Words by Sarah El-Shaarawi
Wayna uses her gifted voice well. Beyond her undeniable sound, an exceptional combination of sultry and powerful, Wayna chooses her words wisely, both those she sings and those she speaks. It quickly becomes clear that the care employed while choosing her words is born out of a desire to represent her intentions accurately, not out of a fear of what others may think. Wayna’s latest record, The Expats, is in many ways a musical articulation of this. A clear departure from her previous work, it is without question a return to herself, and her identity as an artist, woman, and immigrant.
Born in Ethiopia, Wayna moved to the US with her mother as a young child. Her artistic inclination became evident early on, as she explored musical theatre, chorus, and learned to play various instruments. While it was no surprise to her family when she expressed her desire to pursue music, the road there was neither obvious nor direct.
“I come from a pretty conservative culture,” Wayna explains, “Our families made huge sacrifices to bring us up in the States so we could become professionals and have stable, predictable lives.” While it was never expressly stated, Wayna knew her mother would not be happy about her wanting to pursue music. She ended up studying English and Speech Communication in college, and eventually got a job working in the Clinton White House. She did this for three years before deciding she’d had enough. “I was pretty miserable even though I was doing something that was really quite interesting. I just got to the point where I realized that I could not let my own fear of disappointing my family, or of maybe not succeeding at this thing I have loved for so long, stop me from pursuing it. So I finally took the leap and started the long process of figuring out what kind of artist I wanted to be,” she remembers
Wayna released her first album a decade ago, and describes her career since then as an “up and down, wonderful, love affair of art.” Of her choice to change paths she says, “I haven’t looked back since, but it’s definitely come with its own challenges.” Despite the exploration of her identity that characterizes this album, Wayna has not always felt clarity about how exactly her identity fit into her music. She explains that despite her lyrical content consistently reflecting her story or the stories of those in her community, the production and feel were exclusively hip-hop, R&B, and soul.
“When I got nominated for the Grammy in 2009, I was really quite busy performing a lot, and we would play for these audiences that were predominantly African American. I loved the experience, but it just felt like on some level that I was missing from the audience that came to see me.” She pinpoints a tribute she played to Billie Holiday in 2010 as a turning point for her: “I looked into the crowd and I saw that it was a third African American, a third Ethiopian, and a third White, and I was like, this is the kind of audience that I’m supposed to be a part of, a diverse audience that really reflects the kind of people I grew up around, the diversity of my childhood, and the different kinds of music that I listen to, and that have shaped me.” She decided then that this would be the goal of her next project, something more representative of her. “I wanted to be able to see myself in the audience,” she says.
For her, this meant letting go of a fear of making music that would not be labeled entirely “Black” or “Black American,” and sharing things about herself that she had previously left unsaid. She reflects: “I wanted to include my Africanness and the fact that I grew up in the suburbs listening to U2 and The Police, and that right now Coldplay is my favorite band.”
With this intention she began working, seeking out a diverse set of musicians with divergent perspectives. This search led her to Toronto, Canada, where she ended up working with artists from all over the world: India, Jamaica, Japan, Germany, Israel, and elsewhere. Despite their different backgrounds, something emerged organically: “Even though they were all very international people, we had very similar tastes: we all loved Radiohead; we all loved Bob Marley; we all loved Lauryn Hill, and these commonalities came out when we jammed. It just turned out to be a really effortless combination of cultures that manifested musically.”
The shift in her work has been stark, and not everyone has taken to it favorably. “As it turns out, there are some people who are just purists about hip-hop and soul and I get that,” says Wayna, “There’s still some new material on the album that they can relate to, but I’m definitely way more interested in finding the kind of [listener] who is open to these different genres and their merging, and whose ear and tastes are already there. I do believe that audience is coming.” She continues: “For those who don’t get it, I completely understand, but I’m an artist and I’m making the kind of music I think is right for me.”
That music includes the album’s first single, “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” a song she wrote envisioning a summer anthem. When the time came to shoot a video, she wanted to convey more than the potentially banal story of love or chasing one’s dreams. Working with director Chris Muir, who had the idea of rival girls baseball teams, they created this story of young women at a “pivotal juncture in their lives, where they felt like they could do anything.” A striking element in the video is the diversity of the teams: “The idea of it being these international girls who were playing this traditionally American sport, I thought that was a really powerful message to send, to really say: OK, we want to expand the definition or the stereotype of American to include immigrants, to include people that look like me.”
Reflecting her roots, the song “A Time Will Come” features an excerpt from the famed 1936 speech by former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to the United Nations (the same speech used by Bob Marley in his 1976 track “War”). Wayna articulates that the song is about a time “when all the things that we’re working toward are actually realized.” She explains, it is meant to be encouragement for people fighting injustice. “It is the natural state for things to be equal. We’re all evolving to a state of equality and justice, and it is just a reminder that all of these things will eventually be made whole and be made fair,” she says, explaining that the sentiment behind the song reminded her of Haile Selassie’s speech, “how poignant and poetic” it was, and how proud it made her feel.
The track “Freakshow” however, is perhaps the closest to her heart. “It’s probably the most personal song on the record because it really tells the story of my coming to terms with my differentness and realizing it was an asset and not something that I needed to minimize to make anyone around me feel comfortable, or for the sake of my own fitting in.” The song is important, she explains, because “that was my whole process in making this album, to become unapologetic about the ways in which I was different from the people around me.” The song is a story about a girl who is a performer at a freak show. “It’s just sort of making fun of the whole notion that because of somebody else’s ignorance you would be considered to be a freak when there’s nothing wrong with being different. It exposes the ignorance of the people doing the judging or the outcasting. That was a personal realization that I had to have before I felt comfortable to do music that was different from what was expected from me.”
Ultimately, the process of creating and sharing her new work has been very liberating for Wayna. When asked how her audience has responded to her new sound she replies: “What I have found is that people resonate with things that are authentic and that allow them to feel free or more authentic in their own lives. And I think for people who listen to the album, and especially who see a show, they can tell that this music is more me, and they can tell that I’m more comfortable in my skin as a person, and as an artist I feel like the more I am an artist, the more I recognize that it is less about the music than it is about the intention behind the music, and the way that music makes people feel.”