Inside Uncle Waffles’ Stunning Amapiano-Powered Rise To Global Stardom

the DJ-Producer powerhouse

Picture the scene: it’s a balmy night in 2021, and the lights are swirling around Zone 6 in Soweto, South Africa. Coloured in revelry, the faces are young and excited, and while the propelling force is the music, the focus, the visual centre of this scene, is Uncle Waffles. She’s dressed in a black crop top, moving affectionately to “Adiwele,” the hypnotic hit record from Young Stunna. When she points her hand to the right, the camera pans and the crowd emerges, a miracle of activity and compressed space. A star is born. And ever since, that star has shone even more remarkably, occupying a distinct position in the still-forming canon of Amapiano.

This past December, festival goers at NATIVELAND were treated to an electrifying set by Uncle Waffles. It was a return of significant proportions, as the Nigerian city of Lagos was one of the first places she visited three years ago when her career started taking off. Then, she had performed at the Ghana-held Global Citizen Festival and breezed into Lagos the day after, with tired puffy eyes but an unrelenting vision nevertheless. Her 2023 NATIVELAND performance had none of that rush, however. Assured, well-rested, and coasting on the triumph of successful years before that, the youth-centric audience witnessed a tastemaker approaching the fullness of their artistic potential. 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by NATIVELAND ‘23 (@nativelandfestival)

For Uncle Waffles, that memorable performance was evidence of a well-realised creative run-up which began earlier in August 2023. This was when she released ‘SOLACE,’ a jazz-punctuated EP which sought to expand the sonic base of Amapiano. With seven shimmering songs featuring a talented cast of southern African artists including Lusanda, Tony Duardo, Murumba Pitch and Manana, its centering of soulful sounds and heartfelt themes offered an alternate view to the delirious, upbeat direction the Dance genre is known for. Demonstrating this tendency was “Echoes,” the lead single whose synths soar and lapse with dreamy inventiveness. Elsewhere, those same convictions are snatched at, the expression and expansion provided by features that dissolve into Waffles’ own vision.

In her review of SOLACE, Nwanneamaka Igwe suggests that Uncle Waffles is “leaning towards Private School Amapiano—a school of thought which believes that Amapiano should be more soulful and heavily vocalised. It strays away from the heart-thumping drum patterns paired with light shakers and general production-led facet to the genre. On the contrary, this embraces melancholic interpretations [towards evoking] the same transcendental emotions.”

It’s thus interesting that Uncle Waffles considers SOLACE’ a Side-B to ASYLUM,’ the short project released in March. From the jump, it was clear that Uncle Waffles’ exciting interpretation of Amapiano was forward-thinking, landing her on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist in the United States amongst other placements. The artist’s honing into such levels in her craft, within five months nonetheless, only reveals her ever-moving perspective. You would be hard-pressed to situate her in one spot. Where ASYLUM had lots of percussive influences, yells and howls, and its associative setting being the light-moving dancefloor, there was a marked change in SOLACE: here the atmosphere renders itself complex, offering a wider spectrum of the experiences which shape the music, which in turn has shaped Uncle Waffles. Both projects are like the Yin and Yang of her yet-forming artistry, heat and ice, in perfect contrast.

Imagine the stuffed soundscape of “Sghubuhandro,” whose epic eight-minute runtime is only punctuated by vocal chops of “Uh uh.In this asylum, words aren’t the focus, but the set mood, which is often achieved by a combusting application of speed and precision. The titular visual reveals the then-prominent red hair of Waffles, not any bit outlandish because there’s a lot of colour around, and in the opening scene she runs to the DJ set-up amidst frenzied yells of “Waffles, we wanna party!”

From her early music—particularly on her first project, ‘RED DRAGON—Uncle Waffles’ curatorial expertise had been clear. She wasn’t one to glide down the obvious road; wasn’t overly keen on courting the attention of the popular names in the Amapiano scene. She was rather open in her process, in those four songs creating a dazzling vision of drums and soul, the reverberating mystique of its sonic core flecked with the pureness of the feature appearances. 

Released in March 2022, a collaboration with Sony Msolo and Tony Duardo, her debut song “Tanzania” was part of those four songs. Speaking prior to her NATIVELAND appearance, she said: “I think one thing about ‘Piano, there is no gatekeeping the sound. So everyone is always open to work with anyone. If you wake up today and you have a good song, you’re probably gonna be in ten studios that whole week cos people wanna work with you. So within ‘Piano, it’s always just about, okay, let’s just do it guys, get a hit song. ‘Cause it’s about the genre outside of just us as individuals and with collaboration, you know that’s the only way to really take it over the edge because we’re combining our strengths to make a hit.”

