Linqua Franqa - Keepin' it real in the street, the classroom and on the campaign trail

by Jon Burke Rating: Release Date:
Linqua Franqa
Linqua Franqa

As a community, Soundblab writers couldn’t be more different in terms of individual music tastes. Though we’re a wholly eclectic bunch, it’s a rare album that catches our collective ear—especially when it comes to hip hop. That said, Model Minority, the debut album from Mariah Parker, a.k.a. Linqua Franqa, grabbed our attention and wouldn’t let go. Existing at the nexus of innate ability, rigorous practice, academic analysis, explosive outrage and surgical precision, Linqua Franqa truly is what many rappers can only claim to be: extraordinary.

Throughout Model Minority, Parker gives clear, poetic voice to the litany of psychological, sociological and ontological problems which have come to define 2018. She does so, in an almost comedic fashion, by first laying bare all her own fears, insecurities and shortcomings, before quickly shifting focus toward the violence, hypocrisy and malice lying at the heart of our gender, racial and class struggles. Rarely has a record this intensely personal been so applicable to society at-large.

In the spirit of “keepin’ it real”—Model Minority’s through-line—Soundblab rang-up Ms. Parker and dove deep into all things Linqua Franqa. The conversation was enjoyable, enlightening and ultimately gave us hope that, despite recent rumors to the contrary, there is a sequel to Model Minority in the works. We also got into linguistic theory, artistic identity and staying sane in the face of virulent racism, sexism and grad school. Plus, we were happy to learn that Mariah Parker may soon be coming to a ballot box near you! She’s certainly got our vote.

 

Soundblab (SB): Will you define what a lingua franca is for our readers? Is it the same thing as a pidgin? Why did you choose that moniker? Also, when and why did you change from “Lingua Franca” to “Linqua Franqa?”  

Mariah Parker (MP): A lingua franca is a language used to communicate across cultural boundaries. A pidgin can be a lingua franca, but not all lingua franca are pidgins. English is a lingua franca, thanks to imperialism and the Internet. I think hip hop is a lingua franca, too. Lingua franca also means frank language or frank tongue in Spanish and Portuguese. Given the ubiquity of the phrase in linguistics, anthropology, and various romance languages, I also wanted to adopt the two-q's to differentiate myself. I want my music to be a lingua franca, but it's also my music. 

 

SB: So how does hip-hop relate to imperialism?

MP: The desire for a sense of unity amongst the African diaspora has made hip hop very appealing to people of African descent in a variety of countries. Thus imperialism and colonization relate to hip hop in that way. In terms of cultural imperialism, both the global dominance of American media and the internet creating access to American cultural products—including hip hop—have furthered the reach of imperialism. This despite the fact that the original creators of hip hop are themselves pawns in an imperialist game.

 

SB: Do you see a way for hip hop to become a part of the solution [to imperialism /colonialism] or is a solution even possible?

MP: Yes, hip hop is very powerful for creating counter-narratives and so people who have always been defined by the dominant group can find a voice and a way to tell their own story and to define themselves. You see that [redefinition] in the way hip hop is taken up in a lot of other contexts. In the African diaspora, in Brazil, parts of Asia… Nationally, hip hop has always existed for the creation of counter-narratives and also for keeping traditions alive in the face of white supremacy and cultural hegemony is really powerful within hip hop. As an educator, I feel like hip hop has potential to be force for education and an inspirational tool in that regard as well.

 

SB: Online press coverage on Linqua Franqa describes her as a “hip hop project,” or a “stage name” depending upon the article. Where is the line between Mariah Parker and Linqua Franqa? Images/footage of you from live shows suggests Linqua Franqa has a big stage persona. Is Linqua Franqa a Ziggy Stardust or Sasha Fierce type alter ego? Does Linqua Franqa have more, or different, agency from your own? 

MP: Mariah Parker to me is water to fish: invisible, inevitable. Commonplace. There's no line between us, but rather LF is what I see when I squint hard at that water and really take stock of it.

