The soulful singer

Wayna, born Woyneab Wondwessen, is an Ethiopian-born singer and song writer. She left Ethiopia with her mother at a young age and grew up in the  US. She has always been musical and started to fully embrace her talents while she was in school and founded a gospel quartet in college. They performed at different events. After earning a Bachelor’s degree with a double major in English and Speech Communication from the University of Maryland, Wayna began her professional career as a writer in the White House for the Bill Clinton administration. However, she left the job to pursue her true passion–music. Over the years she has performed in different countries and worked in collaboration with numerous international musicians. She has three albums–Moments of Clarity, Book 1 (2004), Higher Ground (2008) and The Expats (2013). Known for her melodies R&B, soul and other general hits, she recently came to Ethiopia to perform. Meheret Selassie Mokonnen of The Reporter sat with her to talk about her music odyssey.

Reporter: What is the purpose of your latest visit to Ethiopia?

Wayna: I came to perform at the Marriott. I have been doing a residency for six weeks starting on New Year’s Eve ending on Valentine’s Day weekend. Now I am working on photos and videos. I was inspired by my mom’s generation and sense of style. They were young housewives who were looking at fashion abroad and incorporated their own way of doing things. I want to pay a tribute to them as if I was my mom in their heyday, before she came to the States, being a young fashionable mom. We wanted that old look so we did a shoot in Piazza. The concept is Ethiopian social life in the 1960’s. It is going to be used in my music, social media page or anything. I am also learning about the music scene here. On a personal level I have brought my family. I wanted to introduce them to their culture. It is my daughter’s first visit to Ethiopia and my mom is here too. So it is a family and personal visit.

You left Ethiopia at a very young age and was growing up in the States. What was your connection to Ethiopian music?

I grew up listening to Ethiopian music and at the back of the house it was always playing. I had my favorites. I listened to Aster Awoke and Gigi. But, I only recently realized that the sound was part of my ear and part of my approach to making music. When I started making music I was doing mostly R&B and soul and that is rooted in gospel music. I thought of myself as an Ethiopian that was doing American music. And then the more music that I made I realized that the parts of me that are Ethiopian are so intertwined in every part of who I am that it comes out without even thinking about it. And I started to explore that more. I produced my last album with a band in Toronto that has two Ethiopians. Recently, when I was touring with Stevie Wonder, he would give us things to sing and when I would sing back the same thing that he just sang, he would tell me I sounded Ethiopian. He heard the Ethiopian thing in my voice which I didn’t know. It made me realize that it is very much part of who I am that I am not even conscious of it. The exciting thing is to explore it and become conscious of it. I’m now becoming a student of old Ethiopian music. I am studying Bizunesh Bekele and some old folk music that my cousins gave me to take home and research. I will leave soon but, I will come back for about a week in May. Hopefully if I get invited back to perform I will come.

What was Ethiopian or other music’s role in your life, with you growing up in the states as a black woman?

Music was my escape. Anytime I wanted to express happiness, sadness, confusion or whatever emotion, music was a comfort for me. I wouldn’t say our house was very musical. But I was from a very young age drawn to music and completely absorbed in it. In the beginning, as a child it was just a way to have fun and express myself. As I got older I found that I could attach my own story to sounds I was enjoying and it became a way to express myself more.

You worked as a writer at the White House during Bill Clinton’s administration. What  was your experience there like?

It was wonderful. The people were brilliant. The atmosphere was very intense and demanding. The work was important. I felt like I was a part of something special. I really believed in a lot of the goals of  the Clinton administration. Their accomplishment was something I was proud of. It was a special time of my life. I was a fresh graduate from college. I had all kinds of ideas about how I wanted to impact the world with my life. Seeing people do enormous things with their abilities was very inspiring. I learned the standard of excellence they had there. Everything we put out was a reflection of the president that the expectation was perfection, even though, obviously, we were human and we all made mistakes. But, there were all kinds of systems in place to prevent a mistake from actually happening. The best thing I took away from that was aspiration to a very high level.

You started being involved in music at a young age and in college you sang in a quartet. What has that practice contributed to your musical career?

I was singing in the University of Maryland gospel choir in college. Four of us started our own quartet. We performed at various shows up and down the east coast. It was wonderful because gospel singers are some of the most amazing singers in the world. It was great to study gospel music and to have this kind of intimate performance with three other singers that were good. I learned a lot. 

You went straight from politics to music. What brought that transition?

