Ivorian Doll believes in a higher power. She’s hypersensitive to energies, whether they’re helping her discern if a man is lying about having a girlfriend, or if her new friends are really just clout chasers. Her dreams have never led her astray either: once, she dreamt that she would be managed by a woman, and weeks later met her current manager, JPL, who she describes as a mother figure. But it’s the prophecies that IVD trusts the most.
“They’re from my pastor. I take them really seriously, because I think life is already planned,” says IVD – real name Vanessa Mahi – as we sit facing each other at her dining table one day in late November, before the introduction of tiered coronavirus restrictions. “I speak to him online once in a blue moon and he’s usually right. A few months before I blew up, he told me that the next song I would release would be big.”
As England was plunged into its first national lockdown at the beginning of 2020, Mahi released a song that would change her life and her career forever, and her pastor was vindicated.
In early April, “Rumours” went from a jokey ten-second clip posted on Snapchat to the breakout song she needed to cement her name as a rapper. In the first verse, Mahi playfully retaliates to gossip about her sex life, which emerged from a group of YouTube personalities she was once part of (“Oh shit, I heard a rumour IVD is a thot/ They said I'm leaking from the STDs that I got”). The video – which looks like a Mean Girls reboot set in east London, where Mahi went to school – racked up 1 million views in just one month. Mahi credits the bouncy single as the reason she was able to buy the luxury east London flat she’s showing me around today.
She pads around in fluffy pyjama bottoms and a silky navy LV monogrammed shirt, stopping to show me the trophies from her short but already impactful career. In the spare room an empty human-sized hot pink Barbie box – a prop from her video for “Body Bag” – sits in the corner. She’s thinking of transforming the space into a studio, or maybe a glam room.
In the living room are the plaques.
“[My pastor] actually told me I’d get these, too,” says Mahi, signature stiletto nails – today they’re dripping in deep pink jewels and gold gems – clacking against the glass frames. There’s one from GRM Daily to commemorate getting 1 million views on her Daily Duppy, another to celebrate the success of S1mba’s “Rover (Remix)” that she appeared on. “I’m a very spiritual person,” she says. “It’s all really serious to me. Even when people are in my bedroom, I’m like, ‘Get out, I pray in there!’”
The 23-year-old rapper is animated as she tells me about the past year. She’s received DMs from everyone from Iggy Azalea to Keke Palmer and has been having Zoom calls with record producers like Love and Hip Hop’s Stevie J. “You know what, so much has actually happened this year,” she beams. “Every time I release a song the blue ticks are in my DMs.”
As the DMs have piled up, so have a long list of opportunities. While Ray BLK’s “Lovesick” remix is her favourite collaboration so far, being featured on Headie One’s debut album Edna still feels the most surreal. “He sent me a DM on Insta saying, ‘It’s about time we do a song,’” she gushes about “F U Pay Me”. “I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ You know, I was at his first headline show, and it’s crazy how you’re watching someone else grow and then you’re on a song with them.”
Almost-overnight fame is difficult to come to terms with. Mahi wanted to get a dog, but her increasingly busy schedule would make that impossible. She’s nervous about the new friends she makes having bad intentions (“The Evil Eye is real! You have to be careful”).
In a video posted to her YouTube channel about the months following the release of “Rumours”, Mahi speaks about feeling anxious. Even though she’s been in talks with major labels, fielding Zoom calls and emails, she’s still working on getting signed. “The business side of the industry is really hard. It’s so stressful,” she says offhandedly.
The week after we meet, Mahi posts a series of tearful Snapchat Stories and a Twitter thread, describing to fans the ongoing legal battle with ex-Radar Radio boss and the owner of record label Locked In Music, Oliver Ashley. In 2018, Ashley and Radar Radio faced accusations of “stealing ideas from people of colour and tokenising marginalised groups for ‘capitalist purposes’”, and have suspended broadcasting since.