The project of identity construction is constant and multifaceted for all of us. That's why it makes sense to me to call LF a project-- it's an identity that I'm a little more conscious of building with the way that I move and speak, the things I choose to say and how I choose to say them. I think LF is constrained by various gazes in some ways-- the male gaze, the white gaze-- but liberated in other ways, and it's very, very blurred territory. I can't ordinarily crawl and flail all on the ground or grab people by their collars and growl in their faces, so regardless of why I do it or for whom, I guess I would say LF has more agency than me.

 

SB: You mentioned that being Linqua Franqa gives you the opportunity to “squint” and scrutinize your life. You also mentioned the inverse which is that while being Linqua Franqa, on-stage, you’re the recipient of various kinds of gaze: gendered gaze, racialized gaze, etc. which are not necessarily welcome. How do you parse that dichotomy? 

MP:  I don’t think I spend enough time truly breaking down what I feel pressured to do as a performer, to look a certain way, to dress a certain way, to move in a certain way versus what feels natural on stage. When I first started, I got a lot of interesting comments from dudes who because I was the only female in hip hop [in the area] at the time would say things like, “You know it’s really interesting that you don’t try to be sexy” and I wasn’t trying to so I didn’t really care that much.

These days I feel a little more pressure to look like a performer—not like I just came from the library in my pajamas. I don’t think I interrogate that pressure enough… like, why is that so, other than its kind of fun and maybe the fun is innocent? Maybe the fun is playing into certain expectations and playing with stereotypes creates a kind of satisfaction or validation because of the cultural dominance?

I don’t really know. I don’t think about it enough but I definitely know it’s there. Being on stage involves playing with those lines. I might get a little more dressed-up than my everyday work clothes but, also, I engage in [stage antics] that kind of freak people out like hissing and growling and grabbing them by the collar or throwing things that might disrupt some behavioral stereotypes as well.

 

SB: Living in a college town myself, I assume that a lot of the local hip hop audience is white, which probably changes the [performer-audience] dynamic too. Are you ever reluctant to perform because of the complicated gendered, racialized dynamics?

MP: When I am performing for white audiences, the gaze makes me feel like an animal caught in a cage sometimes. I am often treated as such because of what people think they can say to me or touch my hair… So I do feel comfortable being a little more aggressive and combative on-stage since that is how I am positioned in the white world; in academia and the music scene. Performing for black audiences, where there is not that dynamic, is hip hop in its purest sense—hip hop for hip hop’s sake. I feel like my hand is forced when performing for white audiences.

Self-deprecation is part of the music I make. My lyrics talk about myself in that way all the time. Sometimes I embrace fetishization because, fuck it. Fuck who I am, fuck what I try to be, because it’s all bullshit. This is secretly how I feel all of the time.

 

SB: That’s one thing I think is incredibly different about your rhymes, the self-deprecation. The self-deprecation, particularly among male artists, seems like a bridge too far for most rappers. There’s very little ability to be self-critical because if one shows any weakness it provides an opportunity for others to attack. And you’re, on the other hand, just super open about everything and willing to goof around and it is just so refreshing.

MP: My attitude is “Come at me, bro! No one can kick my ass like I can”. If someone is going to talk shit about me, I’ll talk shit about myself and take all their ammo away. Then what are they going to do?

 

SB: The beats and samples on Model Minority have this lovely dusty, vintage quality to them. It’s reminiscent of early RZA or Pete Rock at times. Do you make your own beats? Who handles your production? What was the recording process like for you? Do you have a dream producer you’d like to work with someday?

MP: Production is handled by a slew of folks, mainly Letsruntrack (of Savannah), Murk Daddy Flex and Wesdaruler (both of Athens). For the remixes, I had the pleasure of sitting with Wes in the studio and tinkering around with the samples to get the tracks we ended up with, which was the first time we really operated like a band. It was a dream. My dream producers might be Blockhead or J-Zone or El-P, but I'm honestly honored to work with Wes and foresee myself doing so for a long time to come. 