There was about a couple years working at the White House. I felt a little uninspired and lost. I was doing what I thought would make my family proud and what was an application of my education. But I wasn’t happy and fulfilled. It took me some time before I was strong enough to walk away from the job to chase what was in my heart. Even though the dream itself seemed unrealistic for some people, I got to a point where my desire became greater than my fear. The last two years working at the White House I started writing and working with producers in the area and performing in George Town Friday nights. By the time I left I had a plan for who I would work with and how I would start the creative process. But, it still took me another two years before I found the right theme and had actually gotten comfortable in the studio and found sort of direction I want to go on creatively.

Your remake of Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You” was nominated for the 2009 Grammy Awards in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category. What has the nomination brought you?

It was big for so many reasons. First of all I was and am an independent artist. Most people believe that to get nominated and to get recognized on that level, you have to have a company behind you; there has to be lots of promotion behind you. The fact that I got recognition as a very underground artist was a big deal for me and lots of my peers who didn’t even think it was possible. I remember one guy, when I told him I had submitted my album for consideration and asked him what I can do to promote it and to get recognized, his exact words were Christmas isn’t coming early, don’t even try. Still it happened. The Grammy itself had their ears to the ground and were listening curiously about up and coming music. Because we had worked hard and made the product, for me it was huge. It gave me hope and affirmation for all of the work that I had done. It gave me access to people and producers just on another level of the industry that I didn’t have the access before. It is still helping to this day. Now the goal is to win one not just be nominated.

You have got a chance to tour around the world with one of your muses: Stevie Wonder; tell us other musicians who inspire you?

He is one and also Roberta Falck, Minnie Ripperton, Donny Hathaway old school classical sound artists are the ones I started studying in the beginning. Recently I have been very deep into alternative rock like The Police and Radiohead modern day artists that I love are Lauren Hill, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott. Now I am beginning to sink into Ethiopian music. Now I’m all about Bizunesh. I’m sure the list is going to keep growing. I want to expand my ears as much as possible.

One of your songs “Mama’s Sacrifice” deals with women’s struggle and it is dedicated to your mother. Similarly “My Love” speaks against domestic violence. How do you express the value of music that reflects the day-to-day struggle of women and raise consciousness about domestic violence?

To me the purpose of music is to be a voice especially for people who don’t have a voice. The most interesting thing to me as a song writer is to tell a story that either hasn’t been told or to tell it in a way that people haven’t heard. When I hear a story of women or children being abused my instinct as most women who have a nurturing protective side is that I want to speak on their behalf. It is about raising awareness and using my voice for something positive and powerful. The story for “My Love” is from what I read in Essenes magazine. It was an expose about women in Prince George’s County, which is the area that I live in outside DC. The story was about how the area was the wealthiest black community in the US but, it also had the highest occurrence of domestic violence in Maryland. For me it was very ironic. The beautiful community full of lovely houses and people who apparently were living the American dream behind closed doors. It  was anything but that. I wanted to tell that story, what it was like being a woman who looked like she had everything on the outside but underneath was suffering like most women. I don’t have a personal experience with domestic violence. The story was based on an African American struggle. Within my first week I was here, we were staying in Samit. One night I heard this sound and as soon as I heard it I knew exactly what it was and I went out to my veranda. There was a woman and her husband arguing. She was wailing so deep that it made every body from everywhere come running. As soon as they came the guy went running. She spent the rest of the night in her house crying for him. It was ironic. It was a similar story as the one in the Essence article but in a different culture and different class. It was a reminder to me that it is something women everywhere deal with and that we still deal with. Seeing people’s reaction after they realize she was okay and there weren’t any kids, they were laughing saying it wasn’t a big deal. But it is a big deal. The woman was really tormented and the man was ashamed. This are the kind of things we need to talk about more and maybe music can help.

What is the role of music in the process of eradicating the problem?

Look at the protest music of the 60’s that expanded people’s consciousness. Look at the movies that changed how people see. Any major social shift usually starts with entertainment. It is changing the public’s consciousness. Sometimes entertainment can be a leader or a way maker in changing people’s minds.

A while ago your arrest in Houston in relation to one of your songs about police brutality went viral. Tell us about the ironic coincidence and has the incident affected you in any way?

I was traveling from Houston to Boston for a performance. I have a song called “Billy Club” that is about police brutality where I use an actual billy club for a prop. I was rushing to catch my flight. I forgot that the button was in my performance bag when I was getting on the plane with. I think in other states they would probably throw it away and it would have been the end of it. But, because I was in Texas, which is a politically charged state and their arrest record and all the things are important to the officials there, it was the wrong place for me to make the mistake. I was arrested. A couple of days before the charges were officially dropped the DA himself thought that it was not a good decision and they expunged everything. For me it was very enlightening. Sometimes people who are not personally affected by abuse in police misconduct or mistakes in the legal system can’t identify with it in a personal level. You might know somebody who has gone through something but, unless it has happened to you, you don’t know what it feels like or know how scared and vulnerable you feel being protected by a system that could make a mistake that end up changing your life for ever or even ending your life. That is what most African Americans are used to. Up until that time I haven’t experienced it personally. It gave me a window into that experience. To be honest it took me a long time to get over. I realized that if I am going to talk about tough issues then I have to be ready for those things happening. I’m willing to do that. The incident was painful for me. But, it made me stronger. I know who I am. I know my strength and shortcomings. I can’t live in how other people judge me. If I want to be a person of excellence or do anything great in the world I have to be able to judge myself. Even in the midst of a storm or the wind blowing in the other direction I have to be able to stand front. That’s what I ultimately took from the experience.

