Get in the groove: women in amapiano

Photos by Pass the Lens

We caught up with some of the major players in the scene to learn more about how women are pushing the genre forwards

If you grew up in Sub-Saharan Africa in the ’00s – as I did – the unmistakable sounds of South African electronic music were inescapable. Whether it was Black Coffee’s smooth Afrohouse, DJ Cleo’s Es’khaleni kwaito compilations, or Bucie’s soulful house vocals, South African music was guaranteed to soundtrack everything from your drive home from school to the music videos you’d spend your weekends watching on Channel O (before MTV, African youth turned to Channel O for a daily dose of the latest African hits). Fast forward to 2023, where amapiano DJ and viral sensation Uncle Waffles has landed a coveted spot on this year’s Coachella lineup, and South African electronic subgenres have become the world’s weekend soundtrack.  

Amapiano, or simply piano, is a subgenre that has quickly captured the world’s attention. Meaning ‘the pianos’ in Zulu, the genre emerged in the mid ’10s with its signature jazzy piano melodies over a log drum percussion that acts as a spiritual bassline, drawing on traditional South African rhythms. Slower than its gqom, Afrohouse and kwaito predecessors, amapiano leaves room for a groove, allowing its listeners to create slick intricate dances that are now weaved into the fabric of the culture that surrounds it. As the South Africans describe it, “The aim is not to sweat.”

Dankie Sounds

Playing fair

While DJs and producers such as MFR Souls, Papers 707, Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa have been credited as amapiano’s pioneers and creators, the genre facilitates the success of women artists and performers on a global scale. Artists such as DBN Gogo, TxC and Uncle Waffles have all graced the decks of Boiler Room; Kamo Mphela and Pabi Cooper graduated from stage dancers to vocalists and performers on international stages; and homegrown UK talents such as DJ Via Seri and Nicky Summers are regular headliners at European amapiano events. Unlike the wider electronic music scene, where women make up only 26.9% of acts at electronic music festivals worldwide, it’s clear that amapiano is not only offering something different sonically, but in terms of gender equity in live events, too. 

And it’s not only artists, women are represented across all levels of amapiano events. John Junior, founder of DICE partner AMA Fest, told us that the festival has a 70% female audience, while Dankie Sounds, London’s most popular amapiano club night, reports that around 70% of its team are women. Plus, House of Piano, the UK’s premier amapiano dance company, is run by founder Bernita Matondo – a leading female dancer in the Afro and amapiano space. 

Compared to other Afro and Black diaspora genres, amapiano gives women access to all of its different elements – dance, DJing, producing, vocal performance, and booking – on equal footing with their male peers. Of the 18 women on this year’s lineup for Afro Nation, 11 are amapiano acts; and amapiano events such as Dusst, Piano People and the upcoming Piano Workz regularly feature female headliners and dancers. Meanwhile, Wireless, a festival that has shifted its focus from rock and pop to hip-hop and other Black diaspora genres, has only nine women acts across its three-day lineup this year.


Dankie Sounds, run by James Anyiam, Tunde Adeniyi, Sama Olarenwaju, and Kaz Brown, acknowledges that the club night wouldn’t be where it is today without the contributions of its majority female team, 65-70% female attendees, and the women DJs on their lineups; and counteracting the industry’s inequality is always top of mind. While it may be a rarity for electronic music nights and major festivals to have an equitable lineup, for Dankie Sounds, it’s evergreen. From hosts, dancers and DJs to their inaugural playlist – guest-curated by Nicky Summers – the team aim to lead by example, giving a platform to women at every level of their brand and events.

Reinvention on the dancefloor

“Amapiano found me,” says UK DJ and performer Via Seri. Initially a DJ in the Afro-electronic space, Via has gone from being a warm-up act – a position women and femme DJs know all too well – to the headline slot. A devotee of Afrobeats and tribal house, it was a natural progression for the artist, who says that once she found piano, “that was it. From then on, it was like I couldn’t see anything else.” 

Like her peers, Via found new ways to reinvent herself as an artist and performer through amapiano. “Women refreshed the scene,” she says, describing how historically the role of a DJ was an accessory to the main event, but now the DJ is the main event. The draw of an amapiano party, or ‘groove’ as they’re affectionately called, is not just the music but the chance to see Tarryn from TxC dance on the decks mid set, or watch Uncle Waffles uMlando alongside her backup dancers. 

Dankie Sounds

While dancing has been a fundamental part of all electronic spaces, everyone we spoke to stressed the unique position that dance has in the amapiano scene. “There’s so much skill in amapiano dancing,” says House of Piano’s Bernita Matondo. She described the dance style in detail, stating that she’s seen even the best Afro dancers struggle to keep up with the difficult jumps, kwaito-influenced legwork and coordinated hand movements.

“It’s not as simple as having transferable skills like athletes,” she says, expressing that it’s apparent when dancers are not “well-versed” in amapiano dances. A house music two-step and shuffle, or electronica’s tecktonik only require movement from the legs or arms respectively, but amapiano demands more. From the simple ‘Pouncing Cat’ to the more recent TikTok-driven dance challenges such as ‘Bhebha’, the aim is to move your arms, legs and more, while making it look easy (and trying not to sweat).


Having danced for Tiwa Savage and Burna Boy, British-South African Bernita is no stranger to the big stage. “I’m just trying to push the sound and the movement in the UK,” she says – a movement that centralises dancers as an integral part of the culture. While DJs are a draw for these events, the dancing is “what excites people to come out and be a part of the scene.” As a host and dancer, Bernita sees herself as a “custodian of the vibe” at amapiano parties, hyping the crowd and effortlessly executing the dances popularised on social media – adding that South African authenticity to the UK amapiano scene.

Challenge breeds change

However, being a woman or femme in this space is not without its challenges. Bernita recalls issues of hyper-sexualisation of dancers and performers from male attendees who fail to recognise the skill required to be a performer in this space; while Via shares that women and femme DJs still have to work hard to be recognised by event bookers. Representation at the Coachella level is heartening, and definitely ushers more women and femmes into the scene, but the presence of the long-lasting effects of inequality in the music industry do not heal overnight.

These performers, event planners, playlist curators and anything else they choose to be, invite people of all genders to the uniting sound of amapiano’s log drum, and to become innovators on the dancefloor. As an African Woman, and a product of Channel O weekends, I accept the invitation. Catch me with a whistle in one hand and a drink in the other as I uMlando at the next Dankie Sounds, AMA Fest, Dusst and beyond.

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