This kind of  insight into the potentials of collaboration isn’t limited to musical productivity—it also reaches into the marketing side of things. And that’s also another area where Uncle Waffles excels; especially given her entry into the Amapiano scene at a period of burgeoning international acclaim. She has quickly positioned herself as a Gen-Z representative of its expansive soundscape, touching the sweet spot where that demographic aligns with millennials. She has played prestigious global events, but while doing that, made sure to oil the wheels of her homewards vehicle. To this effect she toured several parts of Africa, from Ghana to Nigeria and anywhere else, really, where people knew and loved the name Uncle Waffles.

A cheery disposition shines from her interviews, where she speaks intimately and knowledgeably about her ascent and how it coincides, so beautifully it’s almost poetic, with the soaring wings of Amapiano on global horizons. To understand the story of Uncle Waffles is to understand how essential musical agility has been to the trajectory of not just Amapiano, but the many Dance forms that have come before it, from Kwaito to House and the several subgenres in-between. 

Amapiano’s place as the in-demand Dance subgenre out of Africa cannot be denied. Since the late 2010s, its hypnotic log drums and piano melodies have come to mean something more than just the fact of its existence—Amapiano, an Nguni term which loosely translates into ‘the Pianos’, has now become a marker for youth culture. Its early purveyors like Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa and MFR Souls had their tracks played in parties in the Pretoria neighbourhood of South Africa, spurring instantaneous reactions which in turn led these musicians towards fiery productivity, since the music was placed in demand of social realities that were nearby and urgent.

Like many South African genres before it, Amapiano’s success comes from the rigorous demands of the fusion that lies at its core. At once unique, with those fast-knocking drums that have become popular the world over, the sound also takes from the established cornerstones of house and kwaito. In an episode of his show Joy Ride, the legendary South African producer Oskido spoke to Kabza about the demands of musicianship and also asked him how Amapiano started. Kabza responded that it was MDU who introduced the log drums and the sonic culture robustly influenced by township DJs, who were highly competitive in the craft and always experimenting with the latest tools and plug-ins. They took a beat, he said, from 125 BPM to 115 BPM, slowing the sound so that the tempo could be felt and the bass made more powerful. Oskido affirmed by saying that kwaito had similar experimentation at the start, slowing down the beats through a process they used to call ‘international.’

Obviously the genre we all love today has paid its dues, working its way out from the back-corners of creativity and shining onto the big stage. For all the dedicated work its pioneers put in, the growth of its biggest stars cannot go understudied. Black Coffee might not have invented House music but his catalogue immensely propels it, and his international incursions have blazed open a new hall of possibilities for producer-DJs like him. Likewise has DJ Lag been that cultural figurehead for the Afro Techno-influenced style of Gqom, whose pulsating beats have caught ears as big and tasteful as Beyoncé’s.

When one considers the way she’s started out her career, it seems fitting to expect that Uncle Waffles would occupy a similar pantheon of reverence among her generation.  All three of projects so far reveal a progressive movement towards a fullness in artistic perspective, making her the perfect representative of ideals which any movement would be proud of having, especially Amapiano, with the consistent stabs at the flesh of its history, the incessant debates about where it started and where it’s headed.

Uncle Waffles has always spoken knowledgeably about her chosen sound, and her ability to be articulate while reflecting her perspective has been revelatory. A figure like her would be invaluable in the years to come. Thus, Billboard dubbing her the Princess of Amapiano, while seemingly reactionary early-on, feels now quite like an obvious thing to say. But Uncle Waffles can’t wait to be Queen—all those years spent practising and playing the waiting game were an essential lesson in timing, and she’s now here, reaping the dividends of a journey that started a long time ago.

To the world, she’s Uncle Waffles but not too long ago she used to be just Lungelihle Zwane,  born twenty four years ago in Eswatini. Brought up by her grandmother in the countryside, she ventured into South Africa in her older years and lived there until her breakthrough. Her journey into the art of DJing started with the spark of a formed image; she’d been working a job before the pandemic, a means of earning money to finance her way through school, but after finding a DJ set-up at the office and learning its intricacies from a colleague, she went on to spend eight hours everyday on it.

When she started, her mother supported her but always advised her to have a back-up plan. Then the bookings started coming. Then there were more bookings, and even now that her daughter has blown up, she “still doesn’t kind of get what happened to me,” Uncle Waffles explained to The Beat FM a year ago. “She’s still like, ‘how did this happen? Is this forever?’ But [my family] have been very supportive.”

