Vanessa Mdee is pushing for international recognition. Her latest single, ‘That’s for me’ is a pop record released by Universal Music Germany. It features South African group, Distruction Boyz, as well as musicians DJ Tirra and Prince Bulo who united to provide a project that she believes carries enough weight to expand her brand from Africa to non-traditional markets.
“We were working towards a sound or a song that would be able to appeal to both markets and more so introduce me and the sound to the European market,” she tells me over a telephone conversation. “So that’s kind of like the project and focus of this particular record.”
Her aspirations are valid. In the past three years, Africa has become a fertile hunting ground for new exportable talents for the world’s largest music corporations. Sony Music, Universal Music Group, and more recently, Warner Music, have all expanded operations in sub-Saharan Africa, scouting for, and signing talents to various levels of record deals. While artists like Wizkid and Davido have launched more visible big-budget campaigns for the US market, Vanessa Mdee is choosing a different organic route via Europe. “We were working towards a sound or a song that would be able to appeal to both markets and more so introduce me and the sound to the European market. So that’s kind of like the project and focus of this particular record that’s for me,” she says. She tells me that Africa “is the last developing music market,” and that development has been fast-tracked by “our advancement as creatives on the continent; how we produce the sound, and how we are being received by Africans in the diaspora, and those affected or around Africans in the diaspora and obviously Africans on the continent who have been listening to us but waiting for us to get better and be stronger and create sonically sounds that they can put under a playlist and play after a Beyonce or a Rihanna song and be like the quality didn’t drop or production didn’t drop. I think that creatives have caught up with that.”
Mdee’s run is impressive, considering that she wasn’t even a musician to start with. She was first thrust into fame when she became the first-ever Tanzanian MTV VJ. In the years that followed, she found prominence as a radio and TV host, hosting top local shows – Epic Bongo Star Search and Dume Challenge – for ITV Tanzania before ditching TV, and taking on music full time. In 2012, she signed a deal with B’Hits Music Group in late 2012, and collaborated with Tanzanian rapper A.Y. on a record ‘’Money’’ and Ommy Dimpoz, a Bongo Flava artist on a record, ‘Me and You’, that was later voted Song of the Year during the 2013 Kilimanjaro Music Awards. But it wasn’t ever easy. She says she lost her first record deal due to some technicality.
“When I first started I was signed to a label and they dropped me literally before we dropped our first single because at the time I had a huge collaboration that was doing so well, and it won so many awards,” she said. “But we got called to do so many shows for that one single. And I remember going to a stage that belonged to a competitor of the label and they felt a certain type of way and they asked me not to perform and I thought that was wrong.”
Mdee performed at that show, thrilling guests with one of her most important sets ever. As she walked off the stage, she also paid a steep price for that decision; her record deal was terminated, putting her in a position of vulnerability that inspired, rather than broke her. It made her reconsider her choices, thinking beyond being signed, and into the realm of ownership. Her record label, Mdee Music, was created because of the pain of this episode. “I didn’t want to be in that position again. I didn’t want it to be an issue where I had to choose between what I wanted and what other people want me to do. I didn’t want to be in the battles of anybody,” she explains. “So I said ‘listen, even if we have to build it from the scratch we’d do that.” So, we started our very small. The label consisted of a PR team and a production house and obviously the artists that we signed, the two artists and you know we are growing slowly. We are not going to rush to be Mavins.
The label, self-funded by Mdee, toured Tanzania in 2018, selling an average of 20,000 tickets at each stop. Why is she using her money for this? She puts it all on her utter independence, and love for agency. “Small things like this, I just never feel the need to ask people, I just don’t feel the need to ask people for anything. I’m like “fuck it I’d do it myself,” she says.
One of Mdee’s proudest moments of her career will happen soon. In February, she was announced as a performer at the 2019 Essence Fest, which is to hold in July, at New Orleans, USA. She is a member of a robust African contingent that includes Davido (Nigeria), Sauti Sol (Kenya) and Nasty C (South Africa). She tells me that this is a dream come true and takes me back to her past, to a time when she prayed for this to happen.
She takes me back “three or four years ago,” when Essence was shooting a cover for Erykah Badu in Tanzania. The team wanted to pay tribute to their location by including a few local musicians in the issue. Mdee got a feature in it. “I was thinking is this the same Essence that can take me to the stage, and let me work my way around this. Let me work around this feature and God willing, maybe we can do the stage,” she says. “It’s all coming to fruition right now. This is a 360 degrees moment to be on the Essence stage this year. I’m very excited!”
Another reason why this invitation is special for her is due to how difficult it is for Tanzanian artists to get this level of exposure and opportunities. She attributes this success to her strong foundation in her local genre, Bongo Flava, an emotive sound structure, which is sung almost exclusively in Swahili. Next, she actively broadened her reach, making inroads into markets with intent. Mdee’s success has collaborations as one of its main pillars. She’s worked with a long and diverse cast of musicians, drawn from various countries in Africa. She has recorded with Burna Boy, Reekado Banks, Mr P, K.O, Jux, Sauti Sol, Orezi, Ice Prince, Navy Kenzo, Cassper Nyovest, Larry Gaaga and many more.
She breaks down her strategy for me: “I kind of reached out where I thought that there was a point where I could push my sound or push my platform and the brand or the music to a different place. And so, collaborations are how I managed to do that. Media too. A lot of promotional strategies in terms of doing promo tours in places that aren’t in East Africa, and that weren’t familiar with my sound. It’s also not being afraid to be a newcomer in different audiences and receive the newcomer welcome, and then slowly build. It’s been strategic; reach out, do the necessary groundwork and promote. And make obviously good music and collaborate. Also, not to forget that you need the core audience at home always.”
Mdee admits to some major challenges in these endeavours. Playing in a new market requires a huge financial investment to swim against the tide. And then there’s the logistics of operating in a foreign land, and trying to sell yourself as an ally of the local culture. Vanessa says all these challenges are external but surmountable with some fight. She says she has already won the real battle, which for the most part, is internal. “I am really not afraid to be immersed in other people’s culture,” she explains. “I really pride myself on being a global African. So I’m not afraid to learn new things in the new cultures and adapt to them.” Growing up with a father who worked in foreign diplomatic missions gave Vanessa a nomadic childhood, exposing her to diverse cultures. She says the experience set her up for this. “I had to often move around different countries, and different continents so that kinda gives you the adaptability that has equipped me to be the artist and put me in a space where I can do things in a different region and I don’t feel like I’m disowning my own or I’m not true to myself, no. All of these things make us global Africans and Africans who are really just proud of Pan-Africanism.”
In all of this, giving back is what makes Vanessa Mdee tick.
This article was written by Joey Akan; he tweets via JoeyAkan