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Last Updated: Monday, 10 May, 2004, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Brenda Fassie: A very human hero
Brenda Fassie in September 2003
Fassie was dubbed "MaBrrrr" by affectionate fans
Brenda Fassie - whom Time magazine dubbed the "Madonna of the Townships" - has died in South Africa aged 39.

She managed to combine ground-breaking musical success with an accessibility - and human fallibility - that drew a fierce loyalty and protectiveness from fans.

Her career was studded with record sales and awards, but punctuated also by periodic scandals, recurring battles with drug addiction, and lows in her musical career that saw her written off by the press.

Fassie's vocation seemed destined from the start. Born in Langa in the Cape Flats, she was named after US country singer Brenda Lee, and began to perform at five years old.

In her mid-teens, her talent was spotted when music producer Koloi Lebona heard her sing, and she headed for the big city of Johannesburg to begin her professional recording career.

'Something special'

"There was something special about her voice," Mr Lebona told South African news agency, Sapa.

"It was different to anything I had heard until then and was very mature for a 16 year old. I knew it was the voice of the future."

Fassie made good on her promise, shooting to fame in the early 1980s with the best-selling bubble-gum pop hit, Weekend Special, as Brenda and the Dudes.

It became the fastest selling record of the time and later moved into the international charts.

In the late 1980s, Fassie teamed up with record producer Sello "Chicco" Twala to launch Too Late for Mama - a multi-platinum seller. But then, Fassie found cocaine - and her fresh-faced success began to sour.

Rock bottom

A failed marriage, concert no-shows and a slide into debt followed.

In 1995, Fassie hit rock bottom. She was found in a hotel room, in a drug-induced haze - lying next to the body of her lesbian lover, Poppie Sihlahla, who had died of an apparent drug overdose.

I'd been shouting and shouting and no one wanted to hear me
Brenda Fassie on her album Memeza ('Shout')
Fassie booked into a drug rehabilitation centre.

In 1997, Fassie reunited with Mr Twala to record Memeza (Shout). She later said this album best epitomised her life.

"Memeza - it means 'Scream', 'Shout'," she said in 1999.

"I'd been shouting and shouting and no-one wanted to hear me. When I sing this song, I want to cry."

But, she said, the bad times were past.

New start?

"This is the beginning for me," she said.

It was a new start that confounded her critics. Memeza was South Africa's best-selling album of 1998 - and that same year, Fassie scooped the Kora Award for best female artist.

The best-selling wedding song Vulindlela, from the album, was used by the ruling African National Congress in its 1999 election campaign.

A string of best-selling albums followed, and for the next four consecutive years Fassie won a South African Music Award.

Brenda occupied a special place in the minds and hearts of many people around the world. Indeed, a hero has fallen
Leslie Sedibe
EMI Music lawyer
She was on top of the world, saying: "I'm going to become the Pope next year. Nothing is impossible."

But Fassie never decisively won her battle with drugs and alcohol, and her visits to the rehab clinic continued.

Two weeks ago, she was rushed to hospital with breathing problems, that led to an asthma attack and then cardiac arrest.

As her family sat in vigil around her bedside, fans besieged the clinic and Fassie was visited by former President Nelson Mandela, his former wife Winnie, and current President Thabo Mbeki.

On Sunday evening, she died, leaving behind an only son, Bongani.

"Death has this time robbed this country, Africa and the world of one of the greatest talents to come out of the township of Langa in Cape Town," said lawyer Leslie Sedibe from her record label EMI Music was quoted as saying by Sapa.

"Brenda occupied a special place in the minds and hearts of many people around the world. Indeed, a hero has fallen," he said.

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