Uncle Waffles: “When a stage requires me to go big, I always think ‘how big can I go?’” - Features - Mixmag

Uncle Waffles: “When a stage requires me to go big, I always think ‘how big can I go?’”

Uncle Waffles' international success represents an exhilarating era for southern African music. As her groundbreaking career continues its ascent, the Eswatini DJ, producer and performer speaks to Natty Kasambala about the ancestral power of log drums, the universal language of dancing, and touching grass

  • Words: Natty Kasambala | Photography: Courtney Paul
  • 19 April 2024

It’s impossible to think of amapiano on the global stage without picturing the stylings of Uncle Waffles. The viral clip that nitro-boosted her career was filled with all the trademark trappings that make up the whole of the intoxicating South African party genre: a packed, frenetic crowd, a free flow of fluid, infectious choreo, unconventionally theatrical expressions and, perhaps most importantly, the unreleased rumblings of yet another spiritual house hit. It took the internet by storm and became something of a mascot and entry point for the scene to new listenerships around the world, celebrity and civilian alike.That was three years ago.

The climb ever since for the 24-year-old Eswatini now-superstar DJ, born Lungelihle Zwane, has been steep and stacked with international tours, star-studded co-signs and hits of her very own as an artist and producer in ‘Tanzania’ and ‘Yahyuppiyah’, and latest single ‘Wadibusa’ dropping to acclaim. She’s amassed over 2.5 million followers on Instagram, and well over 50 million streams across her catalogue on Spotify alone.

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Her music finds ways to unlock an electric ancestral energy that transcends languages you don’t speak, and sometimes language altogether, with its hypnotically guttural mantras. And as a DJ, she’s graced new spaces racking up over 100 international dates last year as well as becoming the first amapiano artist at Coachella festival.

From her humble beginnings as a waitress, orphanage volunteer and then gym receptionist as a teenager, to moving to South Africa at the age of 19 to chase her dream and now commanding sold-out world stages, the path of an artist like Uncle Waffles is so new and unforeseen that it is very much still feels like it’s being written. We catch up with her here to hear more of her journey, inspirations and plans for Piano to the World domination.

Something I love about the rise of amapiano and Afrobeats on the global stage is that it’s introducing people in general to just learning more about the continent. Are there any aspects of Eswatini culture that you think have shaped you into who you are today?

I think the biggest thing is that we are some of the most loving people in the world. So even as we travel, you realise that a lot of common things in how we engage as Africans with each other can be very different internationally. So that's one thing that I’ve truly carried you know - always be nice to people, always be kind. Even if some cultures aren't put together like that… always be that!

And what was baby Waffles like growing up in that landscape, where did she fit in?

She was the girl who opened circles and people would throw money. You know when you have family functions and you dance and they give you money? I used to be that girl.

Okay that tracks, so pretty extroverted?

Yeah and surprisingly now, I’d say I’m extremely introverted.

Did it feel like that switch came the more visible you’ve become?

Yeah I think the more I became visible, the more I just fell into a shell within myself. I think it's just a way of making sure I protect myself and my mental health and everything, because it's really helped me.

Did you have any particular role models growing up that inspired you?

I'm a girl's girl so I've always looked up to women. Any woman who was doing something historic, I’m about it. There's Lebo Mathosa, who is at the top of my list because the only music videos I used to really see were hers. And she was the only artist that I would see who was really dancing and performing. Every time she was out, you’d see her dancing, performing, expressing herself. And I’d always think, that looks so fun.

There's also Chomee, she’s the queen of dancing til this day, like a performer to the tee. So those are the people that I used to really look up to.

Read this next: How Black women and queer communities are shaping the future of African electronic music

And am I right in thinking when you were younger you had this inkling that you might end up in the spotlight somehow, but you just weren’t sure exactly how?

I used to always envision that I would do something that would make me ‘popular’ but I couldn't figure out what it was. Because you know when you're young you don't think of DJing as the first thing. Maybe you think of being an actress or those types of things…

And so talk to me a little about the journey of tracking that ambition into action, it started out with presenting, right?

