For most artists, standing on stage at New York’s Lincoln Center next to a group of celebrities and watching a packed audience as your gear shits ruthlessly would be nothing short of a living nightmare. (Imagine standing there fiddling with your guitar pedal as Alexander Skaarsgard looks on in pity, or fumbling with your soundboard as Maggie Gyllenhaal waits to continue.) For Mariah Parker, however, this no It was just another challenge to face head-on, with no sweat and no excuses. When their laptop stopped working as they were about to perform their soulful cover of the union anthem “Which Side Are You On?” at a star-studded event earlier this month, the Atlanta-based rapper, scholar and organizer simply went a capella.
The result was explosive, and Parker – a black, non-binary southerner who plays Linqua Franqa, their stage name is an appropriate nod to their other life as a linguistics doctor – dominated the scene, all nervous limbs and kinetic energy and rapid fire. couplets. Those same twisting revolutionary rhymes and hyperliterate lyricism shine on their new album, Ringerwith lyrics about capitalism, police brutality, mental health, emotional turmoil and workers’ rights smoothly cutting through alternating slices of Southern hip-hop, neo-soul, indie-pop and moods avant-garde electronics that populate Parker’s expansive musical universe.
Linqua Franqa started after Parker moved to the college town of Athens, Georgia in 2013 and began hosting hip-hop shows and writing his own material. They made some interesting friends (Ringer features a long list of esteemed collaborators, including Jeff Rosenstock, Of Montreal and Angela Davis), and relied on their fascination with words and language to bolster their power as an MC.
“At one point, I was the most feared fight rapper in Athens,” they say, sitting in Bryant Park the day after the Lincoln Center event and tearing up an overpriced salad. “For a brief moment, I could kick everyone’s ass. These boys were afraid of me.
Rapping glory after the battle and before this current era, Parker was best known as Athens-Clarke County Commissioner, a role that involves public advocacy and government oversight. At the age of 26, Parker was sworn in on a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X (obviously the photo went viral); they spent the next four years fighting tooth and nail to bring justice to the people of Athens, especially communities of color. It was often hard work. They achieved great victories, but also felt discouraged after seeing how powerless so many in their community felt to bring about change in their city. “People really felt like they had no power and someone else had to come and fix it, and that weighed on me,” Parker says. The burden finally became too much to bear and they decided to change.
Shortly before our interview, Parker made a career change, going public with his decision to step down as county commissioner and announcing a new gig as an organizer for Raise the Souththe southern arm of the Fight for $15 and a union campaign for workers’ rights. “In the constant turmoil of electoral politics, there’s crisis after crisis, and we’re so stuck in defense mode; it’s so claustrophobic within the bureaucracy that it’s easy to get lost and detached from its values and vision of where this all needs to go,” they tell me. “Everything I have sought to achieve as a politician is always possible with the people in the fights, rather than ceding their power to a supposed representative. And so I decided to go build that, especially starting at the bottom with the fast food workers.
Parker’s pivot to work makes a lot of sense in terms of their goals and politics as well as their music career, which took them in another unexpected direction after the release of the Musical clip for their single “Wurk” earlier this year. They didn’t grow up in a union family or have any experience in the labor movement before writing this song – they learned that by living until 2020. “At the start of the pandemic, watching people get thrown under the bus to save the economy, when people are the economy, and start studying this way of fighting not only against exploitation, but against all kinds of things…”, they say. “It’s not just about fighting for ourselves in our workplace – it can be about fighting for liberation more broadly.”
The radically pro-worker, pro-union, incredibly catchy song and accompanying video garnered more attention for Linqua Franqa. It also electrified labor activists who grew up on beloved but dusty classics from Joe Hill and Pete Seeger but craved a more modern anthem for workers’ rights. With “Wurk”, Linqua Franqa delivers this necessary fire, drawing on the past of work to illuminate its future. The song also made them a darling of the union convention circuit and led them to organize gigs for rallies across the country. Parker appreciates all of this, but they fear being pigeonholed. After all, they contain multitudes.
“I was planning on releasing a new EP this fall, because I have a lot of new stuff, but it was just work songs, purely social justice songs, and it felt a bit inauthentic,” Parker said. “I think it only works when you also show the complexity of who you are as a person. It gets cocky when you lose the fact that I like going out dancing, and I might steal your girlfriend, and I’ve been considering the end. The messy, seemingly apolitical stuff is what humanizes all the other stuff…. I still have internal struggles that I need to process and get out, so I can be a whole person in this. We are all whole people in this fight.
Deep down, is Dr. Mariah Parker a rapper with an interest in activism, or an activist with a knack for hip-hop? According to them, the answer is neither. “I don’t even identify as an activist,” they say. “I think [the idea of] a rapper-organizer is almost somehow redundant. The rappers fill a room full of people to hear about something big, which the organizers need to do. Rappers have to mobilize people to do all kinds of things, whether it’s to live a lifestyle or rep a set, or go fuck someone if they don’t respect your mommy name. They bring people together for all sorts of things inherently. So, rapper? Organizer? Venn diagram. Circle.”
When they finished their performance at Lincoln Center that night, the crowd roared their approval – and when the Laptop Inferno failed again, Parker did it again with their rendition of the immortal freedom song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round’. .” Afterwards, they treated a handful of newly minted fans to selfies before rushing to a rooftop afterparty, suitcases in tow, hoping for a brief moment of calm to call home. They were heading back to Atlanta the next day and had a thousand and one things to fit into their fast-paced schedule. Only one thing was certain: whether they were performing in front of a room full of hip-hop fans, in front of a union hall full of labor faithful, or in front of a handful of well-heeled leftists in Manhattan, Parker remains ready.