On 1 February, Beyonce used Instagram to announce her pregnancy with twins. Of course her announcement went viral, with many going on Twitter to exclaim that her news had saved 2017.
The following day, she released a highly referential, avante-garde photo essay on her website. The photo essay was a collaborative effort with several photographers, including Awol Erizku, and had references and allusions that centred her in a long, historical visual narrative around motherhood and womanhood. The visuals referenced included The Madonna and Child, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and the African water goddess Mami Wata. Moreover, Beyonce made use of these references during her performance at the 2017 Grammy Awards, using her performance to pay tribute to motherhood and divine mythologies around fertility and motherhood. However, not everyone is a fan of Beyonce’s deification of motherhood.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, in her op-ed piece Having a Baby Isn’t a Miracle and Doesn’t Make You a Goddess, criticizes Beyonce’s visual references as being a form of pagan fertility worship. Riley goes on to criticize society’s deification of motherhood. That critique makes sense; however, Riley seemingly reduces motherhood to a banal performativity without any consideration for why Beyonce, a black woman, would feel the need to deify black motherhood within our globalized misogynoir society. This is not the first time that black feminist icons have been unfairly criticized for celebrating their blackness.
Brenda Fassie, patronisingly characterized as the Madonna of the Townships, was an icon who problematized societal narratives around black womanhood. Brenda Fassie was an icon who, besides recording multiple classics such as Weekend Special, had a profound impact young (black) women’s self-esteem and psychosocial energies.
Regardless of the progressive tenets within our Constitution, South Africa is a deeply conservative and patriarchal society. Black womanhood- and black women’s sexualities are consistently under the heteronormative patriarchal gaze that manifests itself through virginity testing, high levels of gender based violence, and rampant homophobia.
Homophobic attitudes have been problematized, with the Somizi Mhlongo’s highly publicized recent walkout of a Grace Bible Church sermon that discussed the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. That Brenda Fassie dared to be proudly queer in the 1990s and early 2000s is an act of transgression that we have yet to uncover within our collective imagination. Seemingly Brenda Fassie’s queerness has become invisibilized within the mainstream media’s memorialization of her music and legacy as late- and post-apartheid South African artist.
Brenda Fassie audaciously spoke of her multiple male and female lovers. Later on in her life, she came out as lesbian; yet, she dared to self-identify as a good African woman. This self-identification complicated our understanding of black femininity. Within mainstream understandings of black African femininity, a woman is either good or bad. A good woman is virginal whilst the bad woman is lascivious and self-destructive.
Without a doubt Brenda Fassie was self-destructive. However, she was revolutionary in that she used her music (and her life) to challenge the legacy of ownership over black bodies and their sexuality. She embodied this rebellion in her later life as she chose to sing exclusively in South Africa’s indigenous languages. She used the public exposure of her private life to inform her music and activism. Brenda Fassie used her celebrity and proud embrace of her sexuality to challenge our understandings of what a good African woman is/was.
Brenda Fassie commanded us to love her as she was: a sexual black woman. If we truly did love her, then we should start to embrace her complex and transgressive legacy as a queer black woman existing within post-apartheid South Africa’s political milieu.
Photo: Brenda Fassie