Vanessa Bling, Reflection and New Perspectives
Sitting in a Kingston recording studio, Vanessa Bling’s energy was affable, warm, and just a bit excited. After relocating to Atlanta to work with a new management team early last year, Vanessa was returning home and as anyone can tell you, Jamaica nuh easy.
Changes are always best executed surrounded by the right energy, and Vanessa was off to the best possible start. While she’s more of a household name in Jamaica and with dancehall fans across the diaspora and beyond, a October 2017 Instagram video of rapper Cardi B showing off her extravagant engagement ring with the artist’s single “Everything Fi Hold Him” playing in the background would expose her to a brand new audience. With a new project and new fans comes a new outlook, and even newer ways of defining herself. “Gaza Slim is the rough, hardcore hot head one,” she tells me about one of her original monikers, which also included Va-Ness. “Vanessa Bling is likkle cute, blingy-blingy girl. You get likkle uptown with a likkle downtown mix up together. But Vonessa, is worldwide. Classic. International.”
Like many before her, the artist born Vanessa Saddler’s musical roots were planted by a musical family. She was born and raised in Unity District, St. Andrew and was watered in the halls of praise she grew up in while singing in the church and school choir. “My mom can sing, and on my father’s side, all my aunties can sing,” she tells me with a laugh. “Back then when I was a child, I’d play dolly house and those things, I was usually a choir teacher. So [my cousins] would sit down, and I’d teach them even when they’re singing bad notes.”
Music is something that would follow her though primary and secondary school, where she joined the Oberlin High School choir and participated in singing competitions with plenty of wins, including back-to-back titles in TVJ’s All Sing Together competition in 2005 and 2006, and losses to show for it. “Some of them, I’d come second when I should have come in first,” she tells me, irritation lingering in her voice. “At the end of the day, the other person that they made win over me because of certain circumstances, where are they now? Nobody knows,” she says matter-of-factly with a laugh. She wound up trying out for Digicel Rising Star, a national competition that has acted as a launchpad in the careers of other reggae artists like Romain Virgo and Chris Martin. She may not have won, but her persistence would eventually lead her to the ears of Vybz Kartel in 2010, by which point she had traded in her original Va-Ness stage name for one more fitting as part of the now-defunct Portmore Empire: Gaza Slim.
For dancehall fans, Vanessa never missed a beat thanks to a slow but steady flow of singles from “One Man” and “Everything Fi Hold Him” to “Stop Gwaan Like Yuh Tough”, and “Independent Ladies”, but for one of her first full projects, her musical sights are set on new places. While she hasn’t abandoned her dancehall sensibilities, she’s expanded sonically, traversing deeper into reggae, R&B, Afropop and even EDM, with the help of new producers and songwriters from all over the globe. This world sound is, Vanessa tells me, very deliberate. She makes it a point to explain that older singles like “Always” and “Wine” bounced between Patois and Standard English for the sole purpose of appealing to wider audiences, and it’s clear she hopes to bring her current fan base along for this new ride. “I was signed to Vybz first and he was taking me to international levels,” she tells me. She’s careful discussing these times in her career, but she’s wistful. “I always told myself I’m going to be the next international artist from Jamaica,” she explains. “Like how you have Rihanna coming from Barbados and Nicki Minaj coming from Trinidad”.
Artists from the island, like the rest of its population and diaspora, might extoll national pride at every turn, but global success is often a plane ride away from the lands they call home. The reasons vary, and range from a smaller local infrastructure to colloquial but often very real laidback approaches to timeliness and deadlines. Though Vanessa’s become accustomed to the business acumen in Kingston, last year she’d gotten used to the stark differences between home and abroad while she was in Atlanta. “When I’m there, things are done on time as opposed to when I’m [in Jamaica],” she says with an exasperated laugh. Shortly before our conversation, we waited for over an hour to enter the studio; a staff member allegedly fast asleep in one of the back rooms until someone rattled a window loud enough to finally wake him. “Nothing is going to be as fast as when I’m over there. It’s just easier this way.” She’s much more relaxed than when our conversation began now, and her media-trained confidence gives way to a more relatable charm.
Vanessa’s certainty about her future is clear-cut and steady as she now has a more expanded vision. Her past—fraught with the kind of headline-grabbing turmoil that might find a comfortable home on reality television—is a topic she’s forthcoming about, but it’s evident she’d rather skip over it. “Things I used to do before, I don’t do anymore,” she tells me with a laboured sighed. “I pree life totally different. I see where the growth is.”
Pledging her allegiance to her former label boss got the then-21-year-old singer caught up in the whirlwind that would eventually lead to Kartel’s arrest, trial and lifetime prison sentence. In the process, Vanessa would be arrested and charged with conspiracy; serving a brief prison stint and a lengthy amount of time on parole before these charges would eventually be dropped in 2014. Just as her star was rising, it seemed as though it took a turn—more of a detour, rather—for the worst. She’s honest about these moments in her life, more than most in the public eye might be. “If I didn't go through what I went though I wouldn't be Vanessa Bling,” she says. “I wouldn’t understand certain moves that I’m about to make in life or making. I wouldn't be able to make them because I wouldn’t understand myself.”
Growth is imperative for any artist. Creativity without self-reflective evolution becomes stagnant, stopped dead in its tracks by a refusal to transform. All of the greats, across genres and mediums, ended their careers a different artist than they began – both personally and professionally. Vanessa took a moment to ponder just how much she’s grown from the woman she was in her early 20s to the 28-year-old she is today and if she regrets anything. On top of her legal issues, she’s been in well-publicized feuds with fellow artists, including former labelmate Lisa Hyper and in 2017, Ishawna. The former lead to years-long friction between the two women, complete with lyrical jabs thrown back and forth. I ask how she may have guided a younger Vanessa; headstrong, but not always in the best ways. “I would say to myself ‘think a bit harder about the way you react,’” she says. You can hear the peace she’s come to in her voice. “Back then, I was so busy and caught up.”
In 2014, Vanessa seemingly did a 180—at least musically—releasing her first and only gospel single, “Have Mercy On Me, Lord”. It was an obvious departure from her work before that and though she hasn’t revisited the genre since, you get the sense that spirituality has played a large part in her overall growth. “I give tithes whether I go to church or not,” she says after a loud, reflecting sigh. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that growing up in a country with the highest number of churches per capita, Vanessa is deeply religious. “I read my Bible every day, now. I used to never read my Bible that much, but now things have been so different for me. I just pree life very different.”
For many, self-reflection goes hand-in-hand with regret and remorse. Despite its impossibility, hypotheticals about changing past events tend to lead to revealing conversations. You can tell a lot about a person by the things they wish they had or hadn’t done. Others can look backward and forward seemingly at once, understanding the butterfly effect of swapping out the past and instead seeing it as the ideal springboard for the present and future.
Despite her past troubles, Vanessa seems ready for whatever lies ahead. It’s difficult to say for certain whether or not the global success that has eluded her earlier in her career is within her grasp now, but as the mainstream tides flow back towards Afro-Caribbean sounds, pop radio is closer for the taking than it’s been in over a decade. After spending the better part of her 20s, an already hellish decade of development, in an industry with little mercy, her ability to take it all in stride feels inspiring. Refreshing, even.
“To be honest, I don’t regret anything that happened to me because it made me into the woman I am today,” Vanessa says. You can tell these are questions she’s likely asked herself before, her voice laced with a certain kind of preparedness that only deep introspection can offer. “I think if I never went through all that pain, those struggles - I wouldn’t be that woman who, no matter what you do to me, I know how to stand strong.”