CAPE TOWN -- Brenda Fassie, South Africa's first black pop star, who gave a voice to disenfranchised blacks at the height of apartheid, has died of complications from an asthma attack, her family said. She was 39.
"She made our souls rise in bliss wherever her voice reached," President Thabo Mbeki said of the raspy-voiced "Madonna of the Townships."
Ms. Fassie was admitted to Johannesburg's Sunninghill Hospital after an asthma attack on April 26 led to cardio-respiratory arrest. She slipped into a coma and died early Sunday.
Thousands had visited the pop legend after she had fallen ill, including Mbeki and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela.
Outspoken, often brash, Ms. Fassie never forgot her roots and was a popular and frequent visitor in poverty-stricken neighborhoods across Johannesburg.
Time Magazine called her "The Madonna of the Townships" in an interview published during a US tour in 2001.
Her songs dealt with township life, love, and pain. She sang about the dreams of black youths and the struggle against apartheid -- especially in the song "Black President," which spoke of a revolution in South Africa that would crush apartheid.
A bitter divorce and years of struggling with drug abuse almost derailed Ms. Fassie's career before a dramatic comeback that saw her honored at the South African Music Awards for having the best-selling release for four consecutive years.
Born in the impoverished Cape Town township of Langa, Ms. Fassie -- prophetically named after 1950s pop singer Brenda Lee -- was a bubbly girl who was always singing and dancing to entertain family or at talent shows, her family recalls.
She became a household name with her band "The Big Dudes" after their smash single "Weekend Special" in 1984. She followed with the single "Too late for Mama," which went platinum in South Africa and placed her in the international limelight.
She toured extensively, performing in South America, Australia, Europe, and the United States.
Ms. Fassie married former convict Nhlanhla Mbambo in 1989, only to divorce him in 1991 amid rumors of physical abuse. She confessed to having a drug habit and began several years of checking in and out of rehab clinics.
Her life changed when she woke up to find her lesbian lover, Poppie Sihlahla, dead next to her from a drug overdose in Johannesburg in 1995.
Ms. Fassie then dedicated herself to her music, collaborating with African legend Papa Wemba on her best-selling album "Now is the Time."
In 1998, she won the Kora Award for best female artist, which recognizes African musical talent.
Family members said Ms. Fassie's body would be returned to her Cape Town home for the funeral. She leaves a son, Bongani.