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Rapper-activist Linqua Franqa is on a mission to change both music and politics

Mariah Parker in Athens City Hall
Raphaela Aleman
Mariah Parker in Athens City Hall

Athens is often regarded as one of the best college towns in the country — but past the University of Georgia's tailgate parties and fraternity and sorority houses, 30% of the Athens-Clarke county population lives in poverty. That percentage is even higher among residents in District 2, just east of campus, explains Mariah Parker, better known to some as the hip-hop artist Linqua Franqa.

With a new album out, titled Bellringer, Parker is hoping to make change in their community — both by extending their reach as an artist and coming into their own as a public office holder.

A self-described "outcast weirdo band kid," Parker grew up outside of Louisville, Ky., listening to rap but not always hearing themselves reflected in the music. They participated in poetry slams at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., but wished the scene was more open and inclusive.

Parker says when they moved to Athens in 2013, the creative community was robust, but not unified. "Every single person I met was a bassist or a vocalist or a keyboardist, or had a show this Thursday – 'Can you come?'" they recall. "But I noticed its lack of color. All of the rappers were relegated to the corners of the city, both musically and geographically."

So Parker started organizing hip-hop showcases downtown, centering Black artists. When one of the headliners was unable to make it to a show, Parker stepped up to the mic themselves. Performing as "Lingua Franca" (the spelling was later changed to Linqua Franqa), Parker rapped about public policies and personal struggles, connecting their experiences to social inequality and the need for change.

"The music was a touchstone for conversations around why things are the way they are," Parker explains. "Let's have a talk. Does it have to be that way? What can we do?"

Ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt says that while Parker's music addresses current issues, it also sustains traces of African ideologies about individuality within collectivity, which also inform hip-hop's origins. Gaunt explains that "music was of the people, and it spoke about the plight of everyday life."

Parker began to see the showcases bring people together, coalescing around the progressive messaging in the music, and decided to take things a step further. They started hosting crash courses in civic engagement in music clubs across the city, coming to shows with a backpack full of information on upcoming legislation, pre-stamped postcards and advice about how to effectively engage with elected officials. Parker explains, "it started to slowly morph into a more explicitly political form of organizing."

That organizing picked up in the wake of the 2016 election, with a wave of young people in Georgia and across the country increasingly identifying as progressives. When local hip-hop artist and activist Tommy Valentine launched his campaign for Athens-Clarke's District 9 County Commissioner in 2017, Parker was his manager.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, who was running for office in the same election cycle, recalls being deeply impressed by Parker's unique skill set. "While Mariah certainly has a performer's element, there's also a distinct authenticity," he says.

So, when the commissioner representing Parker's East Athens district announced that he was stepping down to pursue his own mayoral bid, Girtz encouraged Parker to run for the vacated seat. A 26-year-old political novice, they were busy with a burgeoning music career and academic work as a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. Parker had been joking about life-work balance when they told a local music reporter that their life was in shambles.

But then Parker considered that their district had been represented by the same commissioner for 25 years. He had run unopposed for most of his tenure, and it was presumed his successor would, too. Parker says hecklers came to their early 2018 campaign launch, reciting the quote they gave to the music reporter, stripped out of context. "So I was straight up with them. There are hundreds if not thousands of people in our district that are behind on their car payments, that are going to eat ramen today, that could find themselves unhoused next week if they get into another fight with their husband."

Running on a platform of racial and economic justice, Parker won. They made national headlines when they were sworn into office, standing beside their mother, both of their hands placed on the Autobiography of Malcolm X, who Parker sees as an example of fearlessness and flexibility.

Parker was sworn in as District 2 county commissioner on a copy of the <em>A</em><em>utobiography of Malcolm X</em>, next to their mother.
/ Raphaela Aleman
Raphaela Aleman
Parker was sworn in as District 2 county commissioner on a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, next to their mother.

Now serving in their second term as District 2's county commissioner, Parker says they're prioritizing new models of economic development — like investing in job-training programs and supporting local minority- owned businesses — to support communities where, despite high levels of employment, wages aren't high enough to lift people out of poverty. Affordable housing is another concern, they say, as the District's proximity to the University of Georgia has put the squeeze on low-income renters.

Parker says one of their proudest accomplishments is the 2021 passage of the Linnentown Resolution. When the University of Georgia set out to expand its campus in the early 1960s, the homes of about 50 Black families were razed to build new dorms. Former residents remembered the demolition and the displacement they suffered, but there was no formal acknowledgement until 2019, when a University of Georgia Libraries staff member uncovered a trove of documents pertaining to "Urban Renewal Project GA. R-50."

That discovery was the starting point for The Linnentown Project, a public awareness campaign based on archival research and documentation. Although the University of Georgia disputed some of the findings, Mayor Girtz and the Athens-Clarke County Commission issued a public apology and issued calls for reinvestment in the community, led by the community.

As they lead change as an elected official, Parker also spends a lot of time working with kids in local schools and no-cost summer camps, using freestyle rap and language play to support literacy and civic engagement efforts.Their new album, Bellringer, doubles as a Ph.D. dissertation in Language and Literacy at the University of Georgia.

Parker says the title has two meanings. "Both in the sense of knocking somebody out, and calling people to action." For Parker, those calls center on issues such as police brutality, social media addiction, mental health, anti-capitalism and labor organizing.

One song, "Abolition," features a guest spot from political activist and scholar Angela Davis, who met Parker in 2020 at a conference and stayed in touch.

Davis says she considers art, in all its forms, central to the success of social justice movements. "Art helps us to feel what we do not yet understand," she explains. "My mentor Herbert Marcuse once pointed out that art itself doesn't change the world, but art changes the people and can give them impulses to go out and transform the world. I think that Mariah Parker totally understands this. I love that they perform under the name 'Linqua Franqa,' because it's about creating a new language."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allyson McCabe
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