I’ve decided to write this article about Ma Dukes from a personal side. I am privileged to know Ma Dukes and can say that in the past year I have gotten to know such a phenomenal woman. Ma Dukes is the epitome of motherhood. She has shown me that even if your child passes away, your role as their mother lives on. She is not only preserving her son, the late James “J. Dilla” Yancey’s legacy, she is protecting, nuturing and encouraging the gift that her son possessed.
Every time I have the opportunity to sit down with Ma Dukes, I try to pick her brain about the Yancey household. Ma Dukes speaks about the heavy gospel influence in her home and how the entire family sang in the church choir. There would be bible studies and dinners at their home that would always end in entertainment. These were opportunities for Dilla to play numerous instruments. The Yancey household was always a very musical household in which they would entertain each-other every Friday with singing and dancing in their living room. I’m sure that noticing these early musical traits in her children made it easier for both Mr. and Mrs. Yancey to encourage their children’ talents. However, Ma Dukes said that even though she encouraged her children, she also learned to step back. “My children were rebellious and if I showed too much interest they would slack off”, says Ma Dukes. I feel the same way about my children with encouraging their talents from early on. I believe it’s healthy to applaud and strengthen their abilities, it’s also important to not be pushy about it.
“I had a tendency to get over excited about my daughter playing the flute and Dilla playing the cello that it would make them want to stop doing it. It made me proud beyond measure to see them excel in music, but I allowed them to pursue their interests without any pressure from me.”
When I asked Ma Dukes if she realized Dilla was becoming an icon she said she really didn’t notice because he was just so humble. “He didn’t want to make anything bigger than it should be. He was just passionate about his work, it was never about the money or fame.” Naturally, she realizes just how powerful and influential his work is, hence she has been tirelessly working hard to bring to the world the “Rebirth of Detroit” project. And she doesn’t stop there, her goal is to help rebuild the city of Detroit through music, which I believe is attainable on the strength of the Motown legacy alone!
“As for the Detroit sound, my hope is that we can come together and work as a collective to promote each other. If we can’t appreciate what we have here we can’t expect the world to appreciate it. We definitely have a signature sound which I call the “New Motown Sound”, we just have to acknowledge our treasures.”
One thing I noticed about Ma Dukes is that she tends to speak about Dilla in the present tense, which I know is because even though he’s physically not with her, his spirit lives on within her. The J. Dilla Foundation is the focus of her heart. Many people don’t realize, but Ma Dukes is also battling Lupus, the same disease that took Dilla’s life. Despite this disease, Ma Dukes went back to school to study business in order to effectively run the J. Dilla Foundation. This is so commendable especially considering her health and the fact that Mr. Yancey suffered from three strokes, a heart attack and pneumonia. So she has that responsibility to her husband as well and doesn’t complain once about that.
The J. Dilla Foundation is her way of giving back to the world Dilla’s gift. “When he was in ICU he stressed that he wanted to give his gift of music to the world. As a mom, I didn’t want to acknowledge that he was speaking to a higher power and was accepting his fate. I didn’t want to accept that he was leaving us. Dilla was always about helping people to make something out of their lives and that’s what the foundation aims to do,” says Ma Dukes. Her goal is to support schools and individuals who are passionate about music that requires funding to pursue their interests and she will not stop until, as she midly states “the account is empty”.
Ma Dukes is one of the strongest mothers and grandmothers that I’ve come across in my lifetime. She hasn’t shed a single tear since Dilla died. She celebrates his life and legacy everyday. The Rebirth of Detroit project will be proof of her dedication to her son’s legacy and to the talent that her city possesses. Check out the trailer for the Rebirth of Detroit here:
I want to thank Ma Dukes for being the amazing mother that she is and for influencing me to continue with what I am passionate about, but most of all for encouraging me to believe in my children.
Love you Ma Dukes.