When Uncle Waffles left her Manhattan hotel for her first headlining show in Brooklyn, her fiery red hair was full of bounce and curves. By the time she plays “Tanzania,” her first single after rising to prominence as a DJ specializing in South African Amapiano, it instead flows kinkily down her back. It had been tested by time, sweat, and the heat from the sea of bodies in the sold-out crowd at Avant Gardner, an entertainment complex spanning a whole city block.
“Tanzania” — produced by Waffles and South African multihyphenate Tony Duardo — is dynamic and intense, with layers of thrilling percussion and haunting lilts by vocalists Sino Msolo and BoBizza. It cracked the Top 10 of Rolling Stone’s list of last year’s best Afropop songs and was even worked into a dance break on Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour. It’s an absolute heater and the venue is already hot. There are people wall to wall and flames shooting up from the blasters behind Uncle Waffles, a part of the set design.
As a DJ, Waffles doesn’t just spin the hottest global dance music from behind the decks, she performs. A mob of dancers hired locally for this performance are doing intricate footwork, waving their arms around the air, and swaying themselves from the front of the stage ahead of Waffles’ sturdy table down the stairs of the platform, leaving her solo. For a second, she looks up and opens her palms like an acceptance of blessings, and then her feet stomp and step to the music with power that shoots up her body. Her thighs pop and pulse and her hips follow, then her shoulders. After a few moments, her body relaxes, she glides to her right, bites her bottom lip, and smiles.
The 23-year-old, born Lungelihle Zwane, first learned to DJ in 2020 while interning at a TV station in her native eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland). She then honed her skills with eight-hour practice sessions throughout the early Covid-19 pandemic. Her breakout moment came when she took the spot of a DJ who didn’t show up to play a party she was attending, says Kai, one of her managers who encouraged her to play that night. “She takes the moment without any fear or hesitation, and she plays that set,” he recalls. Videos from it went viral, with her spinning Young Stunna’s “Adiwele” as the crowd hung on to her every move, even mimicking her like she was a dance captain. She’s gorgeous and contorts slickly, her face bright and flipping through a million expressions. I certainly had never seen a DJ dance like that at work. “I’m like, oh my God, she’s a star,” Kai remembers.
“This is supposed to be a show that can showcase why a DJ can headline,” Waffles told me in the weeks preceding her debut. She cites DJs Metro Boomin and Tales of Us as performance influences, but also Beyoncé and Travis Scott. “There’s not a lot of DJs who put on a full spectacle,” she says.
Being a spectacle in and of herself is part of Waffle’s appeal, but as a woman DJing, it’s been a double-edged sword. “Especially on social media, if you see a female DJ dancing, it’s always, ‘She doesn’t even DJ, what is she even doing? Everyone’s just a fake DJ nowadays,’” Waffle says. But, she adds, “They also consider you boring if you don’t bring something unique into the DJ space because they feel like males should be the ones who DJ. They always want to make women feel inadequate, no matter what.”
Uncle Waffles has spent most of the year playing festivals and parties around the globe as one of the biggest names in Amapiano, the rising South African dance music often distinguished by the deep knocks of a log drum. When Rolling Stone published a report on the genre’s rise and future in 2021, #amapiano on TikTok had slightly more than 570 million views. Today, it has 12.7 billion. “Water,” an amapiano-indebted song by South African singer Tyla is currently taking the internet by storm, climbing up the Hot 100. Waffles has her perform at her Brooklyn show as well.
In her day-to-day life, Uncle Waffles is a far cry from the firebrand she is on stage. “I’m a naturally reserved person,” she tells me via text weeks later. “I rarely am ever extremely energetic in my life.” She’s nearly silent as her hair and makeup are being done meticulously in her hotel room before the show. The room is huge and luxurious, with a fireplace burning behind a glass case and MTV’s Ridiculousness roaring from a large TV, puncturing the silence. She’s also having some nerves, her publicist tells me. Waffles later texts me that she is always nervous before her performances. “I always want to give my best,” she says.
When we head to her sprinter to commute to Avant Gardner, Kai says he needs oxtails, a massage, and a nap after the run they’ve had — over 100 shows this year, with just two weeks at home in South Africa, where Waffles has built her career. She’s still quiet in the sprinter, fiddling with her phone. She’s even mostly unmoved while her publicist blasts her own music on the van’s speakers. She eventually asks if we can hear some Ice Spice. This kicks off a playlist of women in rap, to which Waffles dances and sings along to Ice Spice’s “Deli,” Glorilla and Cardi B’s “Tomorrow 2,” and what seems like the crown jewel of the ride for Waffles, Nicki Minaj’s “Did It On Em.”
When we park behind the venue, photographers snap portraits of Waffles as she poses beside the sprinter, the wind glamorously blowing her locks. A pack of us — venue staff, photographers, management, security — push through a narrow hall in the venue’s outdoor innards, passing a maze of hardware that powers its varied stages. We take a tower of grated metal stairs to Waffle’s green room, which is actually white and brick. The dancers she’s hired are already there, and chant to welcome her: “Waffles, we want to party!” It’s a custom at her gigs.
Waffles doesn’t always have dancers perform with her, but, with movement being the beating heart of amapiano, she incorporates them into her larger sets, like when she played Coachella for the first time this year. “The biggest thing is getting dancers that know how to dance the genre very, very well. Yes, everyone can do the TikTok dances,” she says of the simpler routines that have gone viral, like the hand-heavy dance to her latest hit “Yahyuppiyah.” Since all her dancers tonight are US-based and thus disconnected from South African dance culture, she flew in a choreographer from home, Lee-ché Janecke. He began working with Waffles after she direct-messaged him ahead of her second EP, March’s Asylum. He also choreographs Tyla, whose “Water” is taking off in no small part to its booty-moving dance.
Janecke landed just four days before the show and worked with the dancers to piece its routines together with only about four hours of rehearsal each day. In the green room, the dancers rehash bits of their routines, with Waffles delicately hyping them before joining. She doesn’t practice the moves full out, instead limply miming the steps and formations one last time. Along with Tyla, she booked DJs mOma, Sydney Love, AQ, and 2wo Bunnies as supporting acts. The crowd and music below the green room are a constant dull roar in the background. Waffles and the dancers eventually gather around a large, messy vanity to take shots of Jägermeister, with whom she has a brand partnership. She pours the liquor into their plastic cups one by one.
When it’s almost time to hit the stage, Waffles and her expansive team crowd the dark stairs from the green room to the main floor, passing another small, exclusive level overlooking the venue on the way. The mouth of the stairs opens directly into the crowd, and the path to the stage is through it. Waffles stands at the steps closest to the floor. She’s enlisted pole dancers to perform in addition to the troupe in her green room, and they make their way out first from the mid-level lounge, Waffles holding out a hand to help them down the steps in their massive heels. When her dance troupe passes through next, she cheers them on with one rooting fist and one open palm to escort them as well.
The house lights come down and cell phone lights blast up as the dancers filter behind the stage, a high platform parked in the middle of the venue’s outer edge. Kai, now playing hype man on a microphone, leads another chant of “Waffles, we wanna party!” but this time, it’s massive. Waffles leans against the staircase wall and peers into the fray ever so slightly, a soft, pensive smile on her face. After four or five rounds, she descends onto the ground, ushered by a man in a black Prada bucket hat. She’s welcomed to her decks with a “Ladies and gentlemen make some noise for the Queen, Uncle Waffles!”