For most artists, standing on stage at New York’s Lincoln Center next to a gaggle of celebrities and staring out into a packed audience as your gear unceremoniously craps out on you would be nothing short of a living nightmare. (Imagine standing there fiddling with your guitar pedal while Alexander Skaarsgard looks on with pity, or fumbling with your soundboard as Maggie Gyllenhaal waits to go on.) For Mariah Parker, though, it was just another challenge to be met head-on, with no sweat and no apologies. When their laptop stopped working right as they were about to perform their stirring cover of the labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” during 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 queer, Black, nonbinary Southerner who performs as Linqua Franqa, their stage name a fitting nod to their other life as a linguistics PhD — dominated the stage, all sinewy limbs and kinetic energy and rapid-fire couplets. Those same tongue-twisting revolutionary rhymes and hyperliterate lyricism shine on their new album, Bellringer, with lyrics on capitalism, police brutality, mental health, emotional turmoil, and workers’ rights smoothly cutting through the alternating slices of Southern hip-hop, neo-soul, indie-pop, and avant-garde electronic vibes that populate Parker’s extended musical universe.
Linqua Franqa started after Parker moved to the arts-heavy college town of Athens, Georgia in 2013 and began organizing hip-hop shows and writing their own material. They made some interesting friends (Bellringer features a laundry list of esteemed collaborators, including Jeff Rosenstock, Of Montreal, and Angela Davis), and drew on their fascination with words and language to bolster their power as an MC.
“At one point, I was the most feared battle 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 point in time, I could kick everybody’s ass. Those boys were scared of me.”
Post-battle rap glory and prior to this current era, Parker was best known as an Athens-Clarke county commissioner, a role that involves public advocacy and government oversight. At the age of 26, Parker was sworn into office on a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X (of course 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. This was often a difficult job. They notched some big wins, but also felt disheartened after seeing how disempowered so many of their community members felt to bring change to their city. “People really felt like they had no power, and that someone else had to come fix it, and that weighed on me,” Parker says. The burden eventually became too heavy to bear, and they decided to make a change.
Shortly before our interview, Parker switched careers, going public with their decision to resign as county commissioner and announcing a new gig as an organizer for Raise Up the South, the Southern arm of the Fight for $15 and a Union workers’ rights campaign. “In the constant churn of electoral politics, there’s crisis after crisis, and we’re so stuck in defense mode; it’s so claustrophobic within the bureaucracy, it’s easy to lose your way and become untethered from your values and your vision for where all of this needs to be headed,” they tell me. “All that I have aimed to achieve as a politician is still possible with the people in the fights, rather than them relinquishing their power to a supposed representative. And so I decided to go build that, particularly starting at the bottom with fast food workers.”
Parker’s pivot towards labor makes a lot of sense in terms of their goals and politics as well as their musical career, which took them in yet another unexpected direction after the release of the music video for their single, “Wurk” early this year. They didn’t grow up in a union family or have prior experience in the labor movement before writing that song — they learned about it from living through 2020. “During the early time of the pandemic, watching people get thrown under the bus to save the economy, when the people are the economy, and starting to become a student of that way of fighting not only exploitation, but all sorts of things…” they say. “It’s not just fighting for ourselves in our workplace — it can be fighting for liberation more broadly.”
The radically pro-worker, pro-union, impossibly catchy song and its accompanying video gained 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 have been hungry for a more modern workers’ rights anthem. With “Wurk,” Linqua Franqa delivers that necessary fire, drawing from labor’s past to illuminate its future. The song has also made them a darling of the union convention circuit and nabbed them hosting gigs for rallies across the country. Parker appreciates all of this, but they are wary of being sorted into any one specific box. After all, they contain multitudes.
“I was contemplating putting out a new EP this fall, because I have a lot of new stuff, but it was all labor songs, purely social justice songs, and it felt somewhat inauthentic,” Parker says. “I think this only works when you also show the complexity of who you are as a person. It becomes pushy when you lose out on the fact that like, I love to go out dancing, and I might steal your girlfriend, and that I have contemplated 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 get to be a full person in this. All of us are whole people in this fight.”
At heart, is Dr. Mariah Parker a rapper who’s interested 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 kind of redundant. Rappers fill a room full of people to hear about something important, which is what organizers have to do. Rappers have to mobilize people to do all kinds of things, whether that’s to live a lifestyle or rep a set, or go fuck somebody up if they disrespect your mama name. They bring people together for all sorts of stuff inherently. So, rapper? Organizer? Venn diagram. Circle.”
When they finished their performance at Lincoln Center that night, the crowd roared its approval — and when the infernal laptop failed again, Parker did it all over again with their take on the immortal freedom song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” Afterwards, they indulged a handful of newly-minted fans with some selfies before dashing off to a rooftop afterparty, suitcases in tow, hoping for a quick moment of quiet to call home. They were headed back to Atlanta the next day, and had a million and one things to fit into their rapidly evolving schedule. Only one thing was certain: whether they’re performing to a roomful of hip-hop fans, to a union hall full of labor movement faithful, or to a passel of well-heeled Manhattan lefties, Parker stays ready.