Mama Duke: How Did We Get Here?

December 12, 2022 / Carolynn Solorio

It’s Saturday night, the second weekend of ACL. I’m navigating the massive exodus from Zilker, pinned shoulder to shoulder against Austin’s finest, and see a crowd gathering around Juiceland. My feet are blistered, and my shirt is soaked from sweat, yet I can’t keep myself from moving toward this smoothie-shop huddle. The lifeless mass was drawn to a source of music in the distance. Someone was bringing the crowd back to life—and I was desperate for some revival. The music was coming from the rooftop, and once my eyes found the sign in the darkness, I identified the intoxicating energy’s source: MAMA DUKE.

This woman was on the roof, performing a whole ass set for the street. She was bouncing back and forth across the stage, with a mic in hand and sunglasses on. She had people bumping into one another, laughing, and coexisting in a way that almost brought me to tears. Despite the exhaustion, the severe post-festival fatigue, everyone within a mile radius was on their feet dancing. This is Mama Duke’s essence; she creates a community wherever she goes— permitting everyone around her to just be. It’s beautiful, and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced with a local artist. But her atmosphere isn’t accidental; it's by design.

Mama Duke wasn’t born, she was created. Meticulously constructed out of the necessity for safety and recognition. She’s the product of years of rejection and impatience. As she puts it herself, “Mama Duke is the character I created to protect myself.” Before she was double-booked for ACL or winning music awards, she was fighting for the space to have her own authentic voice as a creative, always being told she was ‘too much’ or ‘too severe’. She was an artistic refugee, unwilling to accept anything short of a city that provided her a platform for the serious, authentic creativity she knew she was capable of. Even the Houston rap scene, where her roots lie, wasn’t accommodating to her long-term vision.

“I would’ve belonged to rap if I was embraced. I’m this loud, unapologetic Black girl, and that made it hard to navigate a lot of creative scenes.”

When I asked her why she moved here from Houston, Mama Duke said that it wasn’t really a choice. Music is what she needed to do, and so Austin is where she needed to be. “If you grab onto Austin,” she told me, “it’ll grab onto you.” She’s here for the long haul, and she lit up as she confessed to me her desire to feed her roots and focus on cultivating the image she’s been able to create here. When we were talking about iconic texas artists, Mama Duke talked about how Austin’s residency is up for grabs. “Nobody owns that skyline yet,” she told me. “Can you imagine a queer, mixed-race, masculine presenting female getting a piece of it?” After talking to her, I absolutely could.

In fact, I wouldn’t even have to imagine– she’s already on her way. As a lifelong native, I feel it necessary to express how important the artistic contributions of Mama Duke are to our community. I grew up seeing ‘local artists’ all across the city; it's the Austinite’s ideal pastime. You go see a show, and you might have a great time, but you never bother to look them up afterward. That’s not the case with Mama Duke. You can’t help but become immediately obsessed with her. Everything she says is so sincere it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time. We need voices like hers to survive—to remain a cultural mecca for the authentic artist. She’s a reminder of why we’re unique, and how we uplift voices that no one else cares to listen to.

And it's in this respect that Mama Duke stands alone among other local artists. She doesn’t just invite you to listen, she demands to be heard. And from the second you’re first exposed to her craft, you’re forever encapsulated by her essence, a proud, lifelong member of the ‘Mama Duke Mafia’.

But for a long time, that was the obstacle: no one wanted to listen. For her entire life, Mama Duke has been a suit of armor—the product of a lifelong fight for the recognition of her own authentic voice. This character allowed for the creation of an Austin sound that didn’t exist before. But now, she tells me that the armor’s coming off. She’s entering a new era, one that’s centered around the growth and love she’s found since the release of her first album, Ballsy. When asked about Ballsy, Mama Duke fondly recalls the authenticity and truth that it was born from, but cringes at the pain that was necessary for its production.

“Ballsy is my first piece of art, and it’s hard to go back and listen because I feel like that person is who I had to be to survive. I had to be her, and I’m so excited to make this new shit. I have so much more to offer.”

So, what’s next for Mama Duke? Anything and everything. As we talked about breakups and self-discovery, she confessed that she was in the midst of a personal breakthrough. “I love my life again for the first time,” she gushed, “I get to choose everything now, and that's a gift.” Empowerment is the new theme for Mama Duke, the defining principle of her new outlook on life. Where she once had to scream to be heard, she now claims complete artistic autonomy. She’s everywhere, and it’s obvious that Mama Duke is deeply involved in each aspect of her artistic process. Whether it's voice acting or posing for a cover shoot, Mama Duke is fully committed to understanding the why and how of each new chapter in her career. After each opportunity, she stops and asks herself how did we get here? It’s refreshing to see artists like her representing the city, who are as invested in the journey as they are the destination. She takes ownership and intense involvement in all that she does.

With her new ability to choose what’s for her and what isn’t, she’s inviting us to experience an entirely new side of Mama Duke. And this is only the beginning. Though music will always be her lifelong passion, she’s not tied to it for the rest of her career. “I don’t feel comfortable just being in the rap scene– I’m not just that.” Mama Duke isn’t ‘just’ anything, really. She’s an icon, and she’s limitless. Just last week she announced that she will finish the year with a month-long residency in London (details to be released on her socials, of course). Her impact and artistry are necessary for our generation. She is completely authentic, the perfect marriage of confidence and humility. One of a kind.

Who else is doing it like her?

“You don’t have to prove if you know. And, at the end of the day, I know me.”

Nobody. Ever. ■

 By: Carolynn Solorio   

Photographer: Rachel Karls

Model: Mama Duke

Stylists: Yousuf Khan

HMUA: Lily Cartagena

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.

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