It’s not often that you come across a musician such as Wayna (born Woyneab Wondwossen). The Ethiopian-born singer-songwriter moved to the U.S. with her family at age three, became a University of Maryland beauty queen — crowned Miss Black Unity — and led a burgeoning career behind the cloistered walls of the White House as a writer in the office of Presidential Messages and Proclamations. Yet something greater had its hold on her, and she eventually left it all behind to purse her first love, music. Her leap paid off and in 2009 she was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Now Wayna returns with her third album, The Expats. For fans, it is an exciting — and surprising — departure from the jazzy neo-soul she’s become known for, but as Wayna shares with Exclaim! — speaking from her home in Washington, DC — her latest release is new terrain that feels more like home. Chaka V.
I’m so curious, how was it working for the Clinton Administration? Was it difficult to walk away from a career in the White House?
It really was. As you can imagine, your family is excited. Your friends are excited. It’s this cool thing that you’re doing and you’re surrounded by all these really brilliant people and you’re learning a lot of wonderful things but it was such a clear lesson for me in terms of understanding how something can be wonderful and not be what you’re meant to do.
Politics is my second love after music, but between meetings, I would be blasting D’Angelo on my earphones or sneaking out on my lunch break to go to Kemp Mill Records, right up the street from the White House, and see different artists that were coming in to do signings. I saw India Arie and Angie Stone. I would grab whatever moment I could away from that world and then dive back in and do my job. Then I’d have a gig on Friday nights, singing with a cover band in Georgetown. So [music] was always in the back of my mind, a kind of haunting. It got to the point where I realized that in spite of how fulfilled I felt doing what I was doing, it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life. So I had to just take a leap of faith.
You made the leap into music successfully but did you face challenges in your community because you choose to sing and write music outside of traditional Ethiopian music?
Yes. In fact I still do to this day. I just did a show in New York last weekend where I was playing with a pretty popular Ethiopian band and we ran up against the same challenge that we have playing in front of Ethiopian audiences, where there’s generally surprise to see an Ethiopian not singing in Amharic. I think I might have been the first and then after that there’s been quite a few that have sort of expanded the field, so it’s more common, but it’s still very different and the majority of Ethiopian audiences don’t just want to hear music, they want the feeling of nostalgia. They want the feeling of belonging.
And being home.
Exactly. Exactly. And so I’ve realized that for those people, I can’t give them that. I’m not that kind of artist because of the nature of who I am, my home is here so I can’t recreate that feeling for them. But I think when they see me they see… it’s sort of like a reflection of how our community has been influenced by the outside world. For some people it’s empowering because it shows us entering into the wider world and excelling at things outside of what’s indigenous to our people. We are not a people who are used to a lot of outside influence. We were not colonized, we’ve been kind of insulated as a culture, as a community. But the reality is that we are members of the global community and now there are plenty of us who are living outside of Ethiopia, in the diaspora, and are coming back and forth. Our culture is going to change and I think that music is just one small reflection of that integration.
Stevie Wonder has called your voice “incredible.” How does that make you feel?
Oh, it’s incredible. It was everything to me and it still is to be honest. It’s still the highest honour that I’ve ever gotten over any other accolade. It was a huge validating thing for me, especially in the beginning because I was brand new. I wasn’t a spring chicken. I had a whole other life and career before I started doing music so there was a part of me fighting off questions about whether switching into this career at a second stage in my life was even viable. It was scary. I’m singing soul music but I’m not an Aretha Franklin. My voice has a certain kind of tone and feel to it so to have one of the eminent musicians in soul music give me kudos for my voice made me feel like, “Ok, I can do this. I have a shot.” It was amazing. I just saw him a couple of days ago and gave him the new album. I’m excited to get his feedback on it. He’s just an incredible person.
There are many unique moments to your story. In university you were a beauty queen and instead of capitalizing on being beautiful you pursued politics. Your family came to the U.S. as immigrants and you ended up working for the White House. And later you entered the music business, not as a 15-year-old but an adult woman fresh on the scene. It’s all very inspiring.
I appreciate that. I appreciate it. I think the lesson in that is that we’re taught that things just happen in a traditional way. But very often amazing things happen to the most unlikely person. I constantly tell myself that when I feel that I am an underdog.
Both you and Kenna were nominated for a Grammy in 2009 under the category of Best Urban/Alternative Performance and it was a first for Ethiopian-American artists. How exciting was that?
It’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it? Even now when you describe it, it’s like wow, what are the odds of that happening? It’s very weird and wonderful that it happened, especially since we’re both doing non-traditional music. We each had our own path yet it was still received well, which was exciting. I was actually in Ethiopia a week after the nominations came out and saw all the local press blasting both of our pictures because they were so excited that we were both nominated that year. It was so huge to them. I think that was the sweetest part about that. For me it was such a coup because I was pretty much separated from the heart of the industry. It was a big thing for me to even get in that circle.
You wrote “Lovin’ You (Music),” as a tribute to the ups and downs indie artists experience in the business.
Yeah. And it’s kind of ironic that that would be the song that would get industry recognition.
Did receiving a Grammy nod help you as an indie artist?
