Words by:

Shoot: Udoma Janssen
Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Head Stylist: Ade Udoma
Stylist: Jody Leigh
Hair: The Lace Bandit
Makeup: AJ Beauty
Production: Daniel Falodun
Assistants: Ivor Alice and Charlie Benjamin

“In school I was a top student in English”, Ivorian Doll tells me over Zoom, attempting to retrace and historicise her love of writing, phraseology and poetic rap. “You know rapping is like poetry. And I love poems. I love Shakespeare. I love writing. English taught me to be creative and descriptive and I loved it. So when I look back at it I’m like, OK, this is why you’re doing what you’re doing today.”

© Udoma Janssen
Corset and skirt: Ellie Misner
Trainers: Nike

When IVD, real name Vanessa Mahi, begins to reflect on her origins, it appears school was the making of her. The 23-year-old rapper was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, but grew up in east London where she lived with her father, a pastor, and attended all-girls school The Haggerston. Despite popular belief that her stage name ‘Ivorian Doll’ is inspired by the legion of American ‘doll’ rappers (Asian Doll, Cuban Doll, Kash Doll), Mahi insists that it’s pure, fortunate coincidence: “My name was Ivorian Doll when I was in Year 7. I couldn’t have imagined there being a whole doll community. But I think the name is allowing me to stand out, and the other ‘dolls’ are reaching out to me – Asian Doll and I have actually become very close.” And it’s not just the dolls she’s digitally rubbing shoulders with. Mahi reports her shock at being messaged by the likes of Keke Palmer and Tyga, with Tyga allegedly calling her “the littest female rapper he’s ever heard.”

Revering in the nostalgia of her English classes Mahi begins to dramatically recite lines from her favourite Shakespearian verse, Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. Love is not love…” It’s not just the impressive literature lesson which makes our conversation feel like it’s taking place in the classroom or back seats of the bus home after school, but the vibrance, wit and cheekiness that Mahi’s words glitter with, so reminiscent of the youthful, devil-may-care disposition of Black schoolgirls in London. Indeed it was this classroom setting that Mahi revisited in the music video for her breakout drill track Rumours, which featured a gang of schoolgirls with loosely buttoned shirts, short tartan skirts, coloured and yaki weaves, throwing paper airplanes and drawing on the bathroom mirrors with orange lipstick. The lyrics of the track itself carry themes which are core to understanding IVD’s repertoire as an artist – her passion for skilfully crafting language, as in the playful double entendre “Messi! That’s how I shoot my shot”, and music being her chosen mode of response to gossip and hateration: “Oh shit, I heard a rumour IVD is a thot! They said I’m leaking from the STDs that I got.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Burberry

“I never show signs of weakness”, Mahi proclaims defiantly, “If I hear something about me, I throw it in my lyrics. I’m never gonna be writing tweets about it. So they know that I saw that, but I’m addressing it in my music.”

Retaliating through art is an interesting change for Mahi, who was trained in the gossip-rich world of YouTube. Though she often draws comparisons to Cardi B for her meteoric rise from social media, her music is not so much an extension of her charismatic internet personality, but feels entirely distinct from it. So much so that it’s surprising to learn that she had no plans to become a rapper before hitting the studio just over two years ago. Still, Mahi feels that her prior YouTube career trained her for life in the public eye; though she describes Rumours as professionally and financially life-changing, in one aspect she was prepared for the overnight fame. “In terms of social media, it’s not really that much of a big change. Because of YouTube, I already know how to deal with both negative and positive comments.”

“I personally feel like I relate to gay men so much, because they understand what it’s like to be singled out”

Though she notes an initially hostile and misogynistic reception in the drill scene, Ivorian Doll’s success lies in her rare combination of likeability, raw talent and vision. She was, after all, the first female rapper to reach a million views on her GRM Daily Duppy. And even though she has often had the sexist trope of ‘disobedient pastor’s daughter’ projected onto her, she meets those accusations with mirth – her dad is her biggest fan. “He bought me my first camera. He bought my first ring. Like, he’s just always been there. There’s no secrets between me and him. He’s always said to me, ‘the things that you’re doing, if it wasn’t ordained by God, it would never happen.’” Beyond biological family, she’s also found family in her manager, JPL, who she believes God brought into her life. And, with parallels to Nicki Minaj’s “barb” support base, she’s found that Black British gay men have been her greatest source of love. “I personally feel like I relate to gay men so much, because they understand what it’s like to be singled out”, she says, generously praising Black LGBT people for their resilience. “When I was getting abused on social media, they were the ones really sticking up for me. And that’s why everyone on my team is either a woman or gay man.”

