Man Was an Outsider All His Life, Then Music Changed Him

"At the time I felt like I was never truly embraced anywhere. I was always a visitor"
Andrew Thomas August 20, 2018

Teenage years are complicated enough as they are. For this young man, feeling like an outsider compelled him to leave his hometown. Now he’s returned … and he’s unapologetic.

James Dukes grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, with his father. His parents were divorced, and he found himself traveling between very different cultures.

His mother was Guyanese and British and lived abroad, so he would often travel to Guyana and England, among other countries.

The constant traveling back and forth made Dukes feel like he never had a true home.

“At the time I felt like I was never truly embraced anywhere. I was always a visitor,” Dukes told Humanity.

His exposure to different cultures helped shape his identity. But it also made it hard for him to fit in back in Memphis.

“You get opened up to a whole bunch of things. When you bring back those ideas and perspectives to a place like Memphis, very much then, it was kind of an alienating thing,” Dukes explained.

Everyday things would trigger Dukes into feeling like an outsider, and like Memphis wasn’t home.

(Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

When he turned on the television, he saw families doing things he couldn’t relate to, like visiting the family doctor, because he didn’t have a family doctor.

Teachers would ask students in the class to take letters home to their mom, and he couldn’t.

“It made me mad. It made me angry,” Dukes explained.

Dukes wasn’t able to relate to these simple things, and he found himself trying to constantly adapt to become more “Memphis.”

His musical tastes were eclectic, but the other kids mostly just listened to gangster rap. When he took the school bus from his predominantly black neighborhood of Orange Mound, he’d talk like the other kids about subjects they liked to talk about, and listen to the music they liked to listen to.

When he arrived at school, which was in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, he found himself having to change his persona again.

“First I got to get through the school bus. Then I get to school, and I’m surrounded by people who if I approach them the way I approach surviving on the school bus I’m going to scare them,” Dukes explained. “So I have to transform now. I have to change gears now.”

Dukes experienced this transformation every day in order to try to fit in.

At end of Dukes’ junior year in high school he’d had enough and decided he wanted to leave Memphis.

He left within a week of graduation in 2001.

“I felt free. I felt free to go and find my tribe. I felt liberated. I felt like I could find people who would enjoy the things that I thought about, and maybe even help me build on them,” Dukes recalled.

Dukes went to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He eventually transferred to a different university in Long Island, New York, to pursue a career in music—his greatest passion in life.

After working as a successful engineer and producer in New York for 10 years, creating music for TV, commercials, and film, and working with some big-name artists, he returned to Memphis in 2011 to spend time with his family.

But, he didn’t plan on staying in Memphis.

Back in Memphis, he again felt isolated.

James Dukes aka IMakeMadBeats. (Courtesy of Kat Johnson)

“I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t go out, I didn’t try to meet anybody, I didn’t really explore, I just stayed to myself,” Dukes recalled.

It was while listening to the radio that he started to feel a little more comfortable: Someone had called in about the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team.

“I was like, I’m back home. I can’t deny this feels good. Hearing people talk, visiting the food spots, and the culture, I didn’t even realize that I had missed it,” Dukes explained.

Nevertheless, Dukes still didn’t feel entirely at home until a friend invited him out to a concert.

He didn’t want to go, but at the same time he wanted to spend time with his friend.

“I went out, and straight up I was very surprised at what I saw. I went home confused, not just by the artist and the performance, but even the people there that absorbed it. The things that they wore, the things that they talked about, the venue that I went to, the area that it was in,” Dukes said.

“Everything about going out that night was just not what I thought it was going to be.”

All the people he thought were missing from Memphis were there all along, he’d just never found them.

“It was new. It was refreshing. It was the people that were there, their approach to fashion, and the things they talked about was just more inclusive than I remembered it being. It was just an eclectic kind of vibe that hinted towards the kind of progression I was always attracted to,” Dukes recalled.

Dukes began to wonder if there were more people in Memphis with different perspectives and ideas.

(Courtesy of Kat Johnson)

Suddenly Memphis didn’t feel so alien to him anymore. There were people here just like him, people from all walks of life, creative, ambitious, unique.

Remembering what it was like for him growing up, he saw a need to bring these people together.

He produces his own music under the pseudonym IMAKEMADBEATS, but he wanted to do more.

So he made it his job to find these fellow mavericks and support them.

To accomplish this mission, Dukes started a record label called Unapologetic. It’s all about fearlessly being yourself.

He and his collective of artists have been taking on the Memphis music scene in new and distinctive ways.

And always in his mind is the need to make the company visible to other new artists so they can reach their full potential.

“Otherwise you end up not knowing that people who can relate to you, build with you, collaborate with you, grow something with you, are even around you,” Dukes explained.

“You wouldn’t know it, similar to how I didn’t know it.”

Thanks to Dukes, no Memphis artist should ever have to feel like an outsider again.