Obani laba bantu, who are these people? she sang. Abantu baya ndi hleka? people come and laugh at me? Obani laba bantu?
Ridiculous. Nobody was going to laugh at Olpha Selepe, a grandmother from KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa. No way. She was 65 years old, a notable choir mistress, an experienced teacher and and a headmistress. She inspired respect.
As a child she had polio, which left her with a useless left arm. You had better excel academically, her mother told her, because you can’t do manual work.
So she studied hard, became a primary school teacher in the Madadeni township, and then the school’s headmistress. She taught at a primary school in East London from 2002 to 2005. She was the head of a tech college in Pietermaritzburg. She liked power-dressing in two-piece suits. That’s the way leaders dress, isn’t it?
She had four children, although a daughter tragically died of HIV. Not even that kept her down. She was awarded a Master’s degree in education when she was 63 and promptly launched into a PhD.
But there was one thing she had failed to do. She hadn’t recorded a pop song. Don’t do it, her kids told her. People will laugh at you.
Laugh at Olpha Selepe? Obani laba bantu? Away from her family’s scepticism, she set her song in Zulu to an amapiano beat, a kind of South African house music with catchy tunes.
She knew her music. She sang in the choir of her local Catholic parish for many years. She was the choir mistress and entered her choir in national competitions. She had even released an album of children’s nursery rhymes.
Mrs Selepe knew how to sing. She knew how to organise singing. Why couldn’t she produce a hit pop song? Obani laba bantu, who are these people? The words became the title of the song. Abantu baya ndi hleka? people come and laugh at me? Obani laba bantu?
So she did.
And it was a hit. They called her the Amapiano Gogo, the ampiano grandmother. Her stage name was GeeSixFive – the 65-year-old gogo. It shot to #1 on the South African iTunes charts. “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. (This video will give you an idea of the competition.) She was in every newspaper in the country. She appeared on TV.
And then came Covid-19. It swept her away on December 9.
But Olpha Selepe knocked at the Pearly Gates with her pop song tucked under her arm. And if God had given her a bit more time she would have earned a PhD. Abantu baya ndi hleka? People come and laugh at me? No, they’re cheering.