When Vanessa Mahi began featuring in wildly popular dilemma-based videos on her friend Nella Rose’s YouTube channel during her first year of uni in 2017, nobody could have predicted where they would both be today.
Fast forward three years and Nella is a popular YouTuber with 433,000 subscribers while Vanessa, better known as Ivorian Doll (or IVD), has been nominated as “Best Female Artist” at the 2020 GRM Awards. It’s all come off the back of a run of wildly successful UK drill tracks including multi-million viewed single “Rumours” and a bouncy guest feature on “F U Pay Me” from Headie One’s debut album Edna. She is, in her words, the “queen of drill”.
From Instagram influencing to starting her own wig line, IVD is a natural East End hustler by way of Dusseldorf, Germany. She moved to London aged three and notes that “all the people I grew up with are doing music or working it in some way”. She’s not wrong. From Hackney afro swing crew NSG through UK drill collective Homerton and Newham’s J Hus or Yxng Bane and back around to the golden days of grime by Dizzee, Ghetts and Kano, east London is an incubator for new talent.
VICE caught up with IVD for Behind the Bally, our monthly UK drill column, to chat first studio sessions, star signs and being the biggest Nicki Minaj fan.
Watch her freestyle, then read on more, below.
VICE: What was your first studio session like?
IVD: It was when we went into the studio for “The Situation”, which really started out as a joke. I was on Instagram Live and had no idea what I was doing. To see how far I have come now, where I love the studio and it’s one of the most comfortable places in the world… as I develop my sound and my confidence, it’s really cool. When I first started out I was literally talking on the beat!
What’s one song you wish you’d made?
I would say “Big Drip” by Fivio Foreign, it just gets me gassed every time and is a fun song. Kind of what I want to recreate in my own music.
You’ve called yourself “The Queen of Drill”, which is a massive statement for somebody only just coming into the game. How did you land on that?
“Lit” was my first solo video. I made that statement to set myself apart. When I came into drill there was nobody calling themselves that, so I thought to nab it before somebody else does! There weren’t really any prominent women who were so feminine because it’s such a male-dominated, rough-and-tumble genre. I can rap just as well as the boys, who call themselves “King of Drill”, and thought I should take control of how I wanted to be perceived and show that I can dominate as well. I’m a feminist!
More importantly though, because this was my first solo venture, I wanted it to be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I have made drill fun, sexy and a bit more palatable for commercial and radio in a way I don’t think anybody else has. Also, it allows me to set a high standard of quality with everything I do – my videos, looks, songs even. I don’t go around calling myself [the Queen of Drill], but if the people think it’s fitting then I’ll take it!
I think women in UK rap had to “look tough” until quite recently. Being expressive of a feminine or sexy side wasn’t really appreciated if you wanted your lyrical content to be seen as on par with the boys.
Exactly, like I enjoy looking and feeling pretty and my name obviously means I have to doll up and keep to that… I love make-up and even before music I wanted to be a make-up artist. Even in primary school, I always used to change my hair. When I started going into music, I didn’t want to compromise that part of me. So my hair was always laid, my make-up done.
What was school like for you?
I went to an all-girls school – we were quite rowdy! I absolutely loved it, I still have the same friends until now. We literally used to go to other schools and just cause typical schoolgirl problems.
There was a boys school and we literally used BBM to send disses to them and send shots. We used to love rapping in our little group – I was the writer of the group so all my friends would be like “write me some bars!” and it's so funny that I’m a rapper now. I’ve come full circle. It’s crazy!
The transition from social media personality to rapper – a blueprint arguably set by Cardi B – has not been an easy one. How have you managed to use your skills from YouTube to help you navigate your new music career?
I want to carry my personality across to my music – I don’t want my fans to think that I’ve left YouTube to suddenly do music – but to know that both are an extension of me and my creativity. That's why I engage so much with my Dolls on social media. I listen to them and give them the kind of music they want and kind of let them guide my releases and stuff. Having that background in social media has also helped me with marketing my music.
I kind of became known on Twitter for just saying controversial things that would go viral and be posted on all the gossip pages and stuff. From there I built my following on to YouTube from my story times and “Agony Aunt” type episodes where people would send in their dilemmas. Then the whole drama [referring to a public spat between Ivorian Doll and former friend and fellow YouTuber Miss RFabulous] happened and I sort of fell into music accidentally when we made “The Situation” just for fun.
