Controversial South African pop diva Brenda Fassie, died in Johannesburg on May 9 after having been in a coma since following an asthma attack and cardiac arrest. She was 39.

Born into humble beginnings in Langa on the Cape Flats, Fassie was named after U.S. country singer Brenda Lee. A precocious child, Brenda started performing for tourists around the township as a child as the star of group called the Tiny Tots.

When she was 16, a curious music producer Koloi Lebona went to find the teenager everyone was talking about. He was so impressed that he took her back to Johannesburg with him where her musical career was launched as part of the vocal trio Joy and then as a solo artist with Blondie and Papa’s roadshow.

Her big breakthrough came with her debut recording in 1983, the maxi-single “Weekend Special,” which became the fastest-selling single of its time in South Africa and went on to become an international hit. Brenda and the Big Dudes subsequently toured the U.S., U.K., Europe, Australia and Brazil.

The pint-sized singer with the big voice continued to be at the forefront of South African popular music, but she hit a downward spiral in the early 1990s amid problems in her personal life and with drug addiction.

Most people believed Fassie’s career was over, but she booked into rehab and thundered back with a series of record-breaking albums that turned her into a superstar on the African continent.

Her comeback album, “Memeza,” in 1998 was the biggest selling album of the year and its single, Vul’indlela, was huge all over Africa, earning her the continent’s annual Kora Award for best female artist.

She is survived by a son.