Mixed-race queer rapper Mama Duke remembers the beautiful moments of her musical journey in Austin.
By Mama Duke, Photo by Morty Zapata
Picture it: A 14-year-old kid rapping at lunch surrounded by the entire school while someone makes a beat on a door with a Sprite bottle. The crowd grows louder, not because the young girl is necessarily spitting the greatest lyrics, but because…well she’s a female. Day after day, guy after guy, they line up and say the first thing that comes to their head. Next day, same thing.
I am that 14-year-old kid rapping. I remember this particular day like it was yesterday. It was lunchtime and I saw the usual crowd gather. See, confidence is fickle. You have it until you need it desperately. Looking back, I can proudly say this moment changed my life. Going toe-to-toe with the guys, I don’t remember what I said, but I will always remember the feeling I had as the nods and “ohs!” started coming in. I think that’s where the itch started. The crowd, the hype, the nervousness, the satisfaction of the reward afterward. The ongoing acknowledgment throughout the day, the “You gonna rap tomorrow?” That shit was addicting early on. I didn’t always have the best grades throughout high school. But getting awarded “Class Clown” and “Most Spirited” when I graduated felt equivalent to getting straight-A’s.
Let’s fast forward a bit.
I’m a student at the Art Institute of Houston for photography. After a year, I realize that photography is a like and not a love. Music is my love.
Somehow I hear that Austin is the live music capital of the world. I remember innocently thinking, “That’s where my dreams are.”
So, you guessed it, I moved to Austin.
My first show was at the Empire Control Room. It was an all-female bill, and I went on first. At the time I thought that was the best privilege ever! “I get to go on first!” Ha-ha! Now I know what that meant. Either way I was honored to be a part of it. After that experience, I couldn’t get enough! Shortly after I booked another show and then another show and then…boom! Mama Duke is opening up for Naughty By Nature.
While my experiences have always turned out in my favor, the journeys through those experiences have not always been pleasant. I’m a mixed-race, half-Black, half-Mexican queer woman. Things aren’t naturally designed for people like me. A lot of my early shows consisted of cut sets or opening the show with no crowd to play to. Or just simply being overlooked. Now, you may say, “Well, that’s what you have to do when you first start out.”
To that I say there aren’t enough pages in this magazine to tell you about all the times I’ve been counted out simply for being a woman.
I truly wouldn’t change my experiences though.
They shaped me. I almost enjoy it and get a bigger sense of pride when I accomplish something after people count me out. Plus, I’m in the music industry. You truly have to have layers of skin that you’re ready to shed daily.
Being a mixed-race queer woman is having to pick which side of our stories we want to tell. I can show you the good. Here, watch.
In the first two years of moving to Austin I was awarded Female Artist of the Year and Artist of the Year on the same night at the Austin Hip Hop Awards. I’ve been on tour, I’ve performed over 300 times and have been paid every single time. (I have to mention being paid because, believe it or not, a lot of these artists aren’t treated fairly.)
I’ve been flown out to perform at a festival in Wisconsin. Nominated for an Austin Music Award. I landed a voice-over role for a character called Hip Hop Hippo. Just dropped my debut album, Ballsy, and the city has embraced it. I was one of 20 people picked in Austin for a songwriting camp for Universal Music Publishing Group during a pandemic. Announced as the Austin American-Statesman’s Artist of the Month for January 2021. I could go on forever.
As a person with a “Triple Whammy,” as I like to call it (mixed-race, queer and a woman), I have a lot of stories full of hurt too. So when a new friend or a stranger in a group or a new colleague or, hell, even a rep at Austin Woman magazine asks to tell them what it’s like being all those things plus a woman in Austin…
I say it’s an honor.
It’s an honor to defy odds and throw out old blueprints. An honor to speak about my accomplishments and not have to feel obligated to go in-depth about what broke me to get here. It’s an honor to be seen by you reading this. An honor to be recognized for the things I’ve been chasing since I was that 14-year-old girl rapping at lunch. It’s an honor to be counted out, an honor to be counted in. It’s an honor.