Tanzanian singer Vanessa Mdee has captured the hearts of fans across East Africa in such a short time since the start of her music career. Josephine Mosongo caught up with the petite star ahead of her performance today at B Club Pool Party
Why are you in Kenya and why can’t you stay longer?
I would love to stay longer, I love Kenya. I’m here for B Club’s extravaganza with Remy Martin. I’m here to host the Remy Martin party and I will perform at the B Club Pool Party as well.
I brought my team and my sister Mimi Mars is performing for the first time.
We will also do a soft launch of our swim line, the Cash Madam Swim Line. We are just happy to be women in the industry who are defying the odds every day.
Your music seems to have evolved since releasing songs like Closer and Hawajui about four years ago, to now Kisela and Bounce, do you also feel like you have grown not just as an artiste but as a woman?
Absolutely. You know growth is always what we look for as human beings, if you’re not growing you’re not establishing, developing, changing and evolving which means you’re dead. There’s been a lot of growth, fulfilment, challenges, sleepless nights, tears and trials but at the end of the day those things have made me who I am today. I’m happy that we are here again talking about a new topic as opposed to the same one, we have new stories to tell.
Are you obligated to keep up with music trends?
Not at all, at the beginning I said to myself if I find myself being pressurised to sound a little more local, a little more this or that… I want to make music that I like, that I will want to perform, that my children will like in a few years and stuff that’s a little more timeless. That comes from my core being R&B, even though the genre isn’t thriving.
Do you feel the need to sing in Swahili to capture the home base audience first in Tanzania?
Yes, I want them to understand my music because that’s my home, that’s where our bread and butter comes from; but at the same time we are telling Tanzanian stories.
As a Tanzanian even though I’m not dressed in traditional attire my sound and story will speak of where I am from.
Being a torchbearer for Tanzania I know too well I can’t take it for granted or be irresponsible with that. I do it because I love the Swahili culture and language, it’s beautiful and flows so well in music, its poetic.
But when I want to move from that space I’ll move and I won’t ask for anyone’s permission.
You have high energy live performances, what goes into putting together an entire set on stage?
It’s a lot of work. One thing that we have done consistently over the years is practise; we never stop practising even when we don’t have performances because it’s important for us to be showmen.
I think showmanship has kind of died in our music and I’m adamant about giving people a show because that gives people an experience as opposed to singing the song as they’ve heard it on radio.
Fans have heard the song, they know the lyrics, they’ve seen the video, they see your face but what are you doing differently? I think the reason Beyoncé is as she is, is because every time you leave you are overwhelmed by how much she gave you and how much energy she had. It’s a lot of work because you have to be in great shape, mentally and physically.
Do you work out?
I do have to work out because my dancers are gymnasts, if I don’t I’m done.
Was the song Kisela, in which former P-Square member Peter featured, emotional for you to make, because you seem very emotional in the video.
It was. I remember crying when recording it and the producer had to stop the recording. I was going through something really messed up in my relationship and I didn’t want to talk to the person about it, so I sang about it. In the second verse you can actually hear the sniffles, I told him (the producer) lets re-record it and he said ‘absolutely not’, he refused so that’s the version that’s out there. It’s a beautiful, timeless record that has given me a lot of my success this year. I couldn’t have been more proud to have worked with an African icon. Peter taught my whole team so much and he opened so many doors for us in West Africa, he welcomed us with open arms and we now know we have family there in the form of an Africa icon, who better to learn from?
Do you feel you have to pick sides between the twins, Peter and Paul now that you have worked with one of them?
You know what, I don’t because I don’t know Paul that well. I’ve only met him on occasion. I’m obviously on Peter’s side and that’s horrible because you shouldn’t chose sides in sibling rivalry.
Do you wish they would get back together?
Yes, they are iconic duo, the most iconic duo in the world I think. They’ve consistently made hits for years. They are legendary and I think they should.
Is there stiff competition among female Tanzanian musicians and are you competing with them or both genders?
I don’t even compete with anyone, it’s about myself, and it’s about my next record, my next video and album. But I’m aware that people are pushing and thriving. I want there to be an attitude of ‘we can all win together’.
The African industry is still very much on developmental stages, we still don’t have structures that can create long term monies in terms of publishing and royalties. Until we have that… we are still so young. But yes, there’s that friendly competition that says I support my fellow artistes.
How many people have you employed under Mdee Music and does that give you a sense of power or achievement?
It gives me responsibility. We have a lot more part time workers than we have full time. The artistes that are on the label full time are, me, my sister Mimi Mars, Brian Samba and our management team which consists of two managers. I have 14 part time employees; that’s my band, dancers, photographer, video director, accountant and lawyer.
How did it feel when your ex-boyfriend Juma Jux publicly asked you for forgiveness and to take him back on stage during the Fiesta Music Festival and you said no?
At the time it felt good because you know what, he was leveraging the fact that the fans want this more, so I was like no, nakukaushia.
Will fans opinions sway your opinion on whether to get back together?
Not all, not all. I’m aware that they do like us together but they only know so much.
How much of your private life do you let fans in on?
My friends and family say that I’m really good at letting people think they know everything about me, but they actually don’t know anything. I only give people the amount of information I want them to know, that way I’m more in control.
How do you feel that some people view you as a sex symbol?
It’s very weird because I’m such a dork. When I was younger I was so skinny and flat chested and had a flat backside so this is all weird to me.
But I find that it might pressure other young girls who look up to me to try and look at me that way which is wrong.
I hate the term sex symbol, I agree that it’s something labelled on me. The term sex symbol shouldn’t be the beginning and end of things deemed sexy and beautiful.
But it does feel good right?
Of course it does feel good; it’s great for the ego and confidence, but it doesn’t mean anything because the same person may say mean things about you. So you’ve given them the power to make or break you.
What makes you happy and are you happy?
I’m very happy because my dream is to make music, tour the world and spread the culture. I feel like a culture custodian because a lot of people more often than not haven’t done what I’ve done at my age.
Not to be boastful but sometimes to say that ‘we have done it’ is because we sometimes forget we have reached a milestone, or created a platform for somebody else or where there was no bridge there is now.
I’m happy for every small victory. Sometimes I feel very sad because I feel defeated, but I’m so grateful to God because we are just getting started.
My first album is coming out at the end of this month. We have worked on it for so long and I had such battles releasing it because I had issues about giving out my music, letting people hear me and what sound I was going for. I’m happy I was able to fight that fear.