We met Mariah Parker—better known to some as hip-hop linguistics master Linqua Franqa—for a photoshoot at the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse steps on a gray November afternoon. Linqua sings about November in her 2017 single “Eight Weeks,” which stirred the pot on conversations around abortion, written from the perspective of a woman anxiously awaiting the results of a pregnancy test, her mind racing between options based on her right to choose. In her music and spoken word, Linqua takes the political and lets it be what it is: personal.
But Mariah knows there’s a lot of ground to cover outside of reproductive rights while understanding all issues are connected through intersectionality. Her debut album, Model Minority (Feb. 2018), discusses addiction, mental health, politics, racial injustice, and more. Mariah tackles all of this beyond Linqua Franqa and the musical sphere, as well. She serves on the county commission in Athens, Ga., is a teaching assistant at the University of Georgia, a civil rights activist, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Language and Literacy Education. (She busy.) She also founded “Hot Corner Hip Hop” in Athens to push back against racism and classism in the town’s venues and gave Athens hip-hop a space to host its burgeoning scene.
Collectively, we have a lot of work to do and 2020 already feels like a lot. However, it’s important to let issues hold our attention long enough to get us up and do something about them. Mariah took some time amidst her busy schedule to chat with us about her experiences with mental health, race, the current state of activism, and other things.
How were you drawn to music, specifically hip-hop?
I grew up around hip-hop and listened to it passively. It was never something I was actively participant in until college when I became a member of the spoken word community on campus. I’d put together some rhymes in my adolescence and started putting them out into the world as a poet. Then years later, upon coming to Athens, I decided to start putting poems to music. [I wrote] new poems about things that were difficult for me to express over that 10-year span, relating to mental health, racial and gender identity, and the way those things intersect. When I came to Athens, I was very inspired by the robustness of the music scene. It seemed every fifth person I met was in a band or going to a show. But I got a sense there weren’t a lot of people like me, both in terms of race and gender, that were being invited that scene at the time. I felt called to use some of the connections I made to create a platform for myself for self-expression and for exorcising these demons I’d written in poetry or kept to myself through the years… but also to create a platform for other artists to share their stories and connect with one another around storytelling in the music scene who were more hip-hop included or otherwise POC or women.
What kind of demons are you referring to?
I talk a lot in my music about mental health, struggles with depression and anxiety, and some of the places that’s taken me in my mental and emotional life. As well as the places those problems have stemmed from: feeling between worlds of a person who comes from a black family that’s sort of educated, but knows what it’s like to walk through the hall of academia and never see anyone who looks like myself. Some of those struggles around racial identity and gender identity found a place for me in hip-hop, as well as struggles specifically with access to reproductive health care, as a person who has had an abortion before. So all of that, as well as the political reality we live in today and the difficulties of struggling against it and finding the grounding and energy to continually combat the sense of oppression. Despite a deluge of them, it’s feeling sometimes like the battle can’t be won. That’s what I talk about in my music very openly, candidly, and sometimes painfully.
What do you think folks should keep in mind specifically in regards to mental health and POC?
I think that believing people of color when we talk about the microaggressions that affect them in mental health is especially important, and being open to listening and combatting microaggression in its social extension on the everyday. Knowing when to call people out on their bullshit when we see our friends, family, and classmates affected by that stuff. On a larger level, we have to see that we have stigmas in the black community especially regarding mental health care access and that we have systemic barriers to mental health care access that are policy driven. Think about what kind of cultural and political shifts we need to have happen for folks to get to the help they need. You can fight all day to shut down the racist in your classroom or workplace that is harming your friend and their mental health, but what we need is mental health care for everybody. If you’re pissed about the way you feel about your mental health, the way the people around you feel about their mental health, you should be fighting for mental health care services in the communities and funding for them, as well as policies like Medicare for All on the federal level. If you’re mad about the way it makes you feel everyday, fight for something better.
How do you describe the political reality?
It was Adrienne Maree Brown that said these things have always existed, but right now, the veil is being pulled back. We’re seeing them on full display. The reality is that we can not continue to hide from them, we can not continue to support the status quo that embraces them, and we have to face them head-on.
What inspired your shift into politics?
While organizing within the music scene [in Athens], I discovered there are cultural barriers in terms of inclusivity, access, prejudice, and understanding, but there are also many structural barriers that keep people from expressing themselves and accessing the platform. People who make music that tell beautiful but harrowing stories about their involvement in the criminal justice system or their struggles in poverty… it’s great they can come and enjoy a platform for expressing that truth, but still, when they leave that venue, they’re still going to substandard housing, to jobs not supporting them a living wage which is keeping them from buying the equipment they need to make that hit song that would put Athens on the map. Or, they can’t even get to the venue, because they don’t have access to public transportation or affordable childcare. I realized the issue was bigger than getting venue owners to stop being racist and let us have shows there. It was a matter of breaking down these other barriers in life that were seriously holding other people back from a quality of life they deserve as a human right.
Have you ever experienced discrimination or racial tension first-hand?
