Wayna: Demanding The Real


“There really is a wealth of talent and a lot of great artists to collaborate with in DC,” gushes Grammy-nominated R&B-soul singer Wayna about her chosen hometown since leaving Ethiopia aged three. Garnering support from Washington DC and outwards from her two albums – Moments of Clarity, Book 1 (2005) and Higher Ground (2008) – Wayna gets on the phone to SoulCulture to discuss the future.

She identifies the underlying element of her music – soul – as emotive “music with passion, with sincerity, anything that demands the vulnerability of the people delivering it.” Making the most of a modest digital marketing budget, moments of mainstream attention and nurturing her talent in the discerning musical community of Washington DC are just some of the things we talk about.

“Probably the best thing for me has been the audience here – because this is a real mature, music-knowing community. So the audiences are really demanding of performers and a lot of the national acts that come through here realise quickly that they have to bring their A-game to win the DC crowd. Especially when it comes to soul music and Hip Hop because people really know the difference between the real stuff and the not-so-real stuff. They demand the real. It’s a great opportunity for new artists to just grow and try new things and be their best.”

Speaking on her homeland, she recalls a three-month residency she spent at a jazz club on her second-to-last visit to Ethiopia: “That was the longest time I’d spent there since leaving so it gave me a real chance to soak up the culture and the music scene there. It’s really small but it’s great. There’s a huge jazz community there so there’s a group of musicians who came abroad in the ‘80s and studied at the Berkley College of Music and then came back and are playing pretty regularly and training a new generation of musicians.”

Naming W.Ellington Felton, Bilal Saalam and the Low Budget Crew as some of her favourite artists to have worked with in DC, Wayna fondly describes DC artist Deborah Bond as “our version of Sade.” She adds, “It’s been really nurturing to come up in this atmosphere where the audiences really demand a lot because it makes you grow that much faster and better.”

“I think the diversity of the people here is what I love the best. It’s really an international place and there’s every culture and every class of people here and it’s a smart town, a pretty intellectual town, so it’s nice to see all those… being the centre of power and then these mixtures of beautiful cultures in the same place, it’s wonderful.”

Eric Roberson, whom she describes as one of her mentors and “really great friends”, has influenced her own career and growth (“He’s mastered the art of putting on a great show”). She adds, “I would give that mantle also to W Ellington, he’s actually one of the best performers I think DC’s ever seen.”

Currently working on an EP due to drop in the next quarter, Wayna says she is “experimenting with some different producers doing kind of like a Gnarls Barkley meets Diana Ross type of vibe.” Since being nominated for a Grammy in a small victory for the mainstream recognition of independent soul, her goal is to reach as many ears as possible. “Being an independent artist you’re limited in terms of your reach so in that sense it’s been an uphill battle but people who have been exposed to it have really enjoyed it. Now I’m just trying to get it into more people’s ears.”

“[Being nominated] was something most artists probably dream about, a real validation and is changed the way people look at the album in particular. It helps to elevate it beyond just another indie record and opens the door for people to listen. I’ve been working hard to take advantage of the new opportunities.”

For artists like Wayna, the internet is of course “critical” – and she “can say that because when I first came out in 2005 the internet was not as much as a tool for distributing music, it was more so for promoting shows and your website and for listening. But with the advent of MySpace and iTunes integrated into our culture so much, it’s reached a point where distribution is not even as much of a key.

“Before you’d really have to hustle with different retailers and to get them to sell some things in their stores, it was a real hassle, but now with iTunes being so familiar you don’t even have to worry about that and you can use this tool that everyone’s plugged into to basically promote your music in a way that you probably never could on such a minimal budget in person. It’s a wonderful asset. I can’t even imagine now what it would be like to go back to those days of doing the on-ground promotion like the poster card flyers. It’s prehistoric.You still need money to take full advantage of the internet, you need a marketing budget, but it makes it a whole heck of a lot easier.”


Marsha Gosho Oakes

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