The national media know Mariah Parker as the young woman who won election to a Georgia county commission, then took the oath of office with her right fist in the air. But they’re not looking hard enough at the movement she’s part of in a Southern college town.
Story by Alison Miller | Photographs by Sean Dunn
“When I say ‘keepin’ it,’ you say ‘real’!”
Mariah Parker’s voice thunders from the front of the room as some 30 middle-schoolers yell back.
With that few seconds of opening salvo, Parker — wearing worn canvas sneakers, lilac shorts, and a unicorn T-shirt emblazoned with the words “HB2 Can’t Break My Stride” — focuses the attention of a legion of distracted teenagers.
“Today we’re going to work on hip-hop writing,” she shouts. “Everybody listen up.”
She instructs the kids to gather objects from their pockets and backpacks and splay them on the floor. When a pile of Gen-Z bric-a-brac appears before her, she starts freestyling.
“All right here we are / It’s the beginning of the day / I don’t have any words to say / So I’ll eat some off the plate / And I’m not sure if I know what I thought I knew / But it’s okay because I’m gonna talk to you / About this long shoe sitting over here, further over here along the side / Back to back to the next thing that I spy with my little eye.”
Buoying in rhythm around the pile, she crafts rhymes on the fly for a full three minutes. The kids howl in approval, and then she turns over the proverbial mic. They’ve got 10 minutes to write their own verses. The space once again swells with dissonant sound as pens hit paper and fists pound out beats on tables.
Parker, a 27-year-old rapper and Ph.D. student better known by her stage name, Linqua Franqa, is leading a hip-hop songwriting workshop for students of Camp DIVE, a no-cost summer day camp in Athens, Georgia. The crux of the lesson? Sometimes words alone aren’t loud enough to get your message across. If you want people to hear you, add music.
Wishin’ these idiots in Athens would quit with the classism, but I’m really the shitty activist.
’Cause everyone wanna complain ’bout the state of the system,
Congratulate themselves on Facebook for payin’ attention. And homie, I know you’re right, but if nobody mobilizes the noble fight,
Shit, we stayin’ slaves for a century.
“The Con and the Can,” Linqua Franqa, Model Minority
Two weeks later Parker is in another crowded room — this time inside Athens’ Beaux arts City Hall. Sitting behind the rail in a stately chamber, wearing a pressed, button-front shirt, she commands the same attention but with a different gravitas. Here, she’s Commissioner Mariah Parker, the youngest in a group of five new members of the Athens-Clarke County Commission who took office last year.
She leans forward in front of the slim microphone to address then-Mayor Nancy Denson, the commissioners, and the citizens filling the seats below.
“We do have a desperate need for senior housing,” she says. “But we have to encourage senior housing that is accessible to people of varying income levels. And as Dr. Gantt (Athens-Clark County school board member Lakeisha Gantt) pointed out, the proposed development here is not accessible to a lot of people who may be generationally Athenian, and we have to be looking out for those people.”
Her voice is calm and confident, the words served up slowly and clearly. She’s opposing a 55-and-up housing development with an average home price of $300,000 — a proposal rejected in a 7-3 vote that night. Here, Robert’s Rules of Order replace the turntable beat, but Parker’s raison d'être is the same — speaking up for people who are unheard and unseen, and thus un-served.
The photo of her being sworn in on June 5, 2018 — right fist raised high, left hand resting on The Autobiography of Malcolm X — swiftly circulated on the internet. Scathing comments in social media, hate mail, and even death threats followed.
“I had a former police officer suggest to his friend, publicly on Facebook, that brake failure could be made to look like an accident if he were to decide to run me over with his car,” she wrote to me between interviews. “I also had someone say they hoped I'd be ‘raped like they did in the slave days.’”
“I started thinking, maybe I really should not be here,” she told me at a Jittery Joe’s Coffee Shop on the east side of town. But the experience was galvanizing.
“I told myself, ‘You can’t think that way. People need you. You promised them you would fix these things. You can’t go anywhere.’”
In Athens, the easiest topics of conversation — Bulldog football and a music scene that has attracted the national spotlight for almost four decades — overshadow a far less illustrious reality: For a city its size, Athens’ poverty rate is the highest in Georgia and the fifth highest in the country. Even with low- and non-wage-earning college students factored out, these inauspicious rankings hold true.
