Athens is often considered one of the best college towns in the country – but beyond the holiday parties and the University of Georgia fraternity and sorority houses, 30% of Athens County’s population Athens-Clarke lives in poverty. This percentage is even higher among residents of District 2, just east of campus,” says Mariah Parker, better known to some as hip-hop artist Linqua Franqa.
With the release of a new album titled ringer, Parker hopes to bring change to their community – both expanding their reach as an artist and asserting themselves as a public office holder.
Parker, a self-described “outcast crackpot kid,” grew up outside of Louisville, Kentucky, listening to rap but not always hearing himself reflected in the music. They participated in poetry slams at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, but wished the stage was more open and inclusive.
Parker says when they moved to Athens in 2013, the creative community was strong, but not unified. “Everyone I met was a bass player, vocalist, or keyboardist, or had a gig that Thursday — ‘Can you come?'” they recall. “But I noticed his lack of color. All the rappers were relegated to corners of the city, both musically and geographically.”
Parker therefore began to organize hip-hop showcases downtown, centered on black artists. When one of the headliners couldn’t make it to a show, Parker took the mic himself. Performing as “Lingua Franca” (the spelling was later changed to Linqua Franqa), Parker rapped about public policy and personal struggles, connecting their experiences to social inequality and the need for change.
“Music was a touchstone for conversations about why things are the way they are,” says Parker. “Let’s talk about it. Does it have to be like this? What can we do?”
Ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt says that while Parker’s music addresses current issues, it also bears traces of African ideologies about individuality within the collective, which also inform the origins of hip-hop. Gaunt explains that “the music belonged to the people and spoke to the plight of daily life”.
Parker began to see storefronts bring people together, coalescing around the progressive messaging of music, and decided to take it a step further. They began holding crash courses in civic engagement at music clubs around the city, coming to shows with a backpack full of information on upcoming legislation, pre-stamped postcards and advice on how to engage effectively with elected officials. Parker explains, “it began to slowly morph into a more explicitly political form of organization.”
This organizing picked up again following 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 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 skills. “While Mariah certainly has a performer element, there’s also a distinct authenticity to it,” he says.
So when the commissioner representing Parker’s Athens East district announced he was resigning to pursue his own mayoral bid, Girtz encouraged Parker to run for the vacant 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 joked about work-life balance when they told a local music reporter that their lives were in shambles.
But then Parker felt that their district had been represented by the same commissioner for 25 years. He had run unopposed for most of his term, and it was assumed that his successor would be as well. Parker says the hecklers came to their campaign launch in early 2018, reciting the quote they gave the music journalist, stripped of context. “So I was straight with them. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people in our district who are behind on their car payments, who are going to eat ramen today, who could find themselves homeless the week next if they fight again with their husband.”
Running on a platform of racial and economic justice, Parker won. They made national headlines when they were sworn in, standing next to their mother with both hands resting on the Autobiography of Malcolm Xwhom Parker considers an example of fearlessness and flexibility.
Now in their second term as county commissioner for District 2, Parker says they are prioritizing new economic development models — like investing in skills training programs and supporting local minority-owned businesses — to support communities where, despite high levels of employment, wages are not 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 pressure on low-income renters.
Parker says one of their proudest accomplishments is the 2021 passage of the Linnetown 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 dormitories. Former residents remembered the demolition and relocation they suffered, but there was no official acknowledgment until 2019, when a staff member at the University of Georgia Libraries discovered a mine of documents relating to the “Urban Renewal Project GA. R-50”.
This discovery was the starting point for the Linnentown project, a public awareness campaign based on research and documentation in the archives. Although the University of Georgia disputed some of the findings, Mayor Girtz and the Athens-Clarke County Commission issued a public apology and community-led calls for community reinvestment.
Clark County School District
As he leads change as an elected official, Parker also spends a lot of time working with kids at local schools and free summer camps, using freestyle rapping and language play to support advocacy efforts. literacy and civic engagement. Their new album, Ringer, doubles as a Ph.D. thesis in language and literacy at the University of Georgia.
Parker says the title has two meanings. “Both in the sense of knocking someone out and calling people to action.” For Parker, these calls relate to issues such as police brutality, social media addiction, mental health, anti-capitalism and unionization.
SpeakOut – The Institute for Democratic Education and Culture
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 views art, in all its forms, as essential to the success of social justice movements. “Art helps us feel what we don’t yet understand,” she explains. “My mentor Herbert Marcuse once pointed out that art in itself does not change the world, but art changes people and can give them impulses to go out and transform the world. I think Mariah Parker completely understands that. I love that they play under the name ‘Linqua Franqa’, because it’s about creating a new language.”