Does anyone know how to “keep it real” these days? We compete with each other for the best punchline on Facebook, code ironic asides in hashtags, and parrot raunchy lines from rappers to look hip, so that anyone who REALLY seeks a friend’s expertise only nets in jokes.
Now, Mariah Parker can roll out gags with the best of ‘em. But the Athens-based rapper, known on stage as Lingua Franca, also knows how to cut through bullshit and tell it to ya straight. Her first EP alone (out this Friday) dips into touchy subjects like depression, the stigma of abortion, addiction, and racial stereotypes, with barely a breath in between. And after twice witnessing Parker tear through her set, I knew I needed to drill her for Immersive. Here’s how she redefines “keepin’ it real.”
So where are you from? And what brought you to Athens?
I’m originally from Louisville, Kentucky. I came to visit some old college friends here and loved it so in 2015 I moved here for good.
What music did you listen to growing up?
I grew up listening to mostly classic R&B and soul and Motown. In my middle and high school years, [I] got really into disco and funk. I was angsty as hell, so in high school I also listened to a lot of Modest Mouse, Radiohead, the Mars Volta, and the like. That time was also arguably the height of Lil Wayne’s career, so obviously there was that too.
Is Lingua Franca your first musical/artistic project?
What attracted you to linguistics as a major?
As an undergrad I took a linguistics survey course as an elective and went totally apeshit. I was studying writing and Spanish at the time but suddenly it was like, holy shit, nope, this is the thing I was looking for all along. I read that textbook cover to cover and wouldn’t stop talking about it all semester. The specificity with which linguistics allows you to talk about patterns in language felt so powerful. All your intuitions and hunches — from the reason why certain words work as slant rhymes to the fact you just don’t like something about the way somebody talks — suddenly have very real science behind them.
How did you break into the scene in Athens?
At the end of 2015 I got dumped by this white guy who didn’t know anything about hip-hop. I was livid and in some sort of deluded rebound plot, I booked a show at the World Famous, where I frequently drank, without having any songs prepared. The clock started ticking and in two months I whipped up five songs (“Up Close,” “The Good Feels,” “Breathe In/Breathe Out,” and parts of “Midnight Oil,” among them) and invited the few other rappers and producers I knew at the time to join the bill, and boom. The show was insanely successful, more successful than any of us could have dreamed. (This release marks the one-year anniversary of that show, the first-ever Hot Corner Hip Hop). A few weeks later I performed at a Girls Rock Athens fundraiser and I think from there all these Athens music white people were like, hmm let’s add some diversity to this bill, what about that girl who raps? So I played shows with bluegrass bands and singer-songwriters and experimental electronic artists and synth pop quartets and on and on and on, and here I am today.
What challenges did you run into?
I get this question a lot — and it’s funny, because I actually feel quite lucky in this fucked up way. See, white people run Athens, and I know there’s a number of extremely talented and hardworking hip-hop artists here who receive no credit because shmoozing with white people is scary, and without that they can’t break into the Athens mainstream. Me, though, white people see me and think, “oh, her skin’s pretty light, she must be okay.” They hear me talk and it clicks with them when I articulate my r’s and say “we were” instead of “we was” and use words like shmooze and synth pop.
Don’t get me wrong, I have been met with skepticism. For example, I have definitely been pushed back by venue owners who don’t think that hip-hop promoters (i.e. black people) can bring a lot of people out to a show, etc. On the hip-hop side of things, black men consistently underestimate me and in rap battles being a woman is the first thing that people bring up, or being queer if I’m battling someone who guesses that about me, but I feel like those things just come with the territory. In the end, I’m hyper aware that speaking White Person affords me access to cultural spaces for most people of color are hard to break into and I generally feel both very lucky and very shitty in that regard.
What gripes do you have about Athens audiences (which, I presume, are still primarily white)?
I feel I’ve addressed this pretty thoroughly above. The main other thing is this talk about “the music scene” and “the hip-hop scene.” White people in Athens don’t talk about “the pop scene” or “the post-rock scene.” It’s all just music. But if it’s black music, it’s gotta have a separate drinking fountain and shit. Hip-hop people do it to themselves, too. I get that we have our own specific culture that we’re proud of, but we’re also living in the age of Tyler, the Creator writing hooks about Mac DeMarco, Big Boi making records with Phantogram, and pretty much every pop star trying to get a Kendrick Lamar verse on their Top 40 song, so it’s time people stop talking like it’s not all just music and like we’re not all influencing each other.