Mahi signed a partnership deal with Locked In Music, but the rapper alleges that Ashley is attempting to control important aspects of her career. Among other allegations – such as controlling which label she is allowed to sign to and attempting to ban her manager from entering the studio – Mahi’s Twitter thread details how Ashley has trademarked “Ivorian Doll” and “IVD”, and is allegedly asking for £17,000 to let her use her own artist name (according to legal notices found by music journalist Will Pritchard, Ivorian Doll's name has indeed been trademarked by Locked In Music).
At the end of December, Mahi released a new single to celebrate her 23rd birthday – but just hours after it dropped, the video was removed from YouTube. Although Mahi and her team have not spoken out about the removal, Mahi retweeted fans who alluded to it having something to do with her partnership deal with Ashley.
VICE reached out to Locked In Music regarding all of these allegations, but a representative from the label declined to comment.
Back in her living room, Mahi is explaining how being a free-spirited Sagittarius – and trying to keep her life as close to normal as possible – helps to ward off any negativity. She’s still close friends with the girls she wrote raps for in school, she’s still a diehard Barb and, although her life is changing every day, she would still rather eat Nando’s over anything else.
“My manager is very posh – she wants me to experience another side of life. Every day, it’s something like Benihana; she says, ‘Dress up and wear your heels.’ But I’m like, ‘Can’t we just go to Nandos?’” says Mahi, her face stepping down from a smile into something more serious. “You know, I know the Nando’s menu off by heart, but I always get the same thing: half chicken, peri-salted chips and mash. Period.”
Although she moved out of her family home earlier this year, staying close to her family is a priority for Mahi too. Born in Flensburg, Germany to parents originally from Ivory Coast, she moved to east London with her dad at the age of three. She spent most of her childhood having a relationship over the phone with her mother, who stayed in Germany until Mahi was in her teens, before she joined the rest of the family in the UK.
“It’s a relationship I’m still working on to this day,” Mahi says of her parents, who eventually reconciled and got married, before making Mahi an older sister. The rapper’s younger brother took a while to work out why his friends call his sister “Ivorian Doll” – “He’s always like, ‘What? Are you famous now?’” – but her father, a pastor, has always been the biggest supporter of her career.
“My dad likes the clout. He’s like, ‘When you go on tour, can I come?’” Mahi laughs. “He’s seen all the stuff online – you know, the rumours. He was like, ‘Did you do all that stuff? It’s OK if you did, you know’ – but I’m like, ‘No, I’m sure I didn’t have sex with those people!’ He’s religious, but he’s laid back as well. He dropped our whole church because they were talking about me.”
Mahi already knows that everyone has something to say about her. Whether it’s a gossipy congregation, blogs reposting her Snapchat stories or her sex life being discussed online, Mahi doesn’t care (“It’s just sex, everybody does it. So why wouldn’t I talk about it?”). That’s because Vanessa Mahi is entirely different to Ivorian Doll.
During our interview, she’s sweet – asking me whether I’m hungry or thirsty and offering to close the balcony doors if I’m too cold – but as soon as she becomes IVD, she’s a savage. On “Body Bag” she offers another warning to people who talk about her: “I don’t fuck around with no dickhead gyal who talk a bag of shit pon road/ Walking round in your big drip but I heard that shit’s on loan”.
When I bring up the songs that have had the biggest reactions, Mahi laughs. In her Daily Duppy performance, IVD skips into view with a twirl and a smirk, before firing shots at influencer Miss RFabulous and rapper Lady Leshurr (both women have since replied with diss tracks of their own). In her Fire in the Booth, she’s hilarious as ever, giggling her way through her chat with Charlie Sloth before playfully weaving a host of UK rappers' names, from Headie One to Young Adz, into a freestyle. Her fans described it as the UK’s answer to Nicki Minaj’s “Barbie Dreams”, while others attacked Mahi’s sexuality, once again.
