I Will Be Heard: Mama Duke
Lyricist thriving at the intersection of Black, female, and gay wants Austin to "feel this energy"
"If you look me up and see a dog, that's that other bitch, Marmaduke," cracks Austin rapper Mama Duke during her headlining Hotel Vegas performance for college radio station KVRX.
The bowels of the East Sixth Street venue erupt in laughter on a breezy Sunday night. Equally cool and smooth, Kori Roy swaggers through her 40-minute set, donning a vintage George Strait bomber jacket and her deepest feelings with a playful nonchalance. At one point, the nylon fell away, but bathed in green and purple lights and a hint of Auto-Tune, Roy's vulnerability remained.
Aside from being on her self-proclaimed "sad girl shit," aka the emotional state of feeling down and moody, the Scorpio – one of the most emo signs in the zodiac – really lets loose with her performance, which at times feels more like a late-night studio session than a live hip-hop set.
"At Hotel Vegas, it was beautiful," the 33-year-old later reminisces over a Zoom call, handheld microphone to her lips. "[The atmosphere] was close, intimate, and I was like, 'Fuck it. This is the perfect place to fuck up, no pressure.' In intimate spaces like [the indoor Hotel Vegas stage], you want people to feel like you're a person – which, you are – but you want that to translate."
Born and raised in the coastal town of Palacios – home to one stoplight, four restaurants, and 50 churches, according to Roy – the queer singer-songwriter's trajectory from almost enlisting in the Army to enrolling in photography school to opening for Naughty by Nature when she moved to the Texas capital constitutes more of a squiggly loop than a straight line.
Naturally, it all started with music. Spanish songs soundtracked Roy's childhood, whether they whispered in the background of her mom's Mexican household or blared during those "Saturday morning cleaning sessions."
"A big memory that sticks out is that my mom would make me listen to a song, and at the end she would ask me what it was about," Roy grins. "I would tell her my perspective, then she would [tell me what the song meant]. Her highlighting that music was a story early on has definitely helped me now. My music has to say something, mean something."
Roy cites her mother's blessing to forego college as a driving force in her journey to becoming a musician. Even when her relatives shot her looks of astonishment and her older brother innocently suggested, "Maybe you should leave out that you're a lesbian," the determination of the self-dubbed "black sheep of the family" never faltered.
"Everybody thinks you're fucking crazy until you make some shit work," Roy says. "Eight years ago, even my own family [raised eyebrows at me], but I always had the foundation of, 'You can do whatever the fuck you want to do.'
"[From them] it was never doubt, it was always, 'All right, we'll see.'"
In 2013, Mama Duke finally rolled into Austin. While most musicians start out slow and steady, Roy's foray into the industry began with a headfirst dive into performing. Soon after the move, the singer connected with local graphic designer Lauren Lavezzari, aka YellaStud, who helped Roy secure her first few gigs by asking those who commissioned her for show fliers if the former could get on the lineup.
"It was super cool to not have to eat shit at the beginning of my career," Roy says. "Lolo pulled me into the deep end and [helped] me get my feet wet."
Immediately ingrained into the scene, Roy continued performing – she's played hundreds of shows since she arrived – while hyping up her place as a woman in local hip-hop.
"Hip-hop's a very braggadocious sport," Roy says. "I was talking shit with nothing to show for, so it was long overdue for me to drop something."
Grow a Pair!
Nine years later and mid-pandemic, Mama Duke put out an album with just the right amount of cockiness to storm the male-dominated, slow-moving scene of Austin hip-hop in 2020. Aptly named Ballsy and unsurprisingly autobiographical, the matriarch's full-length debut plunges listeners into the genesis of a trailblazer.
Opening with crunches of static and electronic glitches, the title track fades into "Ghost," a standard "forget the haters" number where the braggadocio reflects on those who overlooked her when she started making music. Roy drawls over haunting keys and pounding bass:
"Remember like a month ago when I wanted features from all of you/ When you said no and now you listenin' like, 'Well shit, that kinda go.'"
Rejected but never scorned, her optimism perseveres in the chirpy "Found a Way," where the powerhouse details how existing at the intersection of "Black, female, and gay" never stopped her from pursuing music. Standouts "Mad" and "Get Off My Dick" revisit the hater-diss-track formula with ferocious fanfare before the lone-wolf anthem "Only One" concludes the record.
In 27 minutes, Mama Duke lays out a road map of humble beginnings and the ambitious destination she's headed to: the top of the game, no matter the obstacles.
"I'm so sick of Ballsy," Roy groans with an eye roll. "It's who I had to be to get to this place."
"This place" translates to spearheading a new breed of Austin hip-hop, but the Duke clarifies her statement in a later interview:
"Ballsy is who I had to be to survive, to make it as a female in hip-hop," Roy repeats, eyes flashing with realization. "I've never even registered that until now. [Early on] I always had to defend myself, whether it's for being a strong woman or being queer. I always felt like I had to have my fist up."
On the Horizon of Hip-Hop
Since the release of Ballsy, Roy's passion for music and endless drive to create propelled her further toward success. From founding entertainment hub ATX Social Club to receiving various Austin Hip-Hop Awards in 2017 – Artist of the Year and Female Artist of the Year in the same night – and later gaining an exclusive invite to a Universal Music Publishing Group songwriting camp, Mama Duke stays busy.
