With 'Ballsy' debut, Mama Duke creates a lane for queer rap in Austin
As far as album titles that encapsulate the essence of an artist, Mama Duke’s “Ballsy” is as good as it gets.
The rapper, an out-and-proud lesbian, doesn’t pull punches on her full-length debut, an 11-song, 27-minute blitzkrieg of hard-hitting bars tempered by a Drake-ish knack for a sing-song hook. On lead track “Ghost,” she skewers the rappers who ignored her heat on the come-up. She mocks her haters, stacks her paper and flaunts her sexual prowess on debut single “Mad.” By the time she warns you to step off her imaginary male appendage in the penultimate track “Get Off My (Expletive),” the gauntlet has been laid, the (ahem) sword unsheathed. It's gender-bending braggadocio.
“When I say that on stage, it feels so good to be embraced,” the rapper also known as Kori Roy said over a Zoom call from her family’s home in late December, a week after the album dropped. The hate is cool, too. She’s amused by the men who feel compelled to remind her that she is not actually in possession of said appendage.
“I love that energy. Tell me. Please, tell me again. I love the way you get,” she said.
The aggro rap that propels the collection of rapid-fire bangers fleshes out her “Ballsy” persona, but Roy is quick to note that it’s just one aspect to her artistry.
“I'm so much more than this aggressive rap, but I am that naturally,” she said. “I had to be that. It keeps me safe. It's my defense mechanism.”
She calls it her “armor.”
“You would never approach me with any (expletive). Why? You know, I wouldn't take that (expletive). Doesn't mean behind the scenes I'm not crying with my girl in bed because I feel like I'm not embraced by the city,” she said.
‘I felt empowered my whole life’
Roy grew up in the small coastal town of Palacios where there’s “only one traffic light. Like, the biggest store is Family Dollar,” she said.
As a young lesbian coming into her own, her mother — who recognized that her daughter might be gay before Roy put the pieces together herself — was her biggest supporter.
“I felt really safe,” Roy said. “It was like, OK, my mom said it was cool, (expletive) what y’all talking about.”
In 2003, Roy was one of the first people in her small-town high school to come out, but she didn’t feel afraid. When a teacher called her out for holding her girlfriend’s hand in the hallway, Roy pointed to a straight couple across the way and insisted the school apply rules consistently. The teacher relented.
“I will forever be grateful for my mom,” she said. She described herself as “Black, queer, a masculine-presenting woman,” marginalized by society at large, but “I felt empowered my whole life."
At school, “everybody would huddle around at lunch” and freestyle, spitting nonsense and knowledge off the top of their domes, she said. More enamored by the crowd and the energy than the rap itself, one day she mustered the courage to take a shot. The only woman in the game, she stood out among her male peers.
“I was the coolest, dopest rapper, because I was a female,” she said.
But high school hype comes with an expiration date. A couple years after graduation, Roy was bumming around her hometown while her friends went to college. When she decided to enlist in the Army, her mother convinced her to decamp to Houston instead. Staying with an uncle in the big city, the world opened up. She enrolled in photography classes at the Art Institute but soon realized that music was her real passion.
“So when I heard that Austin was the Live Music Capital of the World, I instantly thought my dreams (were) there. So that's why I moved to Austin to do music,” she said.
The capital city wasn’t exactly the music mecca Roy was expecting to find, and at first she struggled to find her place.
“Austin is very whitewashed,” she said.
She also grappled with crippling stage fright. For two years, she haunted the edge of open mic nights but never stepped up to take a turn.
“I would get nauseated thinking about even going on stage,” she said.
Then one day, an acquaintance offered her a slot on a group show. She said yes before she had a chance to second-guess herself.
“I was just thrown into it,” she said. “It was just like, 'Damn, right here, I have to step up.'”
She was ready. That gig led to another gig, and by her third go-round, she was opening for Naughty by Nature at Empire Garage.
Roy believes her rapid rise was due to her strength as an entertainer. “It's more than music,” she said. “People love me. So then they love my music, not the other way around.”
