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From novice to global superstar in 2 years: Uncle Waffles’ trailblazing journey is empowering female DJs

In just two short years, the DJ known as Uncle Waffles has transformed her entire life – from taking her first steps behind the turntables, to becoming an internationally acclaimed DJ and producer.

Leveraging social media, Uncle Waffles has quickly become a sought-after star in Amapiano – one of the fastest-growing music genres out of Africa, known for its deep house sound fusing kwaito, jazz, and percussive basslines. She garnered the nickname “Princess of Amapiano,” and although the performer is grateful for her title, the self-proclaimed “girl’s girl” doesn’t feel like she truly owns it.

“I always feel like, yes, I’m the princess of Amapiano, but so are you,” she explained.

“I don’t want it to ever make people feel like women have to always be up against each other. We can all coexist, and we can actually all shine together.”

An overly animated child-turned-superstar

Born Lungelihle Zwane in Eswatini, a small country formerly known as Swaziland, between South Africa and Mozambique, she was known to be overly animated as a child.

“My mom used to let me do plays, and she used to encourage me to do anything creative that I wanted,” she said. “I used to be that girl who wants to do the leading role in the play and be the most exaggerated.”

Noting influences from South African singers Lebo Mathosa and Chomee, that animated young girl was destined for the big stage.

“They were such great performers,” she said. “They were unapologetically themselves; I would see it, and I was like, ‘I want do this; I want be there.’”

The performer says that although she didn’t know how to sing, she knew she’d eventually make it to the stage.

She made her first steps on the music scene in 2021, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

She began learning to DJ, “eight hours a day for nine months, just sitting and practicing and falling in love.”

Once she gained confidence, she adopted a stage name, “Uncle Waffles.”

“In high school, they used to call me Waffles because of a song from the [animated American TV series] ‘Teen Titans,’” she said. “It was an inside joke, and then it carried out throughout my entire life. So, when I got Instagram after high school, they were like, ‘it should be Uncle Waffles.’”

With her stage name locked in, at just 21 years old, she moved from Eswatini to South Africa and started advertising her DJ services.

“I knew that I needed to move to a space where they are more accommodating of creative skills, where creatives get paid, where creatives can live out of their creativity,” Uncle Waffles said.

Initially, she received a lot of small or unpaid gigs, but then a chance opportunity arose to fill in for another DJ at Soweto’s Zone Six Venue in 2021. No one had heard of Uncle Waffles at the time, so the DJ felt she needed to do something to stand out.

“I got off stage, started dancing with people, and realized that that made the performance,” she recalled.

The next day, she posted a video of herself dancing to South African singer Young Stunna’s song “Adiwele.” The post went viral after Canadian rapper Drake shared it on Instagram, and Uncle Waffles was catapulted into stardom.

“I didn’t expect it to completely change my life, because how does that happen?” the DJ said. “How do you go from doing free shows to being booked internationally in the next week?”

The international language of dance

Since her viral moment, Uncle Waffles has made dance a central part of her sets. Acknowledging language as one of the most significant barriers faced in popularizing Amapiano music around the globe, she started to understand how dance could be used to break it down.

“Even if you’re hearing the song for the very first time in the distance, there’s always something that compels you to dance,” said Uncle Waffles. “Very recently, I saw someone saying that (Amapiano music) gave them an ancestral feeling.

“People will understand dance, even if they don’t understand the lyrics.”

The new approach worked, and the trailblazing DJ made history this past April as the first Amapiano DJ to perform on the main stage at the Coachella music festival in the US. Then she earned a Best International Act nomination at the 2023 BET Awards. By September, Uncle Waffles was headlining and curating a sold-out show at the Avant Gardner in Brooklyn, New York.

The DJ has also added producer to her resume, after spending three months perfecting her debut single “Tanzania.” The track has more than 12 million streams on Spotify as of this writing, and was featured during a dance break on Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour. The producer has released three Eps in the last two years.

“It takes a lot of vulnerability to release music because it comes with so much criticism,” she said. “But it was the best decision I ever made because now I have multiplatinum music.”

Uncle Waffle’s success has helped to define a clear path for female DJs who aspire to become global stars.

“It’s very possible for your dream to be valid as a woman in male-dominated spaces,” Uncle Waffles said, while showing the world that a DJ can command the stage.

“Being a DJ doesn’t limit it,” she added. “If you want it to be on a big stage, (you’ll) accommodate that big stage.”

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