“Listen, I’ve always been cheeky! I’m the same age as the people who listen to my music, and I know what they like. I’m always on Twitter, too, so I know what people make fun of. But that Fire in the Booth was just fun, just a bit of a joke. I’d done my Daily Duppy and nothing was going to top that. I know what I’m doing,” Mahi says, before turning her attention to those waiting for her to retaliate to the diss tracks currently hanging in the air. “I just don’t care anymore. After Daily Duppy, I said I’m not saying any more and you have to stick with the words in your songs. If I reply, they’ll say I’m not serious about music.”
But Mahi is serious about everything she does – even though she’s jumped between various career aspirations over the years. As a child, she thought she wanted to be a news broadcaster because she talked so much. Instead, she went from making £800 a day selling wigs online to making a name for herself as a YouTube personality, to finally settling on music. The day we meet, she’s excited about her acting debut in Daps’ short film Hallelujah To My Striker, premiering later that evening.
“I’d definitely get into acting,” she says. “There’s going to be clothing too. There’s going to be ‘Ivorian Doll’ primary schools across Africa. It needs to happen, because the prophecy says that I’m going to give stuff back home.”
IVD has secured her place in the usually male-dominated UK drill scene. From her wigs, nails and makeup to her fun-loving stage presence and unashamed discussion of her sexuality, Mahi is forcing drill to work for her while never faltering on the quality that fans are used to. The self-titled “Queen of Drill” is incomparable, having garnered a legion of fans (known as “the Dolls”) as proof. For every freestyle or new video that drops, drill fans flock to react on YouTube, and Pitchfork recently compared her “ability to splash goofiness into bleak scenarios” to US titans like Fivio Foreign and the late Pop Smoke.
While it’s clear that IVD has made her mark with critics, Mahi isn’t so sure she’s supported as a woman in the industry. “Of course, I have fans here, but the UK doesn’t support female rappers, really,” she explains. “It’s not just me. Look at Steff[lon Don]. She’s one of the biggest female rap breakouts from the UK and she had to go international. I feel like, because of her, I’m able to go out there as well. She paved the way for UK female artists.”
We spend most of our afternoon together sprawled out across a large velvet grey sofa, doing what Mahi has been doing for most of the time England has been in lockdown: letting YouTube videos play on shuffle. It’s usually how she gets inspired to write, but today one of Mahi’s own videos begins to load. She laughs as we watch back her performance of “Body Bag” at the 2020 Rated Awards, and she’s determined to let me know that the “Thriller”-influenced dance break wasn’t her original plan. “I love performing, but the zombie bit of the performance was JPL’s idea – she was like, ‘Come on, it’s like you’re a pop star!’” she says.
Mahi always takes her manager’s advice on board (she affectionately refers to her as “Auntie Jackie”). In fact, it’s clear when she arrives at the Noisey cover shoot how integral her team has been in making Ivorian Doll the rising star we see today. Closely flanked by her glam team – hairstylist Keisha, makeup artist Esther and stylist Jody – who Mahi describes as being “more like sisters”, they manage to get her in and out of four different looks, as well as snapping BTS shots for Instagram, all within an hour.
“Everyone always says I have the best glam team, and I do,” says Mahi, smiling. “Collaboration is so important to me. If you do everything by yourself all the time, you’re going to keep sounding and looking the same, but other people’s ideas give you things you might never have thought of.”
There’s one thing Mahi – and probably the online pastor – already know about 2021: that it will be even more fruitful than 2020. She wants to perform again, and she’s hopeful about going on tour. Then there’s the yet-to-be-announced EP, which is still in the works, and she’s hopeful that an iconic US rapper (no, it’s not Nicki) will make a cameo in her next video.
Before I leave, Mahi offers to send her pastor’s Instagram to me to get a prophecy of my own. “They’re always good prophecies, but I still stress sometimes,” she explains, searching for his page. “Even if you get a prophecy and you know it’s coming, you still have to keep working so hard to make sure it all happens.”
Photographed by Erika Kamano in London, November 2020.