Vanessa Mdee: "It's Tough to Be a Female Artist, You Have to Work Five Times Harder Than the Men"
Vanessa Mdee. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Vanessa Mdee: "It's Tough to Be a Female Artist, You Have to Work Five Times Harder Than the Men"

The Tanzanian star opens up about the inner workings of the music industry, her desire to push East African music, looking up to Miriam Makeba and much more in this exclusive interview.

In July of 2018, Universal Music Group (UMG) announced that Tanzanian star Vanessa Mdee would be joining its global artist family. She was joining the music giant alongside her top African talents Mr Eazi (Nigeria), Stonebwoy (Ghana), and Tekno (Nigeria).

Fast forward to 2019, the fruits of the mega deal have begun to show. Under the label, she recently released her maiden international single "That's For Me" featuring South African duo Distruction Boyz. This is a major step not only for her but for the East African music industry as a whole.

Vee Money has been riding high with that single, which followed after a successful series of hits last year, including "Bambino" featuring Reekado Banks and "Wet" featuring GNako."Wet" had over 2 million views while "Bambino" raked over 1 million views on YouTube. Her fandom has also risen, as she recently hit 4 million followers on Instagram.

Vanessa has defined herself as the East African queen of music, with her accolades adding up to her stellar career.

We sat down with the bongo flava star to talk about her latest jam, never before known facts about her and of course addressed some of the hard issues hitting the East African music industry.

Vanessa Mdee - That's For Me (Official Video) ft. DISTRUCTION BOYZ, DJ Tira, Prince

Your latest video, "That's For Me" featuring Distruction Boyz, references Miriam Makeba. Who are other female African artists or public figures that inspire you?

Miriam Makeba is definitely a big inspiration of mine. Not only in her messaging, lyricism, obviously as a vocalist but also in her never-say-die attitude, philanthropy and revolutionary spirit. I referenced this particular shot of hers which you see in the "That's For Me" video because I wanted to channel her energies as the very first South African and one of the very first African artists to ever blow up on a global level.

As a female musician it's a big deal especially in the time that she was coming out. I wanted to channel that, this being my first global release so… definitely a lot of Miriam Makeba, a lot of Brenda Fassie… I think her spirit, her spark, vibrance, her sound, her style, her uniqueness… you know the fact that she was a ball of energy. It's telling of who I am as well. I have a lot of other women that I really admire. Politicians like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who I bumped into recently on a plane. I also draw inspiration from a lot of women who are not high profile but are community oriented—family or society builders.

Vanessa Mdee. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You are a Tanzanian singer who has managed to appeal to the continental market without having to wade too far from your roots—you still sing in Swahili. What would you say is the ingredient that's made your musical style so unique?

I think it's very important to appeal on a continental level but still remain as rooted as you can be. Although I think that a lot of times there's a misconception that being African you must stick to what is typically known as African whereby a lot of us are millennials that have grown up in a different time and space where our influencers are different from those of past generations. However, we are Africans not because we live in Africa or we make African music but because Africa lives in us. Wherever we go we represent Africa irrespective of which country we come from. The core and soul of our content is that it's very—in my case—Tanzanian. I think that's a big, big part of my identity. I never sway from the fact that whether you know me or don't know me, if you'd research about me, I am a big ambassador of my home and my culture…that makes my sound and my style the most appealing.

Why is it important for you to sing in Swahili?

It's important for me to use Swahili, number one, because Swahili sits nicely on music… it sits very well on African beats, it's very poetic and Swahili melodies to me are endless and adaptable. They are harmonious… they just sound great to anyone's ear whether they understand the language or not – so it's very important for me to sing in Swahili.

Vanessa Mdee - Bambino feat Reekado

Being a female artist in East Africa must be tough since, for instance, Tanzanian laws are so restricting on the kind of content you do. Above that, there is always exploitation for upcoming artists in the industry. Have you ever encountered prejudice or such issues? How did you overcome them?

I don't think that our content is restricted however it is monitored which means that whatever is put on television for public viewing has to be decent enough for public consumption just like in many other countries, including in the biggest music industries in the world. In the United States they have content that's viewed after certain hours, during specific hours and before a certain time. This is a slight alteration that's happened in Tanzania.

It's tough to be a female artist and I always say this. There's a lot more that's required of a female artist. You have to work five times harder than a male artist, look good, sound good, speak well, be poised and still be a great performer, great singer, great dancer and have a great body, nice hair, beautiful skin, good nails…so it's a lot. But the challenge is something that I believe all girls can tackle. Every day I think girls have a little more to bring to the table and they do so gracefully.

Exploitation… I've heard of stories of exploitation in my industry. I haven't been a victim because I've always known exactly how I want to communicate my message and how I do it amongst my peers irrespective of their gender. So for me it's not that I am a female artist but rather I'm an artist who happens to be a woman and I'm always making sure that I have the right structure me in that space.