Yeah I started presenting on a small show. So we used to bring creators and interview them, they’d talk about their craft, what they do, how they started, exactly what I do now surprisingly!

So one time a DJ came, and I was like, yo I really like the sound of this, but I just want to learn, I don't want to DJ. I just want to understand it because it looks really fun. So I started off just a month, every day for eight hours. Then it was in two months, every day for eight hours. Then it was three months, four months, five months, then an entire year. Now I'm doing it by myself, because he stopped coming after the second month. Because after that it was just about me and practising and discovering if I actually love it, because the more you want to get better at it, the more you realise you could be passionate about it. And [at the time] I didn't think it was possible to be passionate about DJing, you know? And then I started falling in love with it. Then I took out a bookings poster that I made and did my first gig, and there was nobody there, but that was okay you know? [laughs]

And I guess that next stage is equally tricky from discovering your passion to carving a career path out of it. What was the jump like from that first empty gig to the infamous one that ended up changing so much for you?

I realised that this is something that I really wanted to do. I fell in love with it. And I realised that even if it isn't something that is gonna make me a lot of money, it's something that I really want to do. And I feel like I'm really good at it. I feel like I can perform. So I just started posting on social media and as I was getting more traction, it became more real.

There were a lot of names who are out there and travelling the world and it made me think, no I can actually do this, let me try my best. So I was posting videos, I was taking gigs for free, just trying to get my face out there. I just made the decision that people are doing it and I feel like I bring something unique to it so I should also be trying my best to get to that place because they all started somewhere. They all started where I was.

And so you have this dream to break into this industry, that happens in such a huge and viral way. Was there an element then of having to go back to the drawing board and supersize whatever it is you imagined for yourself? What did that recalibration look like, of what could be possible for you?

Yeah it took a lot of help! And having a team and a support system. Because going back to the drawing board and realising that: Okay, I can't just be the artist that I thought I would be. Now I need to figure out, given this opportunity, how do I maximise? How do I become a star from this one opportunity? How do I grow? Because the person I was three years ago isn't the person I am today, it’s not the same artist. So yeah, it took a lot of help and being willing to just explore and try new things. ‘Okay, maybe I wasn't really good in this creative aspect, how do I get better? My performances were like this before, how do I upgrade them to make sure that I'm able to get into those spaces?’

And if you had to describe the difference between the Waffles of today and the Waffles of ‘Adiwele’ fame, how would you?

The Waffles today is a Waffles that understands the business of being a DJ and also is more passionate. I was very passionate then but I'm definitely more passionate now because now I aspire to be bigger than what I thought I would be when I was performing ‘Adiwele’ that day. I aspire to be a whole bigger artist, to do a lot of big things. Then I had a dream just to break in, that’s what I was working to do. Now I'm working on being the breakthrough for 'piano, for commercial sounds, to get into Billboard, to get to the GRAMMYs, to get to all these places, you know.

Read this next: The beautiful chaos of Amapiano, South Africa's emerging house movement

It’s quite surreal to scroll a little further back on your Instagram feed, now with millions of followers, and come across those very videos of you from only a couple years back, of a younger you filming yourself practising blends on the decks. What’s been the weirdest thing to get used to on this rapid ascent?

Yeah how crazy. The weirdest thing is people invalidating that you're playing just because you're performing, because people don't think those things can coexist. That was the weirdest thing because when I was still a smaller name, I used to feel the need to justify it constantly. I used to always be like, you can literally do both. The song is three minutes. Trust me, me dancing for 30 seconds will not change anything. But now I've gotten to the place where… you can see more people doing it. People do all types of things while they DJ, they go and hug their friends.

That’s something I noticed about your London show, it almost had a feel of a pop or rap show in terms of the level of energy and performance that you’re able to bring. And the same thing happens in that space when women dare to do more than one thing at once. It’s used as a way to dismiss your talent instead of being seen as an impressive feat.

