The Expatriate

Ethiopian-American artist, Wayna, explores issues including police brutality, disenfranchisement, race and identity in her music.

The cover art for Wayna's "The Expat."

Wayna flopped down onto the brown couch, exhausted, after a high-energy performance in New York City. Her high cheekbones and large brown eyes stared out from a frame of wild, curly hair. Beads of sweat clung to her forehead, which she wiped away before resting her hands on a large pregnant belly. The Ethiopian-born American singer is expecting her second child and her recent show at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre was her last for a few months, while preparing for the birth of her daughter in April. However, her bump did not diminish her powerful voice or lively dancing and jumping on stage.

“It’s the musicians. Once they start playing it hits us and we go for it. That’s the purest moment because you’re just free, you’re not self-conscious, you’re just in the moment,” she says. “These are the moments you relish, it’s the release for all the hard work that goes into behind the scenes.”

Wayna’s latest album, “The Expats” is a delicate blend of Rock, Reggae and Soul. Her lyrics reflect her drive to be a “message driven artist” as she explores issues including police brutality, disenfranchisement, race and identity, which she said became even more significant when performing in Harlem.

Even though I’m an immigrant, it mirrors what a lot of African Americans experience because it’s such a black story. I’ve found inspiration from that community and they embrace me and allow me to do their art form. But at the same time I recognise that it’s very much an African rooted genre so in a way it’s giving and taking from each other.

MTV Iggy recently featured a piece by AIAC’s Sarah El-Shaarawi on Wayna about her identity as an artist, woman and immigrant, which can be read here.

The Grammy-nominated musician moved to the US with her family at the age of six. After college she worked in the White House during the Clinton administration but soon decided to change career paths. Even though she considers herself a ‘world artist’ Wayna believes that growing up as an expat heavily influenced her music and identity, which she described as “a buffet of traditions, values and beliefs” that is a constant work in progress. “I think it’s always looking at the things in the culture are beautiful and freeing, and identifying with those things; so it’s a constant pick and choose,” she said.

Wayna had the opportunity to do just that when she spent three months in Ethiopia as an artist in residence, which greatly influenced her approach to music. She described a scene at a traditional festival called ‘The Festival of One Thousand Stars’ held in the Southern City of Ethiopia, Arba Minch. “There were all these regional performers playing these intricate rhythms, melodies and the counter melodies. I imagine that if they were to replace those traditional instruments with the clarinet, trombone and drum set, it would have sounded like jazz,” she said. “I had always thought of myself as an African doing American music but I realized then that I was an African doing African music.”

Wayna is currently working on her fourth album “Expats Deluxe,” which will be out this summer. Keep an eye out for her next performance at the Essence Music Festival, New Orleans in July 2014.

Further Reading