Wayna – from the White House to the stage


Working at the White House, the official residence and main workplace of American presidents, most certainly has to be the dream job for many young university graduates. Ethiopian-born Wayna (her real name is Woyneab Wondwossen), who migrated to the United States with her mother at a very young age, is an exception.

The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter knew from age nine, when she made her first stage performance, that she wanted to be an R&B singer. However, she felt she had an obligation to pursue post-secondary education and secure a degree before going after her real passion – singing.

“When you come from a community that has endured a lot of political and economic turmoil, it forces our elders to encourage you to think more about stability and safe choices,” Wayna told Share while in Toronto recently for her debut Canadian performance at The Trane Studio. “My mother left a pretty good life in Ethiopia to bring me to the United States and I felt that I owed it to her to become a professional and do what was expected of me. I did that, but I was pretty miserable and I was not happy at all.”

After graduating from the University of Maryland, where she met her Trinidad & Tobago-born husband, Kyle Stephen (they have been married for eight years), Wayna spent three years at the White House during the Bill Clinton administration. She interned in the Office of Speech Writing and later worked as a staffer, writing presidential proclamations, commercial messages and special letters to VIPs.

She entered the Speech Writing office shortly after another intern, Monica Lewinsky – with whom Clinton admitted to having had an “inappropriate” relationship – had vacated it for another position in the White House.

“I really admired Bill Clinton,” said Wayna. “He is brilliant and tuned in to the ordinary person’s needs and concerns. I held him in very high esteem until the charges surfaced, and I just could not believe them, especially since I knew what it was like be to an intern around him. His admission to an inappropriate relationship was a lesson for me in terms of understanding people as being complex, and how you can be brilliant in one area, yet flawed in another.”

Satisfied that she had made her mother proud by earning a degree and working for an American president, Wayna made the transition from White House staffer to entertainer.

“It was a matter of me building my confidence to the point where I was ready to risk not having a stable livelihood to doing music fulltime.

“Though I felt comfortable with the decision I had made, it was not easy for me at first, as I often struggled to tell people that I was an artist for fear that I might have been condemned.”

The indie artist’s debut CD, Moments of Clarity Book 1, in which she paid tribute to her mother’s devotion in one song, “Mama’s Sacrifice”, was an instant hit that garnered her national attention from both Essence and Billboard magazines.

In April 2008, she released her second CD, Higher Ground, which was a tribute to Stevie Wonder, who she first met while doing a gig at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, California in January 2003.

“Stevie and Michael Jackson are the only two celebrities I have always said I would fall over,” she said. “So you could imagine what was going through my head when I was told that Stevie wanted to speak to me after I was finished performing that night. He was very humble and generous and he immediately made me feel very comfortable. We chatted and have kept in touch since then. That meeting with him was a turning point in my career because, at the time, I was wrestling to find my place in soul music and appreciate what my natural abilities were.”

Wayna received her first Grammy nomination this year in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category for her remake of the late Minnie Ripperton’s, “Loving You” which Wonder produced.

Like other performers in the music industry, Wayna was deeply saddened by Jackson’s sudden death, and she and her husband flew down to the Neverland ranch to pay tribute to the “King of Pop”.

“We were very big fans of his,” said the Washington-based Wayna. “Beyond being the standard bearer of what’s cool, he really gave me a vision at a young age of how music can impact the world in a positive way. He made pop music intelligent and he also cared about causes that were personal to me, like the making of the “We Are the World” song. It was so amazing to see Michael and other amazing artists … coming together to help famine relief efforts in Ethiopia. That was huge for me to see to them promoting a cause that was very close to me.”

The euphoria of Wayna’s Grammy nomination was tempered by her arrest last March. She was charged with possession of a prohibited weapon at Bush International Airport in Houston, when she attempted to board a flight with a collapsible baton she uses as a prop when performing “Billy Club”, a song that addresses police brutality.

She was handcuffed and taken to jail, where she spent 14 hours before being released on $5,000 bail. A judge dismissed the charges the following day.

“That was a humiliating experience and I felt very angry,” she said. “At the same time, it gave me an insight of how people’s lives can be affected in a real way in unusual circumstances. I thought the authorities would have just confiscated the baton – which I had forgotten to put in my suitcase as I usually did – and allowed me to proceed on my way. Instead, the incident escalated into something I could not believe.”

The incident has turned out to be a blessing in disguise in some ways for Wayna.

Her iTunes sales increased by nearly 500 per cent, and she and popular hip-hop artist, Wale, plan to do a remix of “Billy Club”. Wayna also intends to produce a video to highlight police brutality.

On her fifth visit to Toronto, which she says she enjoys because of its diversity, Wayna also attended the fifth annual Selam Youth Festival, organized by award-winning theatre director Weyni Mengesha and other young people in Toronto’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities.

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