How did you connect with all the different producers on the EP?
It’s crazy to think back on it now, but most of these producers I met at my first show. WesdaRuler and Dexx I had heard about through friends of friends and SoundCloud, but it wasn’t until that first show that I decided I definitely fuck with them. Letsruntrack and I also met at that show and he blew everyone’s minds because nobody had heard of him before and it was like, where the hell have you been, man? He just saw the event posted in the paper and showed up and in the weeks and months after suddenly became everybody’s main dude. The guy is super talented and sadly moved to Savannah to start up his career in pharmacy, but he collaborates at a distance with people from all over the Southeast, so we keep in touch a bit still.
Murk daddy flex I actually low-key stalked for about a year. I was in a music video of his in early 2015, and [I] did it mostly hoping that I could meet him, because I’d been a fan of his beats for years. He never showed up at the set, which was a bummer. We connected online and he’d send me beats periodically, but a year went by before I met him in real life. When we did finally meet at his show at the 40 Watt it was supremely anticlimactic. “Hey I’m Mariah! Great set you played tonight! Okay, well…” After I put out the “Gold Bike” demo, producers started sending me beats on SoundCloud for me to play with, and that’s how I linked up with Visual Rich, who lives in France actually.
When were these songs written?
Some of the writing on this EP I have been sitting on for nearly a decade. For example, there’s parts of “Breathe In/Breathe Out” I remember writing in anatomy class in high school. Parts of “Up Close” and “The Good Feels” I wrote in college, I think. Bits of “Eight Weeks” appeared as a spoken word poem I wrote for a Tinkypuss fashion show in 2015. “Gold Bike” and “Midnight Oil” were 2016 spring-and-summer babies. Then “The Con & The Can” kind of tumbled out of me in the days and weeks after the election. So I’d say it’s equal thirds archived shit, shit I wrote in the two months between booking my first show and playing it, and shit I’ve written in spurts over the last year.
And why has it taken until now to release the EP?
Oh god, this fucking question. If I had a dime for every time someone asked me, “So when do we get a project from you?” I would be giving this fucking thing away. Ha. Anyway, the problem’s been that I’ve spent a big chunk of the last year performing constantly and organizing Hot Corner Hip Hop, which takes a surprising amount of effort to pull off well. Additionally, I think people forget I’m in graduate school and sobbing in the library 90% of my time. So there’s been a lot on my plate, but also this timing feels right. You create scarcity and it increases demand. I did that, I think. I also find it satisfyingly circular to be putting this out now, in celebration of a full year passed.
It seems that honesty and humility are priorities in your lyrics (and I’m definitely referring to “The Con & The Can” here, but also “Up Close”). What goals do you have in your writing?
Honesty and humility are huge for me. People talk about “keepin’ it real” all the time, but the black community is ultra hush hush about mental illness, which is the realest thing of all. We’ve seen two big stars, Kid Cudi and Kanye West, get clowned on hard in the last year over mental health struggles, and I think it’s bullshit. If we don’t start talking about and accepting and normalizing our frailty then Worldstar’s not going anywhere, all the hatred we black people have for ourselves and for each other isn’t going anywhere, and it’s just going to fuel the racists who don’t understand us from a distance. So that’s why being brutally honest about my struggles and overcoming them on songs like “The Con & The Can” is important to me. When people come up to me after a show and say, “Hey, I’m really glad you talked about that, I’ve felt the same,” I feel like we’re starting to get somewhere. It’s also cathartic, though. I’m an extremely obsessive person. Getting shit off my chest in this way has literally kept me alive in times I didn’t really want to be alive. So it’s for me, too, in that way.
As far as humility goes, I think humility is also strategic. When you battle rap, whatever obvious weaknesses you have will be the quickest weapons your opponents will draw. So if you go ahead and lay it all out there, like yeah, I talk like I’m white, yeah I’m fucking depressed, you take those weapons away from other people. So that’s a lot of what I’m trying to do on songs like “Up Close,” also.
“Up Close” seems to be about the false assumptions and stereotypes that others make based on race. What common misconceptions have people made about you?
Speaking of which, “Up Close” is partially about assumptions based on race, yes. In it I’m also dealing with how conspicuous I feel in a small white town. The Gaze is uncomfortable and but it’s also a substantial source of identity. So it’s confusing. But it also goes back to what I was saying before about white people. If I had dark skin do you think old white women would be coming up to me like, “Oh, you remind me of the seventies,” and shit? No. No they would not. But because I’m just brown they give themselves gold stars for talking to me like, “Hooray! Look how not racist I was just now!” So I’m dealing with the things people project onto me, sure, but also with how those projections position me in society. So that’s what all the talk about the hair and Angie Davis is about.
