When Olpha Selepe told her children she wanted to release her own pop song, they pleaded with her not to.
They didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but it just wasn’t what 65-year-old retired teachers did. Her siblings agreed, urging her to drop the idea. It would be embarrassing for the whole family, they said.
With other people’s opinions fresh in her head, she knew there was only one option left.
To record the song in secret.
By the time her family found out what she’d done, the track was already a viral hit – and Selepe, now known across the country by her stage name GeeSixFive, was famous. The song was being shared all over social media, it topped South Africa’s iTunes charts, and people across the country were holding her up as an example of it never being too late to achieve your dreams.
But on 7 December, just a few short weeks after the song’s release, Selepe tested positive for Covid-19. Two days later, while self-isolating with family in Durban, she died.
Olpha Selepe had polio as a child. Because of the disease, she only had the use of one arm.
Growing up in Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, her mother would tell her that she’d need to make sure she always excelled academically, because she wouldn’t be able to do manual work.
She remembered this advice through school, studied hard, and became a primary school teacher in Newcastle’s Madadeni township in KZN. Later, she was promoted to becoming the school’s headmistress.
Her niece, Sbu Mpungose, told the BBC that Selepe was “very strict… but fair”, and loved power dressing.
“You’d always find her in two-piece suits. She was a sharp, sharp dresser, she really loved looking good,” she says. “But more than anything, she wanted things to be done right. She was always a very bold person.”
Selepe had the same meticulous approach to her home, Mpungose said – which began as “a shack”, but was built up into a brick and mortar house that was “always really beautiful”.
While she ran a tight ship both at school and at home, music was where she could let go. As a Roman Catholic, she sang in the church choir for many years. She also released an album of children’s nursery rhymes.
“She would always be the one to stand up and conduct the choir,” Mpungose said, laughing. “She would always be the lead singer, or the one to start a song. Leadership really was her thing… and that never changed.”
Selepe spent three years in the UK from 2002 to 2005, teaching at a primary school in East London. But after she returned to South Africa, she experienced tragedy – her daughter, one of her four children, died as a result of HIV.
“After that I saw her becoming softer,” Mpungose said.
On 28 March 2018, Selepe finally achieved another long-time goal – she graduated with her master’s degree in education. She was 63 years old at the time. She applied for a PhD in education shortly afterwards.
During her PhD interview, the panel asked her: “If people speak about Mrs Selepe, what do you want them to think of?”
She answered without skipping a beat: “Music.”
Selepe was accepted onto the PhD – but she couldn’t get music out of her mind.
In 2020, the world was brought to a standstill by the coronavirus pandemic. What was “normal life” suddenly didn’t seem so normal, and things we never thought possible suddenly became the reality. Across the world, people started finding new outlets for their creativity, and carving out new hobbies for themselves. Like millions of others, Selepe was stuck at home with a sudden glut of free time.
Now was the time, she decided. She told her children and siblings that she wanted to record and release her own single.
They were mortified. For one thing, pop music was for young people, not for 65-year-old school headmistresses. What if people made fun of her? What if people made fun of them?
“She gave quite a masterclass in saying: ‘I’m going to pursue this dream of mine, and it doesn’t matter what you think’,” Mpungose said. “She did it behind everyone’s back, because she really wanted to do it and didn’t want to be discouraged. So when she shared the song, it was done, it was complete. She stuck to her guns and said: ‘If you’re not going to like it, I’m really sorry… but I think South Africans are going to love this song’.”
She gave herself the stage name GeeSixFive – a reference to “Gogo”, meaning grandmother, and her age – and released a music video of herself dancing and singing Obani Lababantu to an amapiano beat in a professional two-piece suit. Amapiano is a type of house music that emerged from South Africa’s townships in the early 2010s. The song was extremely catchy.
When it came out, the whole family was shocked by how quickly it took off – but Selepe knew people would love it. Suddenly, the song and Selepe were everywhere. People all over South Africa were talking about her, and while some were bemused at first, this quickly gave way to admiration. Her former pupils tweeted “that’s Mrs Selepe!” whenever they saw the song posted, and her two-piece suits became iconic. She was written about in almost every South African newspaper, and was being invited to appear on TV.
“No naked girls, no flashing of money, no fancy cars, no smoking, no strong language, nobody in the video is bragging about anything,” one fan wrote.
Another commented: “Moral of the story: it’s never too late.”
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Although Selepe had never experienced fame like this, she took it all in her stride. This, of course, only made her more loved. And it didn’t take long for everyone in the family to change their minds – they loved the song too.
Despite her newfound popularity, Selepe never planned to release a second song, Mpungose said.
“She named herself GeeSixFive because she was 65 this year, and she didn’t see herself doing another song and becoming GeeSixSix.”
But she was only able to enjoy her fame for a short time. Just a few weeks later, Selepe tested positive for Covid-19, and died within days.
“You left a relevant forceful message Gogo,” one fan commented on her music video. “Do what you wanna do while you still have time, and forget about what others will say about your far-fetched dreams.”
Newspaper columnists paid tribute to Selepe too, with one praising her for “not giving a damn” – although they used a stronger word than “damn”.
It’s Selepe’s funeral on 14 December. She “always wanted a great send-off”, Mpungose said – but with Covid restrictions in South Africa, this isn’t possible.
“She even chose her coffin a few months ago… I think she always imagined a really beautiful send-off,” she says. “With Covid restrictions, the funeral may not be exactly what she wanted. But the send-off that South Africans are giving her is amazing – this celebration of her life is definitely something that she would be smiling about.”