 

SB: You confront race, gender and sexuality directly throughout Model Minority—all targets of hate speech and controversy at present. Have you encountered opposition to your message? Has the Trump era been inspiring your art or is the chaos and violence too distracting?

MP: I haven't actually encountered much opposition, and it has surprised me. At least, any haters I have are smart enough not to talk shit near me. As for Trump, most black people will tell you that things were this bad way before he came along, it's just white folks who are suddenly aghast—so I honestly feel that it hasn't changed much for me, creatively. The continued normalization of black death, like the deaths of Trayvon and Tamir Rice, and the story of girls like Latasha Harlins, has been far more catalytic. 

 

SB: In an era when everyone is expected to be woke, and to declare a position on every issue, how do you negotiate hip hop’s more misogynist, or homophobic, roots? How do you approach the genre’s classic tracks like Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” or, say, most of Eminem’s career? In this hyper-reactive political climate, I’m curious how you stay true to your art.

MP: You just have to engage in battle with the fuckshit, just like when you're in the cypher, only extemporaneously. The tradition of verbal dueling is so central to hip hop, so I don't feel one has to straight up disavow other hip hop artists who are misogynists or homophobes. It's a matter of entering the conversation with them on some shit that embarrasses them into thinking twice or at least complicates what they thought they knew. 

 

SB: Have you ever had to embarrass someone into rethinking their position? How did that playout?

MP: You’ve got to be really honest and own that in terms of lyricism, and ferocity of delivery, where there is nothing more they can say about it. I’ve been in battles where someone would flippantly say they were going to rape and kidnap my daughter. And I came back at them with the fifteen-to-life they would serve for that shit and bring some reality to the [outlandish] things that people say which tend to not mean much.

I don’t really battle too much anymore but, when someone wants to attack you for who you are, you have to show them you have the verbal tools to dismantle their whole argument and that those categories of repression will not stop someone from being equal [in the cypher].

 

SB: Can you talk about substance use/abuse? Drugs are a frequent topic on Model Minority and I’m curious about the role they play in your life. I imagine frequently staying up late is vital to completing an MA in linguistics. Weed also gets brought up but not nearly to the same extent as uppers. What role do drugs play in your life/art? The stigmas around mental health are obviously problematic and difficult to overcome but you seem fearless when talking about anxiety and depression. How do you cope with stress and anxiety? Does it impact your art? Do you see mental health issues artistic fodder or do they complicate and impede art? Both at once?

MP: I'm very happily not on drugs anymore. Along with making music, kicking hard drugs has seen a slow and steady improvement of my overall mental health, which is wild to me since once upon a time I just assumed suicidal ideation and the like were just who I was as a person. Drugs have forever changed me, as have depression and anxiety, but I am actually glad to have experienced these things. A lot of people do experience them and so I feel in communion with something important about the human experience. 

Being overwhelmed is my art, or at least my toolbox. I am glad to have found daily practices which help--meditation, sobriety, turmeric, St. John's Wort, long walks—but the day I resolve my emotional problems completely is the day I stop making music. 

I also feel that depression and anxiety and addiction are ecological. The environment created for you if you're black can just depress you. Same for being a lady. Same for being queer. It's unlikely that I'll ever stop making music because it's going to be a very, very long time before we have a society that doesn't produce suicidal, anxious, addicted people. Until that day, I'll have to deal with it somehow.

 

SB: So, ultimately, would you prefer an artless life free of adversity or would you rather continue the struggle, as is, and keep-on making brilliant, inspired hip hop?

MP: I need the struggle. I’ve lived my whole life in struggle and, pathologically, I just can’t let it go because it’s all I know. So, I choose the turbulence. As crazy as that seems, as even though I find it hard sometimes to keep my head above water, emotionally… It depends on how busy I am too. If things are chaotic in my personal life I will take on more challenges to remain busy. That’s my reality.

 

SB: So do you see society as making progress over time or do you take the Foucauldian worldview in which progress is just a construct that we apply to our time?