'Found a Way'
While Roy was mustering the strength to take the stage, her heart was expanding in other ways. She had fallen in love with a British YouTuber. For four years, Roy and Keeley Thomas courted over Skype. Eventually, the two married, and Thomas relocated to Austin and became Keeley Roy. Together, they made a fierce team. They created adorable YouTube videos about their relationship, and Keeley became a recurring character in Mama Duke's songs. The British expat became Mama Duke’s DJ. Behind the scenes, she was the art director for “Ballsy.”
With the hip-hop industry barely recovering from decades of rampant homophobia, some family members questioned Roy’s decision to center her sexuality in her music. When she drops new Mama Duke joints online, she regularly includes hashtags like “queer” and “LGBTQ.”
“Why do you have to, you know, tell people you're gay? How many people do you see that look like you?” she remembered her brother asking early on in her career.
But Roy was determined to increase visibility and write her own narrative. For the past couple decades, the accepted lane for women in hip-hop has been hypersexual, but Roy has “never been like this sexy bitch,” she said.
“What's super cool about being authentic is that I don't think of lanes; I'm just naturally in one,” she said.
“Did this (expletive) with three whammys/ To make it up I need three Grammys/ because I’m Black, female and gay and somehow still found a way,” she raps on “Found a Way” her voice rising triumphantly as she bridges into the hook.
Roy believes the national consciousness is becoming more open and accepting.
“People are ready for it. People want to see us,” she said. “It's bigger than the music. People want to see us on film. And on stage. You know, I love the place it's in right now.”
The most important thing to her is making music that is “impactful,” she said. She has cultivated a community of fans who are deeply invested in her as a person. They message her to say how her confidence inspires them. They send her their coming out stories. When she dropped a line of merchandise to accompany the album right before Christmas, it sold out in 48 hours. She became a role model in an industry lacking proud lesbian figures.
“You just feel like you have to put on this cape. You're like, ‘Oh (expletive), there isn't anybody like me. What am I gonna do with that?” she said.
Though she does occasionally "get in my ignorant (expletive)" — rapping about debauchery — she also recognizes a higher social responsibility to her art. "I do drop senseless music, but I feel like it's my duty now to at least speak about real things," she said.
‘The most blessed I’ve ever felt’
Before the world shut down in 2020, Mama Duke was poised for a South by Southwest breakout. Gigs were canceled and plans were shelved, but as the year unfolded, good came with the bad.
“I think the pandemic just made me be like, 'Sit your ass down and figure it out. Who are you? What do you want to be?' And it allowed me to not have a job and really be a musician,” she said.
She was able to complete the album, engineer the rollout and get some lucrative music writing opportunities in the works.
“This is the most blessed I've ever felt in my life. This is the most seen I've ever felt. This is the happiest I've ever been in my career,” she said. “I have the most money I've ever had. I have the most opportunity I've ever had. I have the most peace I've ever had.”
After the pandemic and the racial reckoning of last summer, Duke envisions the music industry opening to a new chapter, a great reset.
“If the world opened back up, and we went right back to the same (expletive) ... I feel like we wouldn't tolerate that (expletive) anymore,” she said.
“Even me, like I used to walk in rooms, and I would never make myself smaller, but as Black people we learn to adapt. As LGBTQ people we learn to adapt. As women we learn to adapt, when to make ourselves smaller, when to assert ourselves. We're just constantly walking in different rooms and have to wear these different masks. And I think now, it's like, 'I don't have to do that (expletive) anymore,'” she said.
Roy has new music in the pipeline, but don’t be surprised if it’s softer around the edges.
Record execs, promoters and the media are always down with a female artist who looks good and sounds good. But what comes with being a masculine woman, Roy said, is not always knowing how to embrace your femininity. “I'm not this feminine woman,” she said. “If I was a feminine woman, (I'd) go up there and I'd get a shot no matter what.”
Roy always felt like she had to mask her own femininity with a harder edge. “It was my duty to not be that for a long time,” she said.
She’s ready to shed the armor. “Now, let me really show you who I am,” she said.
MORE AUSTIN360 ARTISTS OF THE MONTH
ARTIST OF THE MONTH: MAMA DUKE
Members: Kori Roy aka Mama Duke, vocals; Keeley Roy aka Meme Keeley, DJ
Releases: "Ballsy," 2020