At Cheer Up Charlies' Lez B in Touch Dyke March, Lex Vaughn of FFTwinz even knighted Roy as "the hardest working lesbo in the biz."
In the spring, Mama Duke performed five unreleased singles at her Hotel Vegas show, flew to New York for a Pride Month shoot with tech company Picsart, then made her debut on ACL Fest's lineup and various billboards across the country. More recently, she opened for Tameca Jones' final local show, brought the Austin FC into battle with her heartbeat, and received her second membership invitation to the Recording Academy while performing nearly every weekend in June.
"I haven't dropped music since 2020, and I'm booked," Roy says. "I want people to know that this music shit is way more than music – it's about being relevant. It's going to look like I'm doing something even when I'm not doing anything because I'm a hustler."
In the dust that settles around the artist's whirlwind of creativity, one question remains: the current state of the scene with which her music deeply intertwines.
"There is 100,000% a thriving hip-hop scene in Austin," Roy states with confidence. "I just think hip-hop looks different [than what people would expect]. Hip-hop is me. People think, because there's not a lot of eyes on our scene, that it's nonexistent, but we're definitely here.
"I think there's a couple of obstacles we have to get through. We need to have more people willing to bend. Right now, I think we're thriving.
"I think we're finding new spaces. I think we're finding out how to exist in Austin, and that's gonna take a little bit of time."
While Roy never shies away from showing her true colors, she admitted she sometimes acts as "two people at once" to perform in various spaces while identifying as a mixed-race gay woman. Although the social chameleon adjusts her set lists for certain shows, she never compromises her identity or its influences in her music.
"It is important that I show up in these rooms, these white rooms, these cis[-gender] rooms, places traditionally labeled 'not for me,'" Roy says. "Queerness influences me because it's who I am. I am sometimes the only Black person in the room, the only queer person in the room. You're gonna feel this energy."
Before performing, Roy makes a point to remind her audiences exactly what they're getting into with a booming, "It's about to get real Black in here!"
"It's important, because sometimes I'm the only representation [of my identities]," Roy says. "It's also important for me to be who I needed to see when I was younger. All the things that used to hold me back are now launching me into being seen as 'the other.' As an artist, I could never leave that out."
A New Era
Weaving through the local music scene, Mama Duke ventures further into territory she calls "bursting out of the hip-hop artist label."
"Moving beyond the hip-hop label looks like opportunity," Roy says. "When I say I'm a rapper, it limits me in some ways. I say I'm a rapper and that just puts me in a box. I'm cool with that box, I've been in that box my whole life, but now the box doesn't fit me anymore.
"I'm a songwriter first, I just happened to rap first. I have to move around and see what else is for me."
Roy's desire for growth may appear in her next album, currently untitled but scheduled for an August release. In the upcoming work, she envisions a feel completely different from Ballsy.
"I was on my sad girl shit and just went through a breakup," Roy elaborates. "Instead of doing 15 songs of heartbreak, I thought, 'Why don't I take those 15 down to six, then transition somewhere in the middle and make [the other half] a summer bop?' Like, 'Oh, we're sad, but now it's sunny outside.' Just to highlight the duality [of feelings]."
Mama Duke wears duality well, sharing her eagerness to eclipse her previous creative self without snuffing her out. The musician compares the aftermath of her breakup to the artistic growth she's experiencing.
"I was in a 10-year relationship, and it's the same [concept]," Roy says. "It's like, 'Were you not being authentic?' No, I was, but there's this whole new side of me that I'd be damned if I don't explore."
In her sophomore effort, she'll veer into the pop-rap sphere, tapping into a side of her artistry yet to be harnessed. Roy said she wants to rebrand her musical persona and that this will materialize in her new approach to songwriting.
"I really pushed my pen with this album," Roy says. "It's easy to lay a verse then [run with it]. With this record, I took my time. It's nice to care a little more, to think a little more.
"I made it a point to show vulnerability but also allow people to have their own story when they hear [the music]. I want you to hear it, hear me, but also lose yourself in it."
Newfound musical inclinations aren't the only thing keeping her going this round. Mama Duke's been dabbling in alternative avenues that cater to exploring her other strengths as a creative.
"What's really been helping me get out of my comfort zone is accepting gigs that are not music-related," Roy says. "I've hosted things recently, I've been flown out to New York to model. It's cool to accept myself as I am. All these things pushed me out of my comfort zone.
"People hiring me not to do just music means my personality is translating into opportunity."
No matter the outcome of this local's adventures, musical or not, she's bound to accomplish two goals: always landing on her feet, and continuing her growth as an artist.
"I'm trying to say this in the most humble way," Roy begins. "It's so cool to have this little, teeny-weeny local celebrity [status], because not a lot of people are actively pushing boundaries, [fighting for a spot in the scene]. To go out now and get asked, 'Are you Mama Duke?' Oh man, am I Mama Duke? That's the most beautiful shit ever."
Mama Duke appears next Thursday, August 4, at Cheer Up Charlies for the free Hot Summer Nights music series, where she’ll share a bill with Chief Cleopatra and Jane Leo. Then on Saturday, August 6, you can find her at Lustre Pearl South, where she’ll perform alongside fellow LGBTQ music faves p1nkstar, Caleb De Casper, and more at the inaugural all-day ATX Queer Music Fest.