100%. Especially around female DJs, there’s a constant hate simply because they're doing something more than what they feel like conventional DJs should do. Which in reality, [the truth is] that people are now going to DJ shows to be entertained as well, people are going with the intention to go and watch some sort of performance. And thinking about all the people that get any sort of criticism, they are mostly Black women and Black DJs. They're always invalidated. But they won’t say anything when male DJs do the same thing, which they do! A lot of men dance, they interact with each other, even pouring a drink [is] equivalent to just dancing for a few seconds. It’s literally the same thing.

In the face of that criticism, I love that the dance element of your shows has continued to grow and grow. What’s your inspiration when it comes to how you incorporate it into how you tour going forward?

Every time I think of how to incorporate dance, I always think of Beyoncé. Beyoncé is a powerhouse who can stand on her own. But when she has to do stages that are big, she always knows that visually you need a performance that people are mesmerised by. Yes they can be mesmerised by herself but one person on the stage that is supposed to cater to 70,000 people doesn't give the same effect as it would if you had a team to be an extension of your expression.

So now that I've started doing bigger shows, bigger stages where they consider me, yes, a DJ, but as a DJ, I’m still at a disadvantage because I'm behind the booth. But when I have dancers and all these things, it has become more of a performance. Now I'm able to perform in stages where they wouldn't consider DJs. Now I’m put on main stages even though they've never had a DJ on a main stage before. But they know that we can provide the performance aspect as well. So yeah, now when a stage requires me to go big, I always think how big can I go? And I always think Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Beyoncé.

With this next generation of southern African talent harnessing so much international success, it feels like we’re already in fairly uncharted territory. What do you see for yourself 5, 10, 20 years down the line?

Creating a system that allows artists to learn more about the business side of the music. People get into deals that are not the best simply because they just didn't know. So I'm hoping to create entities that help people understand the music, understand their brands, how to grow their brands, and also hoping to create a system of managers who know how to help these artists. Because as much as people can be talented, some of the things that hinder them are the management, understanding, signing bad deals. So I'm hoping that even with my career, but I also want to help other people from a paperwork standpoint. Because a lot of talent is wasted through just simply not knowing.

Some people get superstitious about this but any dream collaborations that spring to mind?

Let me get my list up! SZA, I think she’d sound amazing especially on soulful piano. Miss Rihanna, my goodness. I’d love to do SiR, Burna Boy, WizKid, Tyla. Should I keep going? The Internet, Rosalía… I’d love to dabble with everybody because I feel like piano is a genre that can fit with every other genre. And every voice can fit on piano.

What is it about amapiano that allows it to speak to so many and capture such an infectious energy?

I think most African genres and African cultures have something to do with the drums. Whether it's within traditional dancing, cultural moments, there's always some sort of drum. So I think it resonates with a lot of Africans especially because that log drum sounds familiar even if you haven't heard it. It's in your bones. I don't know how that even works. But it's so spiritual. I think it probably dates back to our ancestors and stuff, but everyone just resonates with the drum, there’s just something.

I love that idea, that maybe it’s a forgotten memory that’s reawakened with the music. One other aspect that helps too is how the sound and the movement of the genre are so intertwined. The dance moves, and the way that you move, have become such an extension of the culture of it - what’s your relationship like to dance and how you share it with others?

Because 'piano is still an emerging genre, I think the biggest obstacle we're still yet to face is the language barrier. A lot of people don't understand [certain] music and a lot of people prefer listening to music that they understand. But people always understand dancing, people always get dancing. No matter what, even if you don't get what these people are saying, the way they're moving is absolutely amazing. So piano has that advantage.

The importance of dancing when you're performing is when you're catering to audiences that are experiencing the sound through you for the first time, they may not understand it, but your movement will make them get it. Like you go into spaces where you are the first touch of piano and you can make them feel it through the dancing.

