Desta Dawn is Doin‰’ It for Oakland, Ethiopia, and Herself


Calkie Fisseha

Photo by Shaina Santos

Last semester, Desta Dawn came to American University to perform at ESA Fest. The event was hosted by the Ethiopian & Eritrean Student Association to showcase Habesha culture. There were many standout performers, but Desta Dawn‰’s guitar-backed R&B stuck out. The Bay Area Native performed tracks off of her 2016 project, 602. Towards the end of her set, she performed a beautiful cover of “Ex-Factor‰” by Lauryn Hill. Her silky voice and confidence stuck with me. A few months after her performance, I had the chance to catch up with her over e-mail.

What does the word “Desta‰” mean to you?

“When I was trying to come up with my stage name, my parents were helping me out. It was actually my dad who gave me the idea. We were sitting in our living room throwing names around. My dad really liked “joy‰Û. I thought ‰no way!‰Û, but it stuck with him for some reason. Eventually, I gave in and asked how we could use the name, but make it different.

We decided to make it the Amharic version of the word, which is “desta‰Û, and I loved it. Originally, my stage name was only going to be Desta, but it didn’t feel right to not have my actual name, “Nigat‰Û, incorporated into it somehow. So, we changed Nigat to the English version of its meaning, which is the beginning of a new day. That was the birth of Desta Dawn. Joyful dawn.‰Û

What is your approach to songwriting?

“Songwriting is still very difficult for me. I can come up with melodies and storylines so easily, but putting it together with words and making it flow is the hard part. I have two ways I usually go about it.

Sometimes I’ll get played a beat and I’ll listen to it on repeat for hours and jot down whatever flows. Then, I’ll go back and edit it later to make sense out of it (if it’s kind of all over the place).

Another way I’ll write songs is just by starting off with writing down how I’m feeling about a situation. After creating a storyline out of it, and start to craft my own melody that goes along with it. That‰’s when I’ll either find a beat that I feel goes along with my words, or I’ll just create one from scratch.‰Û

What was the hardest song to write on 602?

“Oh man, the hardest song to write? I honestly couldn’t tell you, because I had a producer who was also an amazing songwriter. They actually co-wrote each song with me for the project. However, I can say that the hardest song to record was definitely “Lonely”. I kept getting so emotional while singing it that we had to re-record the entire song the next day. It was because of how I was feeling at the time- so lonely.‰Û

What is the significance of the number 602?

“It‰’s honestly not some cool thing I created. 602 is just my birthday, June 2nd. At the time [602 was released], it was my 21st birthday and first year out of college. I wanted to make it a special since the year before that hadn’t been so great for me.‰Û

How has your Ethiopian culture influenced your music? How about living in California?

“My Ethiopian sound wasn’t really showcased on 602. However, for my next project, My Black Love, there will be a lot of Ethiopian sounds incorporated into it, which I’m really excited for. I’ve always loved the rhythm and beats that Ethiopian artists like Teddy Afro, Behailu Bayou, and Jacky Gosee have in their songs, it makes you want to get up and dance, yet there’s still this traditional aspect of it that I love.

But if I’m being honest, Ethiopian music hasn’t had nearly as much of an influence on my sound as much as the Bay Area. Being born and raised in Oakland there is this sense of culture that isn’t like anywhere else in the world. With smooth sounds from artists like Goapele, Keisha Cole, and Tony! Toni! Tone! to Hip-Hop royalty and the hyphy movement like Too Short, E-40, and Mac Dre, there’s nothing you can’t love about it.‰Û

What‰’s next for you?

“New music of course! I haven’t put anything out since the release of 602, because of multiple reasons. Right now, I‰’m focused on my upcoming mixtape.‰Û

Keep an eye out for Desta Dawn‰’s upcoming project, My Black Love, due later this year. If you aren‰’t hip already, head over to SoundCloud and give 602 a listen.

Desta Dawn’s Soundcloud

Shaina Santos Instagram