In “Eight Weeks,” you touch on abortion, and how that decision is far more complex and terrifying than just the “it’s my body and I can do what I want” stance that feminists assume. Could you expand on that?
I, like many very young feminists, used to laugh at sanctity-of-life anti-choice wing nuts who conflate embryos with living human babies. And I assumed that, with a career to build and the world to see, the decision not to have a kid would be pretty simple, if it ever came to that. “It’s my body, I can do what I want,” is a good catchphrase and all, but the truth is that nobody wants to have an abortion. It’s not fun. And anyone who’s been pregnant, be it for nine months or eight weeks, will tell you that hormones and romantic love and all those kinds of uncontrollable forces are not so easily reasoned through either. You could be the most stoic atheist, then you get pregnant and suddenly believe in magic. You could be a straight A student and suddenly want to kill yourself. It’s a hormonal typhoon.
Logically, the answer seems straightforward, but physiologically, your body is like, “Pop champagne! We’re built for this shit! This is gonna be awesome!” and you can’t stop yourself from sometimes wondering who’s nose the baby would have, etcetera etcetera, even if you “know” what you “have to do.” It’s painful. I wrote “Eight Weeks” because I firmly believe that decreasing the stigma around abortion by telling stories like this will make it so that in the future nobody has to suffer like I suffered. There were people I loved who had gone through this before me, and I was afraid to ask them for help because they’d never told me. I don’t want that for anyone.
Your freestyle compliment act in yr live sets is great — where did that idea come from?
I’m a big fan of this Savannah rapper named Dope KNife, who does this thing where people throw random shit on stage and he makes up a song about what he’s given. So I stole the idea from him, kind of. I’d gotten tired of doing the same old set and wanted to get some audience interaction happening. Plus there’s the humility factor. Putting myself way out on a limb trying to come up with some dope shit off the top of my head is really humbling.
On top of that, even if I fuck it up, my participants always leave feeling stoked, it seems, which makes me happy too. I had a guy the other night say that he’d never come to downtown Athens, even having lived here his whole life, and had never been to a show before. His face was so lit up and excited. It melted my heart. Straight up. Times is hard, and if I can make somebody feel like a celebrity for an evening, then I’ve done my part to make the world a little better, I guess.
In your opinion, how is the state of hip-hop in Athens (and is Flagpole trying harder/hard enough to cover it lately)?
Hip-hop in Athens is robust as fuck, my friend. iGoByGoodie is coming out of here with some mean visuals almost weekly. Increasingly, artists from all over the East Coast and Southeast are trying to book hip-hop shows here because they’ve heard the hype. Recently some friends of mine started putting out their own hip-hop arts and culture zine, which has been a morale booster for those who think the Flagpole doesn’t cover it well.
In my opinion, Flagpole does a great job. The issue, I think, is that they might not have anyone who keeps up with hip-hop well enough to speak in-depth about it, so while we’re getting more coverage, they’re still figuring out what to say. I’m excited for it, though. Hip-hop shows have become more and more frequent and we’re seeing more eclectic bills formed where you might have a rap group sandwiched between a jazz group and a post-rock group or something like that.
I’d like to see more trap artists booking shows downtown, and I’m personally working on getting more local hip-hop artists’ work in the local records stores — the only local hip-hop records carried at Wuxtry Records, I found out recently, are by white artists. So we’ve got to fix that. Ultimately, I feel that if we work on that scene-segregating talk, and get more money into the hands of artists who are working hard, I think Athens hip-hop could blow up big time.
Now that you’ve got the EP under yr belt, what’s next for Lingua Franca?
I finish my Master’s degree in linguistics this May, and to celebrate I’d like to go on tour with my friend Lisa who’s a harpist, hopefully. In the fall I’m starting a PhD program, so summer could be the end of Lingua Franca, I’m not sure. I do research on hip-hop in education, so dabbling in both worlds is essential, but we’ll see if I can keep up this level of engagement — booking shows and writing and recording and cypherin’ with cats — if I’m tryna become a fucking doctor. We’ll see.
Lingua Franca will celebrate the release of her debut EP on Saturday, February 18 at the World Famous. Ishues, Squalle and LG, Wesdaruler, Letsruntrack, and the Pleasure Point will also share the stage. Doors open at 5 p.m. Admission is TBA. 18+ to enter.