Oh, yeah. Definitely, all the time. I would say, like, everyday. (chuckles) But, in relation to music, I’ve had venue owners tell me that a show won’t draw enough people or make enough money because it’s hip-hop, or they have concerns with security issues, which is a veiled way of saying they don’t trust black people to be, you know, chill in public. Venues we frequent that we believe we can trust, around the time of the killings of Philando Castile and Aldon Sterling, saw a lot of people come out in the LGBTQ community, but they wouldn’t sing anything in the tune of Black Lives Matter. I’ve been banned from a specific bar in Athens under a case of mistaken identity, because there couldn’t possibly be more than one woman of color with an afro in Athens. Microaggressions like that have been deeply hurtful, even though people blow them off as minor. Over a lifetime of things like that happening, you do start to feel like a second-class citizen.
Can you tell me about your work as a city council commissioner in Athens?
I ran on a platform of racial economic justice. I wanted to represent, and do now represent, the poorest and only majority-minority district in Athens. It’s the only place where black people are the majority and it happens to have the highest poverty rate in the city. I say “happens to,” but that’s by design. These are folks that have not felt heard or looked out for by local government for a long time, and who are desperately in need of jobs with a living wage and of educational opportunities that are lifelong. Folks that are having really negative interactions with police and in need of healthier relationships with our law enforcement. Folks that don’t have access to affordable and reliable transportation and deserve, like anyone else, sidewalks, street lights, and busses that come on time. Folks that smoke a little weed sometimes, maybe, and they’re getting arrested at disproportionate rates for it. With all these things in mind, I came in ready to fight for things like marijuana decriminalization, affordable housing, fair and free public transportation, policing reform, living wages.
Do you see your political work as an extension of your music, or the other way around?
I see them as mutually informative. The nuance I’ve come to understand of political issues definitely comes into play in my music, and the way that I perceive and interact with my hip-hoppers and fellow music lovers. As well as the stories that I’ve heard and the life that I’ve lived as a person entrenched in hip-hop has informed the way I govern, speak, and act and the issues I speak to and the priorities they hold. So I see all parts of movement building of strengthening democracy and spreading messages of what’s to come and frankly, what type of revolution we need to be banding together for.
Speaking of reform and revolution, how do you think we can collectively work together and tackle all the issues without falling complacent?
I think the strongest way for us to come together, to demand and win change, is through our labor. We live in a right to work state, but nonetheless, if we engage in things like general strikes or use our work and social spaces when we can to inform people about issues, we can use and withhold our labor power to transform our institutions. I think we oftentimes we get channeled into voting or waving signs, which is important for caucus raising and policy reform, but I personally think the one place we can all make a huge difference is to organize in our workplaces. In terms of how we can all work together, I think we need to be really open-minded in getting this work done. I think labor organizing is where the bulk of our power lies, but I’m not gonna knock someone else for organizing a protest or letter writing campaign to senators, because I think through all these means of public pressure, we can win. Different wins have been won through all of these means, even if they haven’t gotten us to the ideal reality we seek; [through] mutual support for people who are engaging in different issues through different tactics rather than breaking each other down about issues, but seeing them as issues across communities in the way that we are all affected and all are harmed by oppression. Seeing how we can build coalitions outside our comfort zones is super important. We need to see outside our identity blocks rather than sticking to our little bubble.
How do you feel about the 2020 election so far?
I can’t help but be biased, because I think Bernie Sanders has been and is the best candidate that the Democratic Party has had for the past six years or longer. I think those on the left are doing a great job of cutting down to the heart of what people in this nation are really angry about and the kind of change that makes sense to them and would make meaningful impact in their lives. I don’t think it’s any wonder they’ve been pitted against each other, and there have been recipients of a lack of coverage versus or an abundance of favorable news coverage. I think the Democratic establishment and the media establishment are scared of these bold ideas that could hurt their bottom line in the status quo.
What changes have you noticed in the immigration community in Athens since Trump enacted the zero tolerance immigration policy?
It’s definitely increased fear of immigrant communities. I’ve heard reports of folks in immigrant communities afraid of going to church, they’re not participating in PTA meetings, they’re paring down the social sphere in which they interact and engage, because they’re scared of leaving their houses. They’re teaching their kids what to do if the adult doesn’t come home from work. The amount of fear that folks are living in is abominable. I’m really proud of Athens for standing up and standing up for the Mexican-American side of the revolution, in support of immigrants and denouncing white supremacy, fighting to ensure that Athens is a safe place to live.
Do you ever experience self-doubt or fear?
I definitely feel defeated sometimes, but it’s important to remember that the tiny gains are better than no gains. And that incrementally and over time, these things are going to matter. It might not be immediately apparent to you how or to whom, but even if it helps one person, than it’s better than if you never acted at all. I also know not to burn myself out.
Sitting on the courthouse steps, Mariah called out to her assisting intern, asking if she was still stuck rewriting Linqua’s Wikipedia page. She nonchalantly explained her page had been overrun by a “right-wing troll,” and that was the end of that conversation. No need to dwell on haters when there are barriers to break as we continue to get better, and better, and better.
Keep your eyes and ears open for Linqua Franqa’s new podcast called “Waiting On Reparations,” an iHeart Media production launching in spring 2020.