Despite the music video for Rumours reaching a million views on YouTube within a month of its 3 April premier last year, Mahi tells me that the constraints of lockdown made this success bittersweet, “I was so annoyed that we wasn’t partying, and weren’t in the clubs. It’s got me contemplating when I want to release my next single. I don’t know if I should hold on to it, and wait until we’re all outside, but that could be next year.” The track Mahi is referring to is titled Heard About Me and will be featured on her upcoming EP Renaissance, due for release in February. Fans will have already heard a snippet of the track floating on her social media, which includes a sample from 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. The track sees her delivering the melodic line “I’m that b*tch a different pedigree, that’s why they call me Big Bad I.V.D.” fusing her signature style of cocky self-assurance with humble homage to one of hip-hop’s greatest. And according to Mahi, she had no problem receiving legal clearance to use the sample: “Literally, 50 was like ‘yeah, this is lit.’ I was like ‘oh God, thank you!’”

“I’m branching way out of drill. I want to be an international pop star”

The EP will mark Mahi’s abdication of the throne as “Queen of Drill” as she aspires for her music portfolio to engender the kind of versatility achieved by artists like Megan Thee Stallion and her icon Nicki Minaj. “I’m branching way out of drill. I want to be an international pop star, and I feel like I can offer more than drill… I can sing, I can dance, and drill isn’t really something you can dance to.” Indeed the EP offers more colourful, bouncy, hip-hop-style tracks like Kitty Kat and Snack on which Mahi narrates personal experiences of romance, sex, and self-confidence. And if you’re looking for a reply to Lady Leshurr’s december diss track D.I.V., or a Shystie vs Lady Fury moment, you’ll be disappointed as Mahi insists that rap beef doesn’t feature on the mood board for her career: “It’s a trend to have beef in the UK to maintain a rap career, but I won’t be participating in that. It’s the wrong thing to focus on,” she says, audibly cringing.

© Udoma Janssen
Corset and skirt: Ellie Misner

Mahi’s intellectual curiosity and passion for language and culture will soon see her exploring her Ivorian roots. She beams as she recalls  the love she’s received from her countrymen: “When it was Ivorian independence day, they were calling Rumours the national anthem!” Mahi is eager to explore Afro-swing melodies and the potential to blend French African music styles, like the youth-cultivated genre zouglou, with her rapping, as she excitedly details her plans to meet and collaborate with the French, Afro trap rapper MHD whom she’s grown close to over social media.

She has dreams beyond music, too. With her theatricality emanating from our Zoom call – she appears to pace and dance around her apartment as we chat – it’s not hard to imagine Mahi as an entertainer or an actor. She claims that dancing and performing on stage at Wireless and the Rated Awards have, unsurprisingly to her, been some of the easiest elements to adapt to, “I dance 24/7 for no reason. I’m not even a dancer… even in school I’ve always danced. I’m just a very energetic type of person.” And over lockdown she’s kept her fans, the ‘dolls’, entertained with a series of comic TikToks. “I feel like TikTok allows me to show how funny and laid back I am. I’m a bit silly as well. And it’s important as an artist to show your personality so your fans can relate to you.” Having already acted in the short film Hallelujah to My Striker by Flex God Daps, and with a number of secret projects to debut later in the year, it appears acting – like rapping – was another fate she is destined for, even if she appears again to be the last to know. “My dad was taking me to acting classes from when I was 11. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time. But he was like, no, she just needs to be acting.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Burberry

In spite of Mahi’s extroversion, our hour-long conversation leaves me with the impression that Mahi is a deeply spiritual person. A stargazing Sagittarius who believes in and prays to a higher power, and views manifestation as key to ensuring that no dream of hers is ever too big. But to focus on her manifestation, she has to be sure she takes time for glam beauty treatments which she maintains over the lockdown period – installing luscious wig units, beating her face, and patterning her nails. And ‘beauty’ for her is as important internally as it is externally, “if you don’t feel pretty within, it manifests on the outside, and makes you feel depressed. So every week, I make sure I’m dolled up, so I don’t feel like I’m losing who I am during this time.”

IVD’s optimism and her beatific joy is, itself, a religion. As an artist who was sorely underestimated in the music scene, it’s her belief in herself that’s been an article of faith. And that faith is sure to carry her to new and exciting projects this year, as she still anticipates going on tour, dominating more creative fields, adding bigger and greater names to her roster of contacts, and expanding her visuals. With dream features on tracks by Headie One and Ray BLK already under her belt, IVD feels confident that she can be highly selective with the countless opportunities which currently sit in her inbox. She has the ambition of an artist who refuses to be underestimated ever again. “I didn’t really think I’d become a rapper. But honestly, I’m having so much fun with it. It’s so creative. And it’s something that I want to do for a very long time.” She pauses momentarily to sit with her thoughts. “I’m learning to manifest my goals, learning to find my higher self.”

Renaissance is out soon