Ethiopian-born musicians working in different genres outside Ethiopia are well known and every time their name is raised Ethiopia’s comes up. There are also artists in Ethiopia working on Ethiopian music. Which is the most expedient way to promote the country’s music?

I think both. I’m blown away by the talent here. The musicianship is great but, I think exposure helps one get better. Those of us who have had exposure, have to come back and give so that we can keep the tradition of excellence growing. There are things they can teach us too. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. What’s indigenous and native to our musical experience is something that is special enough in itself. There is a way to develop and preserve that. I also think there is a way to explore and experiment with other sounds too. Weather that means being abroad and making other kinds of music or being here and developing those original sounds, both can be done.

Do you think these musicians get the exposure and have an easy access in the international stage?

There is definitely a platform now with the internet and social media. There are opportunities with Youtube. There is an opportunity for any artist for their music to be heard if they make something original. The audience is there. Maybe what isn’t quite there is a daring spirit. The more people give artists permission to experiment with different sounds and to be themselves and express their own unique journey, then the more the artist will be rewarded and continue new things. Bands like Jano who are breaking barriers by merging different sounds with Ethiopian music are exciting. It may take time for people’s ear to open to that idea. If there is more artistic freedom given the artist, then the community will grow and listeners will be impacted.

However, this doesn’t seem the case for Ethiopian music, especially when compared with other African countries. So why not Ethiopian music?

That is a very good question. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. Maybe it is in part with our very close network community and our music is a cultural experience for us that we use to celebrate amongst each other only. Maybe it’s about us opening ourselves up to the rest of the world more. I can’t imagine it will be like that for much longer. There are too many great artists that are making music. I’m sure within ten years things will change.

How do you express your experiences through music?

That is the fun part for me - to tell my story and try to tell other people’s story if I can relate to it. Sometimes in some of my songs I go look back at my journal and I will be amazed in how I didn’t even realize I was thinking about that before the song came out. It is a healing process and sort of coming to terms with what I’m experiencing and whatever I see other people experiencing. It is spiritual for me. I take it seriously and I also try to have fun. 

You write most of your songs yourself. Do you think that has given you some kind of artistic freedom?

There is nothing wrong with having other people write for you. Some of the best writers in the world have collaborated with other writers. Including my mentor Stevie Wonder, some of his most popular songs have been co-written by other people, even though he himself is an amazing lyricist. So it is good not to be bound by one way of doing something. I really enjoy the writing process, because it is a deeper way of expressing something I am seeing that I may not already have heard in a song or somewhere else. I was asked to sing at a university event to make a tribute to African women I was searching for the right song and I couldn’t find. I said this means I’m supposed to write one. That is why I enjoy it. At the same time, if I come across a composition that is special and that I connect with then I would have no qualms with singing it if I could.

Do you give lyrics to other musicians?

I have. While I was on tour, I wrote for an amazing male singer. There was a specific story that he wanted to tell about love. I have never done that before. That was exciting and fun. I hope to do that more. I wrote something for Dawit Melese a long time ago and few American Jazz and R&B independent artistes based in my area. That is something I’m interested in exploring especially now that I am a mom. I don’t want to travel quite as much. Working in the studio will be ideal for my life style.

Tell us about your family.

I have two beautiful girls, who are quite amazing, feisty and fiery little women. I really enjoy them. They are my inspirations. Also my biggest challenges are in balancing family and work. I have a lot of support from my husband and my mom. So far we are enjoying the ride. We have our share of ups and downs.

What type of response do you receive especially when you sing about critical social issues and also other matters?

The song I wrote about my mom, I thought of it as a personal story.  The more I performed it the more it was not a specific story to me that a lot of people related to it. That was very enlightening in terms of showing how we really are a lot more in common. Some of the stories we keep to ourselves because they seem private maybe make us feel too venerable. We realize that a lot of other people are walking with the same things. It is one step closer to being free.

You are an independent artist, what are the advantages and drawbacks of working without a recording label?

