Backlit by a deep magenta coming from studio lights perched at every corner of her bedroom, Mballa Mendouga sits on her bed, which has become a makeshift stage for a scene in her latest music video. She scrolls through her phone to pull up new album artwork by Raleigh designer Ruben Rodriguez, in which she's snarling and holding a Nerf gun that she painted gold to match the grill in her mouth.
"Hyper aggressive is good," says Mendouga, who lately has been spelling her name as an artist with an eight, M8ALLA, alluding to both "the curve of a woman's body and the M8 assault rifle," a nod to conflicts in her parents' native Africa. "I embody both," she says.
As an artist, Mendouga's tagline is "I sing for immigrant women with American degrees and bottom grillz." This isn't about an image. It's rooted in her reality, and just one example of a multilayered femininity that's fluid, strong, and complicated—and finally being celebrated in pop culture, especially in music, from Cardi B to Solange.
And it's an embodiment found through local femme powerhouses plowing through the Triangle's hip-hop and R&B scenes. On Friday, Mendouga hosts a party to celebrate her first LP, Never Leave Quietly, at Motorco Music Hall. The bill is packed with local female artists: Hasina, Zensofly, EBZ the Artist, Cyanca, A. Yoni J, and Gemynii, with an after-party d.j.
Mendouga is unwavering in her confidence, keeping a steady focus what she dreams to build as an artist. Her LP is her way of smashing the idea that a woman's grace should be subtle and reticent. Ten tracks journey through the realities of the feminine experience. Mendouga sings sultry and she sings hard, layered with her childhood influences: convincing her older brothers to take her to a Ruff Ryders concert when she was nine, and the African beats thumping through her native Cameroon.
The project also reinforces her roots as an immigrant to the United States and as a woman still rooted in Africa. Last week, Mendouga returned from Cameroon, her first trip to her home country in eleven years.
"There's something symbolic about going back right before my first show," she says on her first night back in Durham, coming from hundred-degree weather straight into a snowstorm. "I think I needed the insight from people who love me there and feeling grounded. I felt like it was kind of important to me to have a presence in both places and contribute. Even though I was definitely the American there, it's almost like you're too foreign for home, but you're too foreign for here."
This common first-generation immigrant experience is what drove her to be completely honest on Never Leave Quietly, especially with her career finally taking off.
"[Never Leave Quietly] is me trying to explain that I've lived both experiences. It's the different melodies in Afro-Caribbean music with the amount of time I've been listening to hip-hop or trap music," she says. "Navigating both of those worlds and realizing there is a connection. The connection could be me, but it's not just me. So many people relate to that—so many people have three, four, or five different normals."
Mendouga's "normal" is magnificently nuanced. Perhaps her most personal—if not political—single pulls back the layers of her experience. "Illegal," produced by Pat Junior, premiered in June. The video, directed by Durham's Mandy Padgett and Rebecca Ward, is a celebration of women of color and the power they hold. Mendouga's coy smirks and heavy lyrics meet a fierce choreography in a flurry of smudged sage, glorified pregnant bellies, and glowing melanin.
She wrote it while still an undocumented immigrant. On the first day of shooting the video, her green card application was finally approved after almost nine years of legal limbo. Mendouga, born in 1991 in Paris to Cameroonian parents, grew up in Washington, D.C. But her legal status lapsed in 2009 when she was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, already paying out-of-state tuition. She kept attending classes, though, under the radar.
With national attention largely focused on the Latinx undocumented immigrant experience, more than half a million black undocumented residents are often overlooked—especially within the African-American community.
"If I say 'undocumented,' they don't know what that means," Mendouga says. "I have to say 'illegal,' which I don't like. But people know what an 'illegal immigrant' is. In the song, I tried to flip it. We're being treated illegally, what you're doing is illegal."
The song opens with the line "Still undocumented, so I'm running from the law." The music video debuted on July 4: Independence Day.
"To drop this anthemic song for undocumented immigrants and, in my case, being a black woman, on a day that celebrates the independence of everybody but black people—it kind of felt cheeky, which is how I am. So I thought, that's just what I'm gonna do," Mendouga says.
The R&B singer lives in Durham, by way of her undergrad years at UNC-Chapel Hill. While she was still a toddler, Mendouga's diplomat family was forced to evacuate to France during one of the early civil wars in the Congo, where her father was an ambassador. By the time she was three years old, the family had moved to Washington, D.C., where her father, Jerome, took on the role of Cameroon's ambassador to the United States.
In 2008, after fifteen years as an ambassador, Jerome returned to Cameroon. Five months later, he was arrested and detained in a maximum-security prison. The president, Paul Biya, tried to build a case that accused the seventy-two-year-old Mendouga of embezzlement and even an attempt on the president's life. Jerome Mendouga and other politicians were implicated in a scandal that still remains unclear and unsolved. Eventually, the elder Mendouga died in jail in late 2014, living out the last few years of his life in one of the world's worst prisons.
This crushed his daughter. Mendouga keeps a photo of her father by her bedside, where he smiles in a slim suit. She's rarely seen without the thick, double-knotted gold chain and cross hanging around her neck. It was the cross her father wore.The news of his death shook the family, who were scattered between Cameroon, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. They were left heartbroken—and suddenly without a breadwinner.
Jerome's death prompted Mendouga to keep pursuing her dreams. She studied journalism at UNC, but slowly realized her dream to sing was more important than pleasing her family; though her father and brothers were all musicians, they encouraged her toward a more traditional professional life. Still, Mendouga's tagline keeps her rooted.
Last year was another difficult one for Mendouga. She quit a full-time job that allowed her to work without legal status to pursue singing. This left her bouncing around all summer on different friends' couches, keeping her backseat piled with office supplies. She'd spent days sitting in her car, stealing WiFi and working on her music.
With a green card, Mendouga landed a part-time gig at a nonprofit funding cancer research and found an apartment. This provided renewed momentum, with a focus on giving local music fans even more reasons to celebrate women.
"Girls can come and see themselves," Mendouga says of her Friday show. "It was important to start creating that bill of a whole bunch of women who are succeeding and some who are overlooked, to create an audience for us of people who will pay attention to female performers."