of many fans who felt Brenda was on a downhill spiral. Brenda, the icon, was crumbling and although she was still great, they felt she wouldn’t be for long if she continued as she was. She was often candid about her drug use.
She drank out in the open and proudly displayed all her partners. Maybe she simply couldn’t understand how the same people who wanted to know all about her could shun her for showing them her whole life. She wasn’t one of those artists who would fall apart behind closed doors and come out pretending everything was all right. The public loved her for that yet also cringed at her stark honesty and supposed nonchalance regarding it all.
Brenda said what she meant and said it as honestly and as simply as possible.
I recall, above all else, respecting and appreciating her openness. I was surrounded by adults who were governed by invisible rules that made many of them noticeably unhappy. Adults who couldn’t answer a straightforward question and who treated us like we were mindless dolls. Brenda said what she meant and said it as honestly and as simply as possible. She didn’t hide her feeling or opinions, even if it made others uncomfortable and even though people could call her brash, they could never call her dishonest. It takes a certain kind of strength to be able to speak your truth and even as a child, I knew that, saw it in Brenda, and appreciated it.
Of course honesty about one’s self does not mean one isn’t without their issues. Brenda battled with addiction often and was in and out of toxic relationships. She was fragile; anybody could see that, and no amount of exhibitionism could change it.
In the early 90s her personal life and work affairs began to take a tumble and she seemed to be losing everyone she held dear: husbands, lovers and business associates. Her mother passed away in 1993. In 1995 her close friend and supposed lover Poppie Sihlahla was found dead of a drug overdose. Brenda was lying next to her, in a drug-induced stupor. It seems the experience shook Brenda and inspired her to get clean and get back into music, although that too wasn’t an easy ride. Eventually, with the help of long-time friend, producer and mentor Chicco Twala, she managed to get back onto the charts but Brenda’s light wasn’t to shine bright for much longer.
Although attractive, Lebo Mathosa was much more than the pretty sexpot people wanted to dismiss her as.
Lebo Mathosa rose to fame at the age of 15 with the group Boom Shaka and enjoyed a significant amount of success with them before going solo in 2000. She was the group’s lead vocalist and although attractive, was much more than the pretty sexpot people wanted to dismiss her as. In the wake of their smash 1996 debut LP, It’s About Time, she successfully wrested copyright control of their publishing interests, a precedent for countless South African musicians.
Following the group’s last controversial contribution to music, Nkosi Sikelela, Lebo jumped ship and shot on up to further stardom with her debut solo album, Dream. Dream was followed by Drama Queen in 2004 and Lioness in 2006, the year of her death. During her solo career she toured with The Vagina Monologues, a ‘feminist’ move according to journalists at the time, and was often on the covers of magazines or on television being cheeky in interviews and making TV hosts blush. This was the Lebo I grew to love.
Even those who didn’t like how she went about things were compelled to respect her.
Lebo Mathosa was the cool older sister I’d never had. She might have been young enough to buckle under the pressure society placed on young African women to be meek and demure but she didn’t and lo and behold, her world didn’t come crumbling down. As obscene as some elders felt she was, as provocative as her persona could be, Lebo was still adored by many. Her youth, talent and love for what she did carried her through. Even those who didn’t like how she went about things were compelled to respect her.
Lebo, like Brenda, was also supposedly bisexual and – never one to come off as shy – would titillate both men and women when she performed.
Brenda and Lebo existed with a fierceness a woman wasn’t expected to display, unless threatened.
The success of these women, despite being labelled as uncouth and crass, gave me assurance that as long as I had the courage to live my truth, I would be fine. Lebo and Brenda weren’t just LGBT icons or pop stars, they represented a certain freedom a lot of young African girls weren’t shown, no less taught, they could have growing up.
We didn’t have to be chaste and meek. We didn’t have to grow up and aspire to be wives. We didn’t have to blend into the background, and we definitely didn’t have to be with anyone we didn’t want to. Those were things a fair portion of our mothers never told us. Brenda and Lebo existed with a fierceness a woman wasn’t expected to display, unless threatened, and a confidence many never bothered to cultivate or show. They dared to dress as they pleased and go where they pleased; they exercised their autonomy and gave me the confidence to do the same.
These two women taught me that in fact, no one has the answers, but the least you could do is your best and soldier on.
Even at a young age the idea of somehow doing something to shame my family had often crippled me into not doing the most basic of things. I often had a voice in my head reminding me not to embarrass my family – as if that were actually an attainable goal – and should I falter, we’d all be sent spiralling back to the dark ages. I felt, that unless I were the perfect specimen of a girl child, I’d have failed as a human being and these two women taught me that in fact, no one has the answers, but the least you could do is your best and soldier on.
Brenda Fassie died after slipping into a coma, on May 9, 2004. Former presidents of South Africa Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma were among Fassie’s visitors in hospital. President Thabo Mbeki attended her funeral among thousands of mourners. She was buried in a gold coffin. Six months later during an interview with Mail & Guardian, Lebo said of her passing ‘You can’t deny death, you can’t fear it. I’m sure God has a better place for us, if you’re a believer.’ Lebo herself died two years later in a fatal car crash on October 29, at the age of 29.
Maybe it is childhood idolatry which keeps me from fully feeling a connection with the women who’ve come after Lebo and Brenda, or maybe, just maybe, the fact simply is, there will never be anyone like either of them.