Babes and Brenda: joining the dots

Bongekile Simelane at 15, round about the time she met her abuser

All women in music – all of us: individual musicians, music writers, teachers, promoters, and those in formal music organisations – should be offering very public solidarity and support to Bongekile Simelane as she pursues charges against her partner/manager.

It would have been comic if it hadn’t been tragic yesterday to see the slob in that video outside court mournfully telling us “she drinks…she attacked me…she hit me with a hard Gucci flip-flop” while his bros stood around him, commiserating.

  • After we’ve all seen him – large and paunchy – pursuing a young woman half his size (and ten years younger) around a hotel room, klapping her as she weeps.
  • After we all remember his gaslighting responses in May last year: “…while I may have overreacted on one or two occasions” … [She was] “given to me by God…”

There’s a trope that recurs constantly around showbiz sexual violence. A moderately successful older man discovers a fiercely talented, much younger woman. He “grooms” her, offering resources derived from his own career and cultivating her near-total dependence on his savvy and contacts. (That intense level of grooming, intricately woven into her career from its infancy, makes repeated returns to the abusive relationship  likely even if the young woman leaves. )He assumes ownership of her body and talent and sits back – revelling in the power and waiting for the money to roll in.

After all, younger, sharper stars will surely soon squeeze out a 40-year-old male performer – but she’ll still be in her prime.

If she wants to pursue her own musical direction – well, a klap will put her back in her place. It actually helps if, in the course of a ten-year relationship, begun when she was a child, he can tempt or more likely drive her to drink or drugs. It makes her more vulnerable, and gives him – as we have just seen – a fake excuse for the klaps, since the sexist ‘bad woman’ stereotype continues to influence some fools. (He was sitting quietly in the corner sipping organic spring water all the while, I suppose…)

Let’s remember the late Brenda Fassie: equally talented but equally — and often literally — in the hands of a succession of older male impressarios and managers since her early teens. How they loved to bill her as “little” Brenda long after she was a grown woman. How promoters desiring only compliant bankability enabled her addictions. How some male band-mates, awash with crocodile tears, described her indiscretions and boasted with relish about “keeping her in order”. And how a far more perceptive Hugh Masekela saw that, but saw more – a “super arranger…teach[ing] new bass lines, dictating rhythm and harmony parts, scatting drum grooves…”:  a musician.


We know how that story ended.

Join the dots. It’s time to stop even asking: “Did she drink?” “Why didn’t she leave him?” It’s time for less lurid, slavering media coverage of relationships, and more serious journalistic investigation of what life is really like for talented kids trying to make it in music. It’s time for creating circles of mentorship that aspiring young women artists can access without the exploitative baggage. It’s time to simply say: you can build your own career – lord knows, you’re talented enough. And you’re not alone: we’re with you.

PS Sometimes a cartoonist gets it absolutely right:



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