Ethiopian neo-soul singer Wayna is up for a Grammy tonight

Neo-soul singer from Bowie traded the West Wing for Grammys glory

By Rashod D. Ollison, February 8, 2009

Most nights, and always after a nerve-racking commute from work, singer Wayna Wondwossen would crash on her couch feeling drained and frustrated.

Just out of college, she worked as a writer in the White House Office of Presidential Letters and Messages. It was a prestigious position, sure, but much too buttoned-up for an artsy spirit. Drafting commemorative messages to dignitaries on behalf of President Bill Clinton hardly lent itself to creative expression.

Wayna (she goes by just her first name) longed to trade the business suit for a form-fitting dress and sing her songs. The transition from White House employee to neo-soul artist took a lot of guts – and prayers. Now, nearly a decade later, the striking Ethiopian-born singer-songwriter is celebrating her first Grammy nomination.

She’ll find out tonight whether “Lovin You (Music),” her hip-hop-laced interpolation of Minnie Riperton’s 1975 classic, earned her a win in the urban/alternative category. Wayna will be seated among the industry’s biggest stars at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, where the pre-show and on-air awards will be given out.

Her competition includes musically daring acts with major-label support: Kenna (who also happens to be Ethiopian), Chrisette Michele and Janelle Monae. But Wayna, who lives in Bowie, has seemingly come from nowhere. Even in the Baltimore-Washington area, where she has been performing professionally for about four years, her name is just beginning to be recognized. Local urban stations, namely WHUR (96.3) in Washington, have recently added “Lovin’ You” and other cuts from her new album, Higher Ground, to their playlists.

With the Grammy nomination, “I felt as if God has given me this huge validation that I’m on the right path,” Wayna says. “I felt my hard work was being affirmed.”

Wayna’s quirky vocal style – high-pitched and crystalline, a cross between Minnie Riperton and Erykah Badu – is something of an acquired taste. Her voice flutters, quivers and soars over the sparse, programmed tracks that fill her albums. Of the two, Higher Ground is the most accomplished. “Lovin’ You,” which features Washington rapper Kokayi, is one of the CD’s standout cuts. Like the original, whose arrangement included only an electric piano, an acoustic guitar and a chirping bird, Wayna’s remake is musically simple. Her vocals are multi-tracked and sparkle over a low rumbling bass line and beat boxing by Kokayi.

“She wanted to flip it like the Fugees did with Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly,’ with a hip-hop feel behind it,” says the song’s producer, James McKinney. A classically trained vocalist, he has worked closely with Wayna on her albums, overseeing arrangements and providing vocal coaching.

“I called her my poster-child artist for a long time,” McKinney says. “She’s very emotional with the music and she’s real open to ideas. She’s gone in new directions on the new album – more hybrids of neo-soul and techno and Afro-beat.”

The 30-something artist (she bristles when asked her age) has bankrolled her two albums: 2004’s Moments of Clarity: Book I and last year’s Higher Ground. They were released through Quiet Power Productions, a label she formed about four years ago. But her music career started modestly more than 10 years ago.

Inspiration for being a singer always came on her lunch breaks. She would frequent Kemp Mill Records in downtown Washington to catch in-store appearances by her favorite artists such as Angie Stone and India.Arie. It was always tough returning to the White House.

“Finally, it got to the point where I had to do this,” she says. “My desire became bigger than my fear, and I got up the gumption to quit.”

That was in 2000. She felt liberated, but she was also scared: Wayna had no idea what type of music she wanted to do. She had been singing all of her life. Her earliest musical memory is singing along to a 45 RPM of The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” when she was about 4 years old. Wayna sang and wrote songs in college and dreamed about doing it professionally. But now that she had made the opportunity for herself, she didn’t know where to start.

“I was searching for a style that fit me,” she says. “It took me a while before I had the resources to get the best music that I could and a mix that was comparable to what the majors were doing.”

Wayna eventually settled on a neo-soul approach. But in the meantime, she had to earn money to pay for producers, musicians and studio time. By day, she did consulting for the government and event organizing, and she worked for a time at a community center. By night, she was holed up in a studio recording her first album, which she released in late 2004.

Also about that time, she haunted local jam sessions and open-mic nights such as Sunday Soul at Takoma Station Tavern in Washington. Raheem DeVaughn, the Maryland-based Jive recording star, hosted the monthly events.

“She was up there doing her thing as an independent artist, hustling like all of us. But it was clear Wayna was talented,” says DeVaughn, who nabbed a Grammy nomination last year for his hit single “Woman.” “People responded when she was on stage. She has a voice that you don’t forget.”

With “Lovin’ You,” Riperton’s lone No. 1 pop hit, Wayna flips the song’s lyrical meaning.

“Instead of the song being about a lover or about Minnie’s daughter, which is who she wrote it to, I wanted it to be about my ups and downs of being an independent artist and staying encouraged,” she says.

Wayna has been a full-time singer-songwriter for about five years. She regularly performs in and around Maryland, Washington, New York City and occasionally in Ethiopia. Since the release of Moments of Clarity, she has opened local shows for hip-hop and R&B artists, including Common, Fantasia and Chuck Brown. The buzz kept building, culminating in the Grammy nomination, which was announced in early December while Wayna was in South Africa for a friend’s wedding.

But being a full-time performer has come with some sacrifices.

“There are other things I’ve put on hold to be an artist,” she says. “It took us time to buy a house, because I had saved money for my CD. I still haven’t had kids, and I’m dying to be a mom. The funny thing is, I told my friends when I got the Grammy nomination that God knew I was just hanging on.”

And if she wins?

“I don’t know what I will do,” Wayna says, her eyes widening. “Wow. Just getting the nomination has done so much already. It has renewed my faith in what I do.”

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