You’re a self-confessed die hard Barb. Tell me more about Nicki Minaj’s influence on your music and direction?
I first heard her on the radio when I went back to Dusseldorf to visit my mum, I think I must have been about ten or eleven and it was “‘Still I Rise”. I remember being so captivated and obsessed with her, her different look, the different characters she played and just how hard her bars were… I try to do the same in my music and give it flair and character. The scene in “Body Bag” where I’m in the Barbie Box is me paying tribute to Nicki [in reference to the cover of her debut mixtape Playtimes Over].
It’s funny you should say that - I feel your song “Rumours” and Nicki’s “Still I Rise” are in the same vein – both defiant and mocking of what people say about you. Nicki’s song title is even based on Maya Angelou’s poem which I think highlights the beauty of resilience and strength.
Nicki is such a huge influence on me… I see so much of what I want to be in her. She has dominated consistently for a decade. When she first started out a lot of people ridiculed her, shunned her, wouldn’t even play her on radio. The way she was one of the first black women in music, let alone rap, to get on top and stay on top for so long – she went straight from the hood to the top of the charts through hard work. It really inspires me so much. Even the way she came up bodying features is something that I’ve tried to replicate. She absolutely ate up on every feature when she was coming up – her “Monster” verse is literally legendary.
What would you say if you met her?
Genuinely, I don’t think I would have the words. I always think about this, to try and envision it because I know it’s going to happen soon. I would literally just go on my knees and cry. I often think to myself that she must be sick of me like, ‘who is this girl that keeps mentioning me?!’
You’ve done some big collabs recently. You’re on the G4 Boyz “Scammer” remix and you had a verse on Saucy Santana’s “Nada”. Dream Doll recently hinted at a collab with you and you’ve got a song with LostGirl coming soon. How do these come about?
It’s all organic – I don’t like to pay for stuff or let labels co-ordinate. If you like my music, come and find me. I feel like it’s important to put yourself out there, build networks and turn collaborators into friends. [Saucy] Santana [an online personality known for his hilarious Instagram lives with fellow Miami natives the City Girls] is somebody I have such a huge respect for. The way he’s killing the music – as a gay black man at that – and just being himself. That’s something I can relate to.
What else are you listening to right now?
Always Nicki! In terms of UK stuff, Dutchavelli for sure! I’ve been listening to some New York drill too – Fivio Foreign, Pop Smoke… I was out there just before corona hit and was supposed to get back. I honestly can’t wait. I have so many exciting things lined up with rappers and producers – so many meetings! They really embraced me out there, I had the time of my life.
I saw that you were a Sagittarius like me! Which of the most obvious traits do you think you have?
All the boss b’s are Sagittarius! I’m adventurous, determined, strong, funny! We don’t back down and we always get what we want. It’s such a powerful sign - Stefflon Don’s a Sag, Nicki’s a Sag, Asian Doll is one too! We are out here!
Your hair is always laid and on point – I think you’ve lowkey managed to pull off every colour under the sun. Plus you used to dabble in the hair business yourself, making and selling wigs. What’s the worst hairdo you’ve ever had?
Hmm… the worst one I had wasn’t even a frontal, it was a ponytail. You know the one when your natural hair is slicked up? My hair wasn’t even neatly slicked. It just wasn’t me at all – it was terrible and didn’t suit me.
You affectionately call your fans “Dollzs” and have always expressed how close you are to them. What's the nicest best thing a doll has done for you?
I love my Dolls! They really do ride out for me on social media and send me the nicest messages. I really don’t think of them as fans but more my family because they have played such a huge role in my career. I always ask them for advice and allow them to have the upper hand. I literally leak my songs and ask for their opinion. I communicate with them as much as I can. One of my dolls got me some really nice jewellery – rings, necklaces and earrings – from Pandora. It was really cute and actually made me tear up. My love language is gifts so it meant a lot to me!
What can we expect next from you?
I have an EP coming out soon called The Drill Print [Editor’s note: IVD’s EP has since been renamed Renaissance]. We’re in the final stages of mixing. I feel personally that I laid out the blueprint for girls in drill to sort of speak their shit. With the title, I had to pay homage to Nicki and her The Pinkprint Album!