It is easy to travel this long called life on autopilot mode and not be in the moment–we can fake a lot of things in this way. But when it comes to art and those who are blessed and burdened to create it, faking it is impossible for the very notion of creating requires full presence. This is why I pay endless homage to artists; in a world full of specious personalities, artists stand astride the path of least resistance and defiantly dare to be authentic. The revolution we all have been waiting for is not about guns or imposition of power; the revolution needs to happen in our hearts and it will be artist who will lead that movement.
I write this as I am currently listening to the music of Wayna in my earbuds. Let me get this out of the way, I know Wayna from back in the day so I’m not writing this from a purely objective basis. But then again, when it comes to writing–which is an art unto itself–there is no such thing as objectivity for writers cannot scribe unless they are inspired by serendipity first. So when I write about music and the singers behind it, I do so because I myself have been moved by the words that are sung and the melodies that are strummed. I put ink to pad to write about Wayna because she is a prodigious talent who has a voice reminiscent of Billie Holiday and a grace befitting of Bizunesh Bekele; I also write this missive because I happen to be a fan of Wayna’s music.
Talent can’t be faked; when it comes to music, we are either born with it or we listen to it. This truism is getting harder and harder to synthesize in an age where auto-tune and audio software can make even the most discordant singers seem like they are Etta James reincarnated. But the flimflams are set apart from the gems the minute singers have to sing live; a microphone on stage is like Kryptonite to any singer who is passed off as a musical hero. A live concert–a jam session–lets us hear for ourselves whether a singer is gifted or just assisted with production and musical effects. The real singers are those who can sing a cappella or little background music and their voices are enough to grab our souls and make us sway to their melodic inflections–Wayna passes this test with flying colors.
The first time I heard Wayna sing live at Zanzibar club in Washington DC, way back in 2009, I knew I was listening to the real McCoy and a singer who was connected to the true roots of music. In all honesty, I hold singers to a higher standard than I hold others including myself. I demand music as it should be and songs that remind me of my youth; perhaps it’s a sign of me aging faster than I want to but the music I listen to the most are the tunes that cajole memories of Marvin Gaye, Betty Wright, Stevie Nicks and the singers from the golden age of music. Most of the time these days, I find myself uninspired by the music of my generation and the state of the music industry. But then–once in a while–a singer comes along and rekindles my love for music as it was and as it always should be.
This is the reason I have such respect for Wayna, she honors music and pays homage to the singers who came before her. She could have chosen the easier path to fame and sang ditties that are all hook and have no depth to them. Instead, she chose to pursue music that has depth and we can actually enjoy listening to. Wayna sings about love, life, and the struggle to overcome injustice and does so with a voice that is enchanting. Wayna is not just a singer, she uses the microphone to imbue hope in her audience in a time where hope is as fleeting as snow in the waning days of April. Listening to her live is an experience unto itself, she does not sing as much as she serenades everyone in the room.
Wayna was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States with her mother when she was only three years old. She grew up the way most of first generation immigrants grow up; trying hard to fit in and attempting to find a new identity in America while holding on to the culture that gave birth to her. Wayna spent her formative years in the suburbs of Washington, DC–the limelight hit her at an early age. As a child, she found herself emerged in the world of acting and singing. Musical giants such as Minnie Riperton, Billie Holiday, Donna Hathaway and Aretha Franklin started to infuse Wayna’s soul with harmonic tunes and soaring ballads. She was also heavily influenced by Ethiopian musical legends like Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed and Bizunesh Bekele—Wayna became the quintessence of an Ethiopian-American through the auspices of music.
While Wayna was attending the University of Maryland, she was crowned Miss Black Unity. This proved to be a milestone for Wayna; when life presents us opportunities, the smart ones strike while the iron is hot. Wayna struck perfectly; from that moment on, she started to pursue her dreams in earnest and soon enough embarked on a musical career even as she was working day jobs and continuing to pursue her degree. Eventually, she was invited to perform at University of Maryland’s “Tribute to African Women”—what Wayna referred to as “a watershed moment” for her. A dream started to pixelate into reality; Wayna was astute and driven enough to chase her destiny. As much as I love to listen to Wayna’s music, from the first time I met her, what I was astounded by was her work ethic and her drive to make it. Wayna’s music is part melody and full tenacity; this is what gives Wayna the ability to at once pay homage to the past as she continues to chart new territory for herself and the community she grew up in.
There is another aspect of Wayna that I hold in high esteem. Since I professed that I’m not necessarily writing this from the most objective perspective, let me divulge one more reason why I admire Wayna and her music. The same reason why there is a hint of Ethiopia in a lot of what I write is the reason I extol the virtues of Wayna. Ethiopia has a special place in my heart and anyone that pays homage and respect to the land of my birth is someone that captures my reverence. This is why I was in awe of the Weeknd (link) when he paid respect to his heritage. What I always wanted for Ethiopia and her children is to have the audacity to think big, to achieve the impossible, yet have the connectedness to honor the culture and heritage that gave birth to us. Wayna does exactly this; she is a through and through dynamo who worked hard to get on the stage but she never forgot where she came from.
Our eyes should always be forward but we should always be thankful for those who came before us. This is true of Ethiopians as it is true for all of humanity. The chase to find modernity and accumulate possessions can blind us about the very aspects of community and cultures that are as essential to humanity as the air that we breath. True art reminds us to remember the very essence of what makes us human; the minute we forget that we are a part of a broader community and we get lost in the chase to fulfill only self is the minute we get lost in emptiness. Artists–musicians, painters, and those who love to create–are driven to connect all of us through the products of their labor to something that is bigger than just us. #Ethiopia #WaynaSingsIt Click To Tweet
Those who choose the least traveled path to fame and work hard to honor and hone their craft in time get acknowledged. Wayna became the first Ethiopian-American singer to get nominated for the Grammy Awards. This is but one step; I know in time Wayna will be singing at sold out concert halls and the honor will not stop at just nominations. Wayna connects her audience to past musical greats and concurrently blazes new trails with melodies that speak to our current zeitgeist. Perhaps we need to stop looking for the change we have been looking; the revolution is already before us. All we have to do is look in our hearts and listen to the music all about us. Love is the revolution; Wayna sings it.
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” ~ Maya Angelou
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Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
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