Deeply rooted in the concept of family, Waffles approaches her artistry with a humble rigour that nods at her modest beginnings. It’s obvious in the way she gives herself to the art form of performance too. The traditional image of a disc jockey is one who looms ominously over their set-up, motionless except for intermittent head nods, perhaps a shake of the hand or a smirk captured through the shifting lights. A typical Waffles performance could not be any further from that.

In place of static reserve is flamboyance and colour, movement in varied forms contorting and spreading against each other, an elegant variance. She comes down from the haloed position; she becomes one with the crowd. She dances. Perhaps this seems trite but it’s a fairly novel practice for a DJ, whose set-ups have sometimes included dancers but didn’t have the DJ’s dancing  themselves. Uncle Waffles’ motivation for doing this goes beyond having fun—it’s a decision influenced by nuance. She says: “I started slowly dancing at shows here and there, you know, just a little something and people really loved it. So I started falling in love with actually performing through the music, making sure that the performance and the playing is completely together. I always say that as much as I understand the language of ‘Piano, dance always speaks for ‘Piano. You always understand it through how people dance it. You know, everyone understands dance”.

Uncle Waffles is not shy about her influence on the scene. “I’ve definitely seen a lot of DJs stepping out of their comfort zone,” she says. “I don’t feel like you need to be pushy to dance, as much as you can be unique without dancing. There’s plenty of DJs that actually exist and they’re doing well without dancing. But I haven’t seen a lot of people push themselves that way, you know, try to dance”.

The world of Dance probably agrees with Uncle Waffles because she’s been one of its biggest purveyors ever since that big break three years ago. This is especially relevant, since Dance is one of the most connected genres throughout the world, with variant histories but essentially the same focus on energetic and sometimes swooning music that translates into movement on the dancefloor. Shortly after the release of “Tanzania,” she hosted a residency on BBC Radio 1, a moment that was influential in bringing the radio’s listeners to the vibrance of Amapiano.

Uncle Waffles has already played the sort of stages that artists get after long years of relentless hard work. That she’s been there, and done that, is testament to both her unique strengths and the peculiarities of her generation—social media prominent among those. But to truly understand the magic that is Uncle Waffles, one must leave whatever perception they have of her, abandon imagination and sneak-views into her process; one must watch her perform. From Afro Nation to Coachella, where she was the first Amapiano act to grace its stages, she left international audiences in awe with her electrifying set lists and performances. She’s also played at events such as South Africa’s Cotton Fest, the Germany-held Hype Festival, Lightning in a Bottle and Roskilde Festival, where she played alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar, ROSALIA and Central Cee among other international megastars. Performing with megastars on global stages isn’t the only way Uncle Waffles is propelling Amapiano forward: in June 2023, she started curating a Tracks IDs playlist with Spotify that spotlights her favourite Amapiano songs, bringing even more of the genre’s rising talent to the ears of audiences around the world.

Last October, Uncle Waffles was named cover star of Forbes Africa. It’s the kind of recognition that underscores the mutability of her brand, since she’s recently had a special burger named after her by KFC and has also been part of Western fashion’s biggest night, the Met Gala. Forbes recognizes this business acumen that Waffles possesses, a necessary other-side to her creative interests. In writing about her, they affirm that she’s “a true depiction of Generation Z, the demographic cohort shaped by the digital age and shifting financial landscape” and Waffles, in an interesting response to a question, sort of echoes the early concerns of her mother, but she’s ostensibly more positive in the subtext she gives the consideration. “Being thrown into the industry,” she said, “I had to learn while running. Because the typical stories [are] that you blow up, and then it falls away, you kind of disappear into the mix. So for me, I’ve blown but, but what do I do to make sure I stay relevant? I’ve been granted this beautiful blessing. How do I make it the rest of my life?”

One of the ways she hopes to do this is through her positioning, not solely focused on brand but also the legacy she leaves for the Amapiano genre and the several artists who’ll hope to emulate her upwards trajectory in the years to come. “[It’s] about ‘Piano, actually leading the voice of ‘Piano,” she said just before getting on the NATIVELAND stage. “It’s about doing headline shows and writing your own narrative, creating your full experience according to you. Because recently, you know, I’ve been going all out on my shows. So Amapiano allows you to prove that DJs can also headline your shows. Having DJs can be a full performance, you know. We haven’t had DJs headline Coachella and stuff like that. I’m definitely going to be pushing myself a lot more.”

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]