Read this next: Journey Music: South Africa's AfroTech sound travels globally and transports spiritually

When people have viral moments it also feels like there’s a job to do to introduce your new audience to the real person behind the clip. What was it like figuring out how to break out of whatever boundaries or pigeonholes people might have set for you because of your origin story?

Just continue working. For me, it was that the stereotype is never going to leave me. I'm never going to act like the viral video didn’t help me. That was an amazing opportunity, that changed my life. The reality of what I had to do after is also still real. We just decided that after the moment, just keep working. Keep proving them otherwise and do it for yourself. Every time they want to associate you with something, make sure you do something better. ‘Oh, she's a one-hit wonder’, make sure you bring out more hits. ‘Oh she only does splits’, next time do a cartwheel. Next time do a backflip! Literally.

And I guess one of the natural next steps which I’m sure proved many wrong was becoming an artist in your own right and having huge successes. What inspired the move into production for you and what was the learning curve like?

That was another conversation that we had after the viral moment. What happens next to keep your longevity as an artist is music. So when we had the conversation, we had made 'Tanzania' six months before it got released, but I was just not there. I was like, I'm not ready. I don't think it's the one. We fixed so many things and we listened to it for six months before we ever released it.

So I just felt like it was going to be another soft spot for people to touch and I just wasn't ready, you know? But after praying about it, realising that whether people like it or not, I love it and it's a good first step for me. I can learn from this and just do better. So after I let that go, we released it. I didn't look at any interactions with the song for maybe two weeks. I didn't look at anything. I was like, if people don't like it I don't care, it's fine. [laughs]

But people received it very well so that did build up my confidence when it came to music. I figured out everyone has their niche and their audience. There's always someone who's gonna listen to your song, you know? But yeah it was very hard, being vulnerable is very awkward, it’s like they're seeing you naked.

Talk to me a little about the inspiration behind 'Solace' and 'Asylum' as an expression of that tension. It felt like they embodied the two sides of that coin…

So the entirety of 'Solace' and 'Asylum' is supposed to be a double-sided project called 'An Asylum of Solace'. Which basically means that within this journey, there've been moments where the world felt like it was crumbling beneath my feet, I was just running or just working. Things were blurry but we were just moving because we had to, because we had goals.

The chaos was very overwhelming but within that chaos, I found so much peace because I was pursuing a dream, you know? I was chasing something and I could see it materialising in front of me within the work. As much as we were going through so much, chaos, feelings, all types of things, fatigue, there was so much peace within being able to do those things still.

As much as sometimes it's hard to do seven gigs a night, the privilege was… I was able to be booked for seven games a night. So that's what 'Asylum of Solace' was, to just show that within all the chaos there's actually a lot of peace. I'm at peace, no matter what happens, I'm very, very happy.

Are there any practices that helped you find that balance within the mayhem of it all?

You know when people say ‘touching grass’? Touching grass is such a real thing. I stopped being preoccupied by opinions, I stopped focusing on all the negatives, because sometimes when you fixate on what people say about you, you end up doubting yourself. So my screen time is three hours, I live in my real life, I hang out with my team, I do things that I love, I read books. That has really helped me. I work, I do anything creative, every time I have an idea, I’m writing it down, we’re creating moodboards, even if we never do it! I’m just occupying myself with things that I’m happy about and leaving everything else out.

What’s something that people would be shocked to learn about you?

I clean every single day, Airbnbs, hotels, everywhere I clean. That’s a strange habit I cannot stop. In London at the Airbnb they didn’t have a broom and I was using that small dustpan broom to clean the entire place. Every day I wake up at 6, I clean, I stretch, I sit. It’s almost a problem actually. When we got back from Jo'burg, the first thing I did in my airport clothes was clean. I was mopping the house. I just can’t rest until everything’s clean, even if I left it clean!

Wow, where does that come from?

I’m a first born daughter…

I’ve actually been seeing a lot of eldest daughter discourse online recently…

Everything that they said it’s true, it’s all true!

‘Wadibusa’ is out now, get it here

Natty Kasambala is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

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