Worse, as Athens wins praise as a “best place to live” or “best place to retire,” people living in poverty — nearly 40 percent of the city’s 124,000 residents — are pushed deeper into the shadows, ever farther away from lifeline amenities like grocery stores and public transportation.
“The system works really well to mask such things,” Parker says. “If you’re just circling the corridors that are monied and centered culturally, you would never know. And that’s purposeful. The people who are really struggling are hidden.”
Indeed, Athens is a study in segregation. Parker represents District 2, which begins just east of downtown and stretches four miles out, past the city’s defunct regional airport and the Athens-Clarke County Jail. The heart of her district falls into Census Tract 302, where 68 percent of the 4,677 residents are black and 71 percent of children live below the federal poverty line. A mile and a half away in Census Tract 20, where it’s 87 percent white, just 10 percent of children live in poverty.
Riding through District 2 one morning, Parker points out the landmarks. A small commercial area called the Triangle comprises convenience stores with payday loan operations, a shuttered seafood restaurant (only recently replaced by a Caribbean eatery), and an income-tax service office. At the crack trade’s height, this area was so rife with drugs and prostitution it earned the name “The Iron Triangle.”
The studio of artist Broderick Flanigan, a 35-year-old painter who grew up here, sits next to the Hull Law Firm, its window emblazoned with the words “divorce, child support, car accidents, wills, expungements.” Across the street is an Athens-Clarke County Police Department substation — usually unstaffed, according to Parker. Ten days after Parker was elected, Timmy Patmon, a 24-year-old African American man, was struck by a patrol car driven by a rookie white police officer during a chase that culminated here. Nellie B, one of the largest subsidized housing projects in the city, comes up on our left.
“There was a murder there my first week in office,” she says from the passenger seat.
During our driving tour — 9 a.m. on a Friday — it’s quiet. But at night, Parker explains, “there are tons of people loitering. Drug deals going on, people out drinking, homeless folks congregating, kids running around because their parents aren’t watching them.” In other words, conditions proven to breed crime since scholars started studying the relationship between concentrated poverty and criminality more than a century ago.
Dudley Park, the site of the railroad trestle depicted on the cover of R.E.M.’s first album from 36 years ago, is part of the Oconee Rivers Greenway trail. The park encompasses 32 acres just one mile from the Triangle. On one side of the park sits Mama’s Boy, a popular brunch spot where a mostly white crowd can be seen snaking out the door on weekends. Around the corner, a remodeled mill house with custom cabinetry and quartz countertops is on the market for $305,000. Parker speculates as parts of District 2 become gentrified, local government signals keep original residents away so new ones feel more welcome. In Dudley Park, she says, “there used to be basketball courts over there, and they took them away. The message was sent: This isn’t for y'all anymore.”
We turn left on Winterville Road, and the landscape turns rural. An African American man and woman holding the hands of two young children walk in the high grass alongside of two-lane road. We take a right into Spring Valley Mobile Home Park and start talking transportation.
“This is an example of a place that’s super poor, isn’t connected to any bus line, and isn’t walkable to anywhere,” Parker says. “If you have a single-parent home where the parent works two jobs, the kids are just trapped at their houses.”
She tells me that a couple years ago, Walmart wanted to build in the district.
“There was a huge fight between progressive white people in town, who were all like, ‘No Walmart!’ And the people who live here, who were like, ‘Yes! I would love to work somewhere that pays $10 an hour and I can buy vegetables!’” she says emphatically. “Now, it’s luxury student apartments, no jobs were created, there’s no affordable housing, and they still live in a food desert.”
District 2 residents weren’t heard because their voices were too soft, and they weren’t well organized, Parker says. “Which is why it’s so important to me to start organizing folks now as a part of my job, because when it comes time and there’s another Walmart battle, people need to be ready.”
We turn around and drive back toward the Triangle. The family is still walking.
I wish simply givin’ a shit would fix it.
I wish givin’ a shit was as simple as whistlin’ Dixie.
The only way I have to fix it is cashin’ my chips in.
So I guess to fix the system first I have to fix me.