MP: I think for the sake of my mental health, I have to believe progress is possible. Though I also see how progress is a construct. I’ve got to believe progress is possible and, even if it isn’t, we aren’t excused from working toward it anyway. I’ve felt what it is like to believe progress is impossible, and to not try for it, and I would always prefer to try.

 

SB: What role do politics play in your life? I looked on your Facebook page and it appears you’re managing the campaign of a local political candidate. What drew you to the candidate/campaign? How do you make time for the rigors of a campaign, grad school and a music career? Model Minority is both personal, and political, like all the best hip hop. How do you negotiate the edgy bluntness of hip hop while remaining true to your own personal identity(ies?) and politics? 

MP: Tommy Valentine, the candidate I work for and my best friend (who is having his first kid today!), was also a hip hop artist years ago. When we met a show about a year and a half ago we hit it off immediately talking about the parallels between political organizing and show-promoting-crowd-moving and how weird it felt to be PhD students who were heavy in the local hip hop culture at the same time. I don't make time for it all, I am a shitty student for sure, but I try my best and loving the work that I do helps. Also, I think politics needs the bluntness of hip hop. We don't need things spun and softened, we need truths and we need people who will speak them loudly. I don't see a need to negotiate or feel any pressure to stay true to myself, because I am myself and it's non-negotiable. And I hope more minoritized folks who feel the same will embrace politics in this way too.

 

SB: In one article there was a suggestion that Linqua Franqa might be over soon because you’re going after your Ph.D. Is that still the plan? Has the reaction to Model Minority swayed you at all in another direction? Speaking for myself, and everyone at Soundblab, I know there is more than passing critical interest in another Linqua Franqa record!

MP: There was a time where I thought I couldn't balance it all. It's still a constant struggle, but it feeds my writing process, so new songs are definitely emerging, though I imagine they'll need some time to cool and gel, as Model Minority did. I didn't expect my music to resonate with folks as much as it has, or at all, so you're right, that's convinced me to stay and fight a little longer. Also, fun fact! I wrote much of Model Minority in the poisonous miasma of a brutal break-up, and I was recently dumped again (hooray!) so can promise you there will be another LF record, probably sooner than later. :') 

 

SB: I love that term, “poisonous miasma”. Are you too close to the break-up at this point to talk about it, write or rhyme about it? Or is this where you thrive? Do you prefer to be raw and just tear into it or do prefer space, time and clarity before digging into it?

MP: I like to be raw about it and just go-in on it and other people. It might be a year later though before I figure out where it fits in the song. It might just be eight bars or snippets floating around in my head. It might be a while before all coalesces into something that tells a story. I’m writing a lot right now but I recognize the process and I don’t have to push myself to try to have songs yet. Right now is the time for raw, churning-out of verses.

 

SB: This isn’t a question but I just wanted to say how much I loved your Abortion is a Miracle shirt [as seen in the “Eight Weeks” video]. 

MP: You used to be able to buy them from the Magnolia Fund and proceeds went to help women get financial and practical support for their procedures in Georgia. It's a shame you can't still.

 

SB: So, final question. Thus far, what has been the most-rewarding or most-gratifying moment of your artistic career?

MP: I grew up in a rural part of Kentucky at the time when downloading shit for free on the internet became cool. Discovering the music of Of Montreal was one of the most important things for me as a young adolescent. It was the most fantastical, transporting musical experience for me. When I got to open for them [Of Montreal], last summer, at Athfest was a huge deal for me. That was my first really big show, in front of 500-600 people or something. Even though we are so different, stylistically. Just knowing that eleven or twelve year old me would have never imagined that moment—even to be possible—because I wasn’t even trying to be a rapper back then!

 

As we wrapped-up, Parker informed us that she is seeking public office, having decided to run for County Commissioner in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia. Parker’s progressive platform involves increasing access to public transportation and adult education programs in addition to improving communication between law enforcement and the community it serves. If you’d like to get involved with Parker’s campaign as a volunteer, donor or supporter, please visit: http://www.mariahforathens.org/

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