The other day a friend of mine posted on Instagram saying thanks to everyone who said no to him because he learned how to do it himself. That’s one of the benefits of being s self-promoting artist. It lets you grow all kinds of muscles that you didn’t know that you had. But then again, if your aspiration is to reach a certain level, it’s impossible to do it as an independent artist. The way the industry is, you can have a great career and make a great living as an independent artist. But, to reach the level of those like Rihanna, you have to have a recording label. For me I see every experience as a training. Having my craft, honing my expose as a business woman and my personal resilience. I believe my opportunity will come it just hasn’t happened yet.

You blend Ethiopian music with some of your songs and also add elements that reflect Ethiopian culture in your music videos, why? How does your audience respond to that?

I have one song in my last album called “As Long As You Know” where I had a masinko. It came out really cool. It was played by Setgn an amazing guy in DC. On “Time Will Come” we took an expert from Emperor Haileselassie’s famous speech to the League of Nations. I have some guset artists in my last album. I did a collaboration with Tewodros Tadesse. I am sure I will do more. There are some works I don’t want to say yet with some artists I love, who sing exclusively in Amharic. I’m looking forward to that. My understanding of myself is that my Ethiopianness is part of who I am. And I feel more complete as an artist when I find a way to express it one way or another, whether in a simple way as wearing some Ethiopian jewellery when I perform or incorporating something in a story that I tell. Whenever I perform “Mama’s Sacrifice” there is an element of the story that talks about Ethiopian culture. It is for my own sanity. It is a part of me that I have to include. I think people respond to it because it is genuine.

You worked with Tewodros and other Ethiopian musicians as well. Is there a platform in the States where the diaspora musicians work together?

I feel very fortunate to the community. The community is relatively small. I feel as if there is someone I want to get to I could get to them. Everybody is interested in making good stuff. It is just a matter of everybody being busy working and having a family. That is the obstacle. But, the willingness and the creative interest are there.

What inspires you in making music or writing your lyrics?

Whenever I see injustice or unfairness, it deeply troubles me. If there is anything for me that is hard to swallow being in Ethiopia it has been seeing the disparity in classes. I feel a sense of obligation. You can’t like and choose. You can’t be proud of the cloth and music and not take your share of responsibility for the advancement of the culture. Being an advocate for people who can’t be advocate for themselves is everyone’s responsibility. My microphone is not for me. I feel sorted in a lot of ways in my life. The purpose of our microphone is to be a spotlight to other people. It is for being a voice for other people and also giving them an opportunity maybe to see themselves in what I am doing.

Your last album “The Expats” incorporated musicians from Eritrea, Kenya, India and many other countries and the album has got critical acclaims. What has the collaboration and the diverse sounds contributed?

It has contributed so much. The different cultural sounds that we brought together were based on every body’s taste and what they have been exposed to living in Toronto being an international community. The way the culture is intertwined makes it a perfect place to come up with an integrated sound. Every moment of making that album was a surprise because it was a very democratic process. Everybody came forward with an idea and we picked the best idea, made decisions as a group. When people you are working with are excellent and amicable then that is a fun process.

The expression “expats” reflects the idea of being an immigrant and not belonging there. Where do your belong?

I try very much not to hold myself to any boxes. Because my first responsibility is to be a free thinker. The more I connect with people and not feel inhibited the better I can do that. At the same time I think it is not an accident that I am Ethiopian and that I left Ethiopia at a young age and it is not an accident that I’m back here now. There is a part of my experience that is interracial to fulfilling whatever purpose God has for me. I try to pay attention to those circumstances and learn from them.

Growing up in the states since you were a toddler, do you feel interconnected to Ethiopian identity and culture?

For sure. My mom raised me and she is a very traditional Ethiopian. If you met her now you would be very surprised. She has lived for more than 30 years in the US, but she is just who she is. She is tight to her tradition and her way of seeing the world. I am raised by that.

You play R&B, soul, reggae, rock and many more genres. How do you describe your music?

I still describe it as soul music because it is music from the heart and it is passionate music. Any genera can be soul. Maybe that is a good thing or bad thing, I don’t like to classify it.

From the perspective of the dreams you had when you started music, how do you feel about where you are ?

It has been an amazing experience growing personally and professionally. I’m starting to see the fruits of my hard work. It is a constant evolutionary process. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to do what I love and work with people that inspire me. As long as I’m still growing, touching people I will keep doing this.

What is on your plate in the near future?

I’m working on some music. I want to do a live album and I would love to do that in Ethiopia. If there is an opportunity for that it would be great. I’m performing with Stevie Wonder throughout the coming year. I want to encourage people to support as they can. Follow me on social media and listen to my music on you tube. I have a new video coming out. I shot it in Ethiopia last week. It is a reggae hip-hop history.