“The Con and the Can,” Linqua Franqa, Model Minority
Parker is just one of hundreds of young people in the South who entered local politics in the wake of the 2016 election. And it’s easy for the national press, which loves a story that will trend in social media, to play Parker up. She’s the one who got sworn in on a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” And she raps!
But it tells us more about the direction of the South to look at how Parker operates on the local level in a college town — and how the movement that brought her and others like her to office plays out on the ground.
In Athens, four other new commissioners — all progressive Democrats and three under the age of 40 — took office in November. A new mayor, 47-year-old Kelly Girtz, replaced 78-year-old Nancy Denson, and the number of African American commissioners increased from one to three. They ran on similar platforms and issues. Fare-free buses, marijuana decriminalization, education, poverty, and inequality were hot topics in the Athens-Clarke County elections of 2018.
“There’s a fervor and a drive — and an unapologetic recognition of the things we need to do,” says Mayor Girtz.
“I think it all goes back to [activist organizations] Athens for Everyone and the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement,” says Blake Aued, who’s been covering Athens politics for 12 years, first at the Athens Banner-Herald and now at Flagpole, the city’s alt-weekly. “There’s a movement here that has gotten people who weren’t involved in the process before — especially young people and people of color — more involved.”
Parker’s involvement started in February 2017 when she established the People’s Power Happy Hour at the World Famous, a downtown Athens bar and music venue. Armed with a backpack stocked with postcards and stamps, she set up an informal information booth to clue people in on upcoming Georgia House and Senate bills and coach them on writing to their representatives.
Five months later, Tommy Valentine, a local hip-hop artist and activist running for the District 9 commissioner seat, asked her to manage his campaign. Seven months after that, longtime commissioner Harry Sims resigned to enter the mayoral race. Sims represented District 2 — the district Parker lives in. Parker and Valentine talked about the opportunity, and he inspired her to believe she could win.
Two days after performing in a fundraising concert for Girtz’s mayoral campaign, Parker and Girtz took a long walk down the Oconee Rivers Greenway trail. Girtz encouraged her to run. With just 12 weeks to campaign, Parker announced her candidacy. Her opponent, 28-year-old Taylor Pass, had deep roots in District 2 and close ties to Sims. Parker, in contrast, had lived in Athens for only five years. She won by just 13 votes.
Little cute, little stupid. Little brash and erratic.
Little bit of a nuisance, like bats in the attic.
Speakin’ of which, if I’m the shit then I’d have to be batshit.
Feel my screws getting’ looser till I’m strapped in a jacket.
Got a case of the basket and scar tissue to prove it
and just because I’m honest ’bout it, it’s startin’ a movement.
“The Con and the Can,” Linqua Franqa, Model Minority
Parker grew up in suburban Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of a UPS pilot father and a mother whose career as a traveling gospel and R&B singer was cut short because of lupus. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and she lived with her mother in an apartment complex in La Grange, an outer suburb of Louisville where many kids lived in homes with minimal or nonexistent parental involvement.
“Some had been abandoned by their families and were selling drugs to feed themselves,” she says. “Others were the children of truckers who were gone all the time, so they basically lived alone.”
Depression and anxiety-riddled during her early adolescence, Parker first experimented with drugs as a middle-schooler. Panic attacks came in high school, but she never sought treatment. As an undergraduate at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, Parker became addicted to prescription amphetamines and succumbed to self-destructive levels of drinking. She moved to Athens in 2013 with her then-boyfriend. After they broke up, she experienced what she calls “a deep dip.” Music, she says, lifted her out.
The term lingua franca means common language — a universal way for people to communicate. For Parker, that language is hip-hop. Between studies for her master’s degree in linguistics and shifts at Bel-Jean Copy & Print Center, she got to work writing the songs on her debut album, Model Minority.
Arguably, Parker got her first training as a community organizer by trying to get Athens rappers the notice they deserve. She started freestyling at a hip-hop night held at Nowhere Bar, a dive bar/pool hall, but her frustration at hip-hop’s minimal presence downtown led her to assemble local artists for the first Hot Corner Hip-Hop show in February 2016. Under that billing, hip-hop artists in Athens have now performed on nearly every downtown stage.