It definitely got me access to producers and artists that I had long wanted to work with, who may otherwise not have given me an opportunity. But it was just really a first step. It was by no means an end all be all. I think in the beginning we were like, “Oh, the labels are going to come pounding and we’re going to get all kinds of sponsorship.” But it really just helped give me a bit of differentiation from the mass pool of artist fighting for the same thing. It opened doors but I still had, and still do, have a lot of work to do to take full advantage of it.
Now you’re back with your third LP. Why did you name it The Expats? And how did the Toronto connection happen?
We actually came up with that name when we were driving back from one of our sessions in Toronto. The whole story about how the album came about was really my working with my business partner in Toronto, Addis Embiyalow. She had been reaching out to different hip soul producers and getting beats for me and sending them and I was writing at home and sort of plugging away in a similar practice that I had done with the other two albums and I just found that I was having writers block. I couldn’t come up with anything that was really great. I felt stuck and her idea was, “Why don’t you just come up to Toronto, meet some new musicians, get in a room and just jam with some guys and see what comes up, see how it inspires you.”
It was a real leap of faith because it was expensive to fly up there and hire these guys and have a writing session and not really know what, if anything, might come out of it. We did it as an experiment. At the very least we hoped it would be creatively jolting and at the best we might come out with some music we could later develop. It turned out that we did click and the guys that were assembled were from all over the world, Uganda, Ethiopia, Israel, Japan, Jamaica. We all got in a room and started playing around with different grooves and by the end of two days we had come up with two songs that we were really excited about.
It turned out that we had similar taste, and even though we were from all over the world, we all loved the Police. We all loved James Brown. We all loved Fela. We all loved Bob Marley. And these things came out in what we were creating. It was really them that inspired the new sound and the creative musical risks that we were taking and it wasn’t hip-hop soul anymore. It was an African reggae-infused alt-rock mashup. And because it’s so much reflected our various cultures and the fact that we were still influenced by the dominant culture that were being raised in — and incorporating elements of rock and progressive music in it — I decided to call it The Expats as a tribute to us all being sort of expats.
And, also, I felt for the first time in my musical life that I had found kindred spirits. Before I was playing with mostly African-American musicians. Now I was surrounded by other immigrants and I just fit in. We got each other. We understood each other.
It’s so fitting that you would come here, to Toronto, and find that kind of connection because Toronto is a diverse community.
It’s so beautiful too. It’s so beautiful how fused together it is because it’s not really that way here, immigrant communities are separated. But you guys are really integrated. You’re best friends, you’re married to each other and there’s a respect for your various cultures. Here if I go to a restaurant and somebody can’t pronounce my name right they laugh like, “Ha ha, that’s a mouth full. What is that?” You know. In Toronto, it’s like, “Where is that from? Oh, you know my cousin’s is married to somebody…” It’s just like this community of immigrants and this mutual respect. It’s so refreshing and it really manifests itself in the music scene. Musicians can authentically play stuff from all over the world because there is this embedded kind of respect for everything, food music, language.
Very true and that brings me to the term you use to describe your sound, “world soul.” Is this something new or was this how you were always describing your music?
No, I never started out trying to be a world music artist. In fact, my goal initially was to be a straight-up soul artist. That was the lane I was in, 100 percent. After the Grammy nod in 2009, I was playing quite a few shows and I would look out at the audience and I didn’t feel like I saw myself there. I didn’t see myself in that audience. I was like I want the crowd to look more like me. Then I did this one Billie Holiday tribute and the crowd was one-third Ethiopian, one-third white, and one third African-American and I was like, this is the kind of crowd I’m supposed to be in front of. Diverse. So my goal was to feel like I would fit in at my own show.
Tell me what world soul is?
Well, soul music is passionate music. It’s vulnerable music, it’s heartfelt music. It’s emotive and I think the world element of that adds a cultural backdrop to those same principals. So it’s the heart, the passion, the love that is told through soul music but it’s expressed through the language of different cultures.
Would you have felt comfortable making, The Expats as your first album or did you need to release those first two soul albums in order to get to this one?
That’s such an insightful question. I definitely don’t think that I was mature enough to make this album coming out because I wasn’t as comfortable with my own self. I wasn’t brave enough to just say, “I’m different in these ways. And these ways deserve a voice in my music. And I’m not going to apologize for the ways that I’m different and I’m not also going to try to minimize it.”
I found a quote where you said, “I used to feel like I was an African artist doing American music. But blues and hip-hop and soul is so rooted in African music.” Will The Expats illuminate that musical connection?
I hope so. I honestly hope so. And I think the message, hopefully, is that there are no boundaries to what we can do, what we can express and experiment with. My first hurdle doing soul music was, “Well, I’m African, can I legitimately make soul music?” And getting over that hurdle and saying yes I can because I’ve been kicked around by life. I have things that I can emote honestly in this music. Then the second evolution was really realizing that those art forms that I thought I was borrowing was actually mine. I heard traditional indigenous Ethiopian music that was completely uninfluenced by anything Western, and I could hear the jazz and I could hear the hip-hop and it was amazing to see that the reason why I could pull off these sounds authentically was because it was in my DNA. It was in me.