That Vanessa Mdee is not like others is a truth universally acknowledged in the East African music scene. As those at the forefront of the industry, such as Diamond and Alikiba, brave English lyrics here and there in search of a wider audience she has three or four singles sung in an English so blithe as to add no real advantage. She has a song called Niroge, cast a spell on me, which conjures images of benevolent magic far apart from the dingy and desperate extant practice witchcraft the verb ‘roga’—meaning to curse—generally refers to. She lived in New York and Paris as the daughter of an ambassador and by 19 was already travelling throughout Africa as a VJ for MTV.
And yet, since transitioning into music in 2012, she has so far declined to leverage her international exposure to flaunt western cities in her videos. Neither has she built up her 2.7 million strong Instagram following on the kind of wild travel and parties that would appear well within her means. Despite existing on a parallel plane, as all those born into privilege do, particularly in Africa, she has remained impressively committed to her own goals and managed to feature with enough regularity in the charts to banish questions of legitimacy that nag artists from affluent backgrounds to emerge as Tanzania’s foremost female musician.
It would be too easy and somewhat disingenuous to appoint her success and continued defiance of certain privilege penalties to humility. Mdee would fit right into the set gathered at a trendy London bar in Taiye Selasi’s seminal and contentious essay Bye Bye Babar which brought the term in Afropolitan into the mainstream and read like a call to arms for all multinationals of African descent implied to be stylish and well-heeled ( London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes). Selasi’s mistake perhaps, what has prompted recurrent criticism of the essay centered around terms like self congratulatory or aggrandizing is the omission of an overt acknowledgement of the wealth of the kind of people who know a“G8 city or two (or three)… like the backs of our hands” and can afford to spend a Thursday night partying at trendy bars in Shoreditch. The oversight is unfortunate as in reaching for such inclusiveness the essay becomes easy to dismiss as elitist– a daft and idealistic portrayal of young Africans raised in multiple countries perpetuating of a damaging and wildly out of touch image of these same people. To acknowledge the wealth of those she described would be more interesting, would a certain modesty expected, nay, demanded, of those such as Selasi, whose father is a famed surgeon, or another like Lupita Nyongo, whose father was a Senator. Humility, as displayed by a certain self-deprecating demeanour, is generally the minimum requirement for all those from the higher classes seeking any kind of mainstream recognition, particularly in Africa. Yet Vanessa Mdee has never ceded to such pressure. She has always remained frank about her good fortune in interviews, often pausing for specific translations of Kiswahili words she doesn’t know or breaking into French for when asked. Any privileges she has had have always been approached with good humour and thus her nickname Vee Money feels like part of her character, of the warm, upfront personality rather than an elite statement.
In never seeking to quantify herself in wider global spheres either positively or negatively, in never considering her wider of understanding of the world as being so unusual and apart from general African experience Mdee has consistently managed meld her local and international worldview in a convincing manner and thus make being so well traveled and educated unremarkable, something relatable and inspiring rather than remote and intimidating.
In 2007, months before she would before she earned her first break as one of the winners of continent-wide VJ search for MTV base, Vanessa’s father, once the press secretary for Julius Nyerere, passed in tragically innocuous fashion. As told by Vanessa in typically straightforward tones in an interview from 2013, a chicken bone becomes lodged in his throat during a late dinner and though well enough to drive himself to a specialist he would, during the routine extraction, be given a fatal dose of anaesthesia. In an illustration of Vanessa’s general lack of pretension, she has never sought to single the tragedy out as a point of growth or a reality check or stepping stone. The story belongs to her and her family and no one else. She is that rare returnee whose western exposure has not led to a wearying sense of her own destiny, or the need to linking separate planes of her life, from the the highs of a globalist lifestyle, to the lows of family tragedy, into some unique journey towards greater enlightenment. Even as late as this year, while victimized by a police raid and jailed on spurious drug charges for close to a week she avoided the obvious step of the using hardship to help balance or rationalize previous and current advantages in her life. She appears, in all things, to live first and ask questions later and has thus never been encumbered by entitlement, or any sense that her life owes her anything, whether it be good or bad.
In this way, she has continued to pursue a unique career, one that has married local success with international style. Her first song Closer was almost entirely in English, as are some of her biggest hits such as Come over, Never Ever and Nobody But Me yet there has never been a question of where she was from or belonged. She has also sung songs in Kiswahili like Niroge and Kisela (alongside Mr.P) without making it seem like some kind of departure. With consistent work ethic and a lack of conceit she has managed to readjust the idea of Afropolitanism in way that may just keep it from being discarded, and sought to use the world, and all of these separate global experiences, to make herself more visible on the continent, rather than use the continent like the “kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans” in Selasi’s essay, a way of making herself more visible abroad.
She has shown perhaps what many Afropolitans might fail to see and that is that even the broadest western experience needn’t be defining and can fit simply and easily into an African lifestyle while Africa herself will always remain too broad, too complex, to be fully accounted for within a western sensibility, however, refined that sensibility might be.
Her latest single, bounce, is below.