The tracks on her album are political calls to action and portholes to her personal life. Suicidal thoughts and self-harm in “Up Close.” Self-preservation and politics in “The Con and the Can.” A feminist’s complex despair after an abortion in “Eight Weeks.” She’s lived through all that, and she’s not afraid to talk about it — or rap about it on a stage in front of hundreds.
“I don’t take it back,” she says. “These things I’ve gone through, people go through them, and I know about it now. I have empathy. I can understand what they’re going through when I’m making decisions for them, which is what policymakers do.”
On stage, Parker is hyperkinetic and unflinching. She masterfully harnesses the crowd, maintaining a powerful connection. It’s a skill she doesn’t leave at the door when she enters City Hall.
“Knowing when to stand my ground and when to flex — as it were, in hip-hop terminology — but also being able to read the room, to gauge the eye contact or lack thereof, and the body language, for what we need to move the conversation forward, a lot of those skills have come with me to the political stage. You have to sense that energy in order to know which lane to take next.”
You see that girl on that gold bike, that gold bike that that girl rides?
That girl writes such cold rhymes that girl might go worldwide.
“Gold Bike,” Linqua Franqa, Model Minority
Parker keeps a packed schedule. The week after she declared her candidacy, The New York Times’ veteran music critic Jon Pareles included her in his “17 Acts that Stood out at SXSW (South by Southwest).” Last summer, she performed in Seattle, Alberta, Atlanta, and Birmingham and hosted the Flagpole Music Awards in Athens. She just wrapped up her second year as a Ph.D. student of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia, where she’s working on a thesis about freestyle rap an undervalued form of literacy.
There are meetings with policy researchers, meetings with students, and commission meetings, which sometimes keep her at City Hall until nearly midnight. In January, she traveled to New York for the YEO (Young Elected Officials) Network Women’s Conference, and to her alma mater, Warren Wilson College, to deliver a keynote speech and performance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In March, she performed again at South by Southwest. Sometime this spring, she’ll release a single that raises money for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America — a springboard, perhaps, for a second full-length album.
Every month, she and a handful of volunteers deliver copies of District 2 News, a newsletter she created and manages, to residents. She knocks on doors, puts the folded paper into the hands of the people who live there, and starts conversations about the stories inside — all of them written by community residents. It’s a “simple partnership offering” Parker believes will strengthen ties.
“Once people gain a sense of the power of their voice through being widely read and heard, they might be more willing to engage. So when it’s time to take critical action on a matter that’s pressing for the community, those people know it’s not just some random person asking them to link arms. It’s us. You remember us.”
Once a week, she spends half a day at Athens’ Cedar Shoals High School, where she recently kicked off a two-year project inspired by another of her favorite books, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers.
“She writes about creating many good leaders, and how important that is to any good movement,” Parker says. It’s a concept she plans to effectuate at a local high school whose racial disparities in discipline and student achievement made local headlines last year.
“Cedar Shoals High School is a place where a lot of people might not see themselves as the next leaders,” Parker says. “A lot of kids have a lot of creativity and don’t like how things are, but don’t really have the civic literacy skills to make their voices matter to people in power.”
She recently secured grant funding to pair graduate-student mentors with high-school students enrolled in a peer leadership class. The goal? To make their voices louder. To validate their life experiences, sharpen their skills, boost their confidence, and give them what they need — be it equipment, contacts, or a platform — so they can convince someone of their views at, say, a county commission meeting.
On a Tuesday in late January, Parker sits at the dining table in her living room, drinking coffee and wearing a new black hoodie. On the front, the words “Better and Better” repeat themselves in a circle surrounding a fist.
We get together
It’s gonna be better
… and better
… and better
… and better.
They are lines from the call-and-response she uses on stage after performing “The Con and the Can.”
“I know. It’s really lame that I’m wearing my own sweatshirt,” she says, shaking it off before turning reflective. “I want people to believe that it’s going to get better and better. The whole song is about starting from within and working your way out, in terms of bettering the world. Start with you. You get better, and then you start tackling the problems in your immediate vicinity, and then those get better, and then, through that, we’re better positioned to make the world better on a state level, national level, and onward. I say it a lot, also to convince myself that it’s true. It’s a theme, I would say, in everything I do.”