Vanessa Mdee. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Both you and your sister Mimi Mars studied in Kenya. What's the most Kenyan thing that has become a part of you?

Yes, we have a lot of Kenyan influence. We all went to a Kenyan school once upon a time—including Mimi. I think where we still have this Kenyan thing is that we can switch into Sheng' anytime it's needed and you won't even notice that we are from Tanzania.

You've signed your sister to Mdee Music, your own music recording label. She has quickly become a sought-after talent in East Africa and is following in your footsteps. What led to your decision to sign her?

Yes, we developed a label to support our own artists and we wanted to make something that was in memory of our father. So, I didn't really sign Mimi per se but she is already a part of the label by default not only as a Mdee, but also as a shareholder. She does a lot of her own management even though her label is Mdee Music. She has taken a big, big role in engineering and writing her career even though it does obviously help that we do a lot of her other stuff as Mdee Music the label. Speaking as a talent—as an artist—she is a strong brand to work with and she represents herself really, really well.

Vanessa Mdee. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What's the main thing that led you to establish your own label? How has the experience in terms of reception been so far?

I wanted an imprint of our own that we could grow talent, embrace talent and make a staple in the Tanzanian music industry and eventually East Africa and Africa. I think we're doing pretty well in the East African front with Mimi Mars, Brian Simba and I. We're slowly growing but doing it effectively and I think it's important for us to build a particularly strong foundation which is what we've been doing for the past 3-4 years. As we continue to develop, learn and become more high profile there's a lot that we are embracing as a young label and I'm really proud of my squad. The reception has been great!

One of your signature fashion styles was the ombre hair. You actually seem to have been one of the very first East African public figures to make the look popular.

I love hair as an accessory. I think it's one of the most fun accessories to have as a woman, just like earrings and finger nails. It's an expression or extension of my mood or how I am feeling. It's important as an artist, irrespective of where they are from to be comfortable in their skin and their look. I think it's an important part of my signature look to have something that is a little bit out of the box.

Vanessa Mdee - Wet ft GNako (Official Video)

I once interviewed your previous collaborator K.O from South Africa. It is not always easy working with someone who does not know your language at all. What's the creative process in such a situation and how hard or exciting is it?

It's very exciting to share a language with someone who's never spoken the language. I recently did a full Hindi song in memory of Mahatma Gandhi and I don't speak a single word in that language. It was a daunting task and the challenge was a real one but it has opened many doors for me and I've realized that if you respect someone's culture and your intentions are pure it will resonate. That's what happened in the case of K.O when he sang in Swahili. He may not remember how to sing the lyrics but the truth is that everyone who hears those lyrics knows that he meant every word he said because we were there with him when recording. We translated for him and he did the same for us for parts that we probably would have wanted to sing in Zulu. It's important to have the right intent and everything else will flow because at the end of the day we are one and we're only separated by various cultures, tribes and languages. Our intention is always purely to promote that what is African… to unite Africa through music.

Vanessa Mdee. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ever had a weird or memorable experience with a fan? When and how was it?

Off the top of my head I can't think of one per se, but there are moments where I felt pretty weirded out by a fan but I understand that it is love. We are getting to a point that fans always wanna take a picture… you know. So there are moments where it's been a little bit awkward; I haven't been in my best form and you don't know how to say no so you ought to be polite and say, 'can we wait a little bit?' [laughs]. I've had moments like those when I'm just getting off the stage, I'm sweaty and pictures won't necessarily turn out right but fans always wanna take pictures when they can. However, there's nothing that I'd consider crazy because at the end of the day I know it is all love.

In Kenya, there is an ongoing conversation about the need for local media to circulate more local content. However, the music output by some artists is degrading. What do you feel should be done to grow the music industry in East Africa to effectively compete with the likes of Nigeria and South Africa?

East Africa is a huge market and there needs to be unity us first as we speak Swahili and that cuts across five countries in Eastern Africa and some in Central Africa. There's a lot more strength in numbers in we unite. I think the power that the West has above us is the numbers, really. It's a numbers thing. If you think content in music, I think there's starting to be just as much content coming out of East Africa—quality content too. It's up to us as the receivers of the music to be receptive and expose our content, promote it and appreciate it. It's vital for us to do it in this time. It's also important for us not to look at ourselves as an inferior competitor in the market but as a player, period. You'll be surprised that the grass is not always greener on the other side… it's greener where you water it. We should water the grass from our side and a lot can come from it, I believe.

Harun Momanyi is a Kenyan lifestyle and entertainment journalist, covering all things pop culture. He is a BBC Komla Dumor Award finalist and a Forbes Africa 30Under30 nominee. He is also a Parsons x Teen Vogue Industry Essentials alumnus with an undying love for style. You can follow him on Instagram @harunmomanyi.