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 I had with her.

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.

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

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.

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.

Read the rest of the interview on OkayAfrica.

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