Mariah Parker’s next move

The 31-year-old is already a successful rapper, an activist, a PhD, and a former county commissioner in Athens. Now they’ve become an organizer for an ambitious new labor union—and become an Atlantan.


It took a couple weeks of convincing. But there he was: Maurice Haskin had a mic in his hands, standing on an early April afternoon in front of a concrete leviathan—the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration building in downtown Atlanta. Tall, thin, his dreads tied behind him, Haskin warned a gathering of several dozen on the sidewalk: “There’s a safety crisis in the service industry! Workers are getting injured. Workers are getting burned!”

A 27-year-old line cook at a Korean restaurant, Haskin was addressing a crowd of fellow service industry employees—all members of the newly formed Union of Southern Service Workers, or USSW—and their supporters and the media. On the edge stood Mariah Parker, in the union’s bright red and gold T-shirt and baggy, mustard-colored pants, holding a banner that read “Safe Jobs Now.” Parker also wore an easy, warm smile; their large ’fro made them stand out in the crowd.

One of five organizers in Georgia for the new union, Parker had told Haskin weeks before, “People love you. You gotta do it!” He hadn’t spoken in public before. But with Parker’s prodding, he found the courage to emcee the event, firing up a small but spirited group, the first-ever walkout staged by the union representing workers in several Southern states, from Waffle House, dollar stores, and other retail workplaces. Similar actions took place on the same day in Durham and Columbia.

Union organizing, a job that brought Parker to Atlanta from Athens, was just the latest incarnation for the 31-year-old, who’s already made a mark in a variety of spaces: As the rapper Linqua Franqa, they’ve recorded two records that have drawn national acclaim, including last year’s Bellringer. As a scholar, they completed a PhD at the University of Georgia that made connections between rap, education, and political activism. And as an activist, they won a seat on the Athens–Clarke County Commission, where they played a critical role in passing a reparations initiative—a historic first in Georgia—related to the midcentury displacement of Black residents from an Athens neighborhood. On the commission, Parker was also part of successful efforts to build affordable housing, raise the minimum wage, and decriminalize marijuana.

Now they’re at work on what one labor researcher called the “holy grail” of union organizing—the South—at a time when public support for unions nationwide is reaching its highest levels in 70 years. In less than a decade, Parker has become a figure to watch for clues about Georgia’s grinding transformation toward an as yet unclear, multicultural, and perhaps more progressive future—even while often preferring, as on that April afternoon, to stay away from the mic. Their interactions with Haskin revealed something profound about the way they work: They had helped encourage Haskin to step up and lead, addressing a group in search of a common good. “What can we build together?” is a question that guides Parker. But as Haskin animated the gathering of workers that day, another phrase Parker had repeated during several of our conversations also came to mind: “I’m a student of movements.” They were at the rally as an organizer but also as a learner—listening, observing, taking in the voices of workers who were seeking something better.

• • •

Parker grew up outside Louisville, Kentucky, where their mother, Mattie, was a singer—first in a gospel group with her sisters and then as one of the backup singers in a band that toured the Southeast. As a child, Parker would harmonize backstage with Mattie and her colleagues: songs from Sam Cooke, the Drifters. Or Parker would sing in the car with Mattie. There was also singing in Hollis, North Carolina, a rural town in the Piedmont where their grandmother lived, and where Parker spent summers and maintained deep connections.

Although Parker was still too young to vote in 2007, they tagged along as Mattie canvassed neighborhoods around Louisville in support of Barack Obama’s first presidential bid. It was an illuminating experience in a heavily segregated city: In some white neighborhoods, their mother’s car got keyed, and lawn signs were torn down. In other spots they fared better, and the outcome of the 2008 election helped clarify something for Parker: “I realized, I can’t do this by myself, but if we get enough people together, something can get done.”

Mariah Parker

Photograph by Rita Parker

Parker first came to Athens in 2014, visiting a friend who was a graduate student, with a notion that they “wanted to teach writing.” They ended up staying and completing two graduate degrees. Athens, though—particularly the UGA campus, particularly on game days—came as a bit of a culture shock. “Growing up, in my extended family, everyone was Black and Indigenous,” Parker said. At UGA, “for the most part, everyone was white. It was like entering a different world than the one I grew up in.” Among public, state flagship universities, UGA is second nationwide in the size of the gap between its share of Black students and the state’s share of Black high school graduates, according to the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit journalism outlet focused on education. Just 6 percent of the school’s freshman class was Black in 2020, while 36 percent of the state’s high school graduates were Black. Only the University of Mississippi fares worse in this regard.

Parker recalled a young Black comedian in town named Farrah Johnson. “Folks couldn’t tell us apart,” they told me, laughing. “They would say to me, ‘You were funny last night.’ Or, to her, ‘I loved your show last night.’” In this context, the vaunted Athens music scene—at least, the hip-hop version of it—proved a refuge. Fellow rappers—people of color and white folks—bonded over music; some were “living out of cars, in and out of jails, with mental health issues,” Parker said. “I eventually found a friend home, a little more diverse, with cultural things I felt I was missing.” Parker organized shows and participated in battle raps, performing for the first time.

When a friend named Tommy Valentine ran for county commission in 2017, he asked Parker to manage his campaign—their first foray into politics after canvassing as a teen. (Athens and Clarke County operate as a unified governing structure, including a board of 10 elected commissioners.) Valentine’s bid centered on poverty—about a third of the Athens area lives below the poverty line—as well as marijuana decriminalization and free public transportation. When another commission seat soon opened up, Parker decided to go for it, realizing that if both Parker and Valentine were elected, the commission would gain a progressive majority. Valentine didn’t end up winning, but Parker did—by 13 votes.

Mariah Parker

Photograph by Raphaëla Aleman

Then 26 years old, they drew national attention when they were sworn in with one hand raised in a fist, the other resting on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, held by Mattie Parker. Racist attacks and gruesome threats—lynching, arson, rape—followed, on social media and via letters and email; people drove by them in Athens and threw drinks in their face. After the initial maelstrom subsided, the newly elected politician took on a host of real, at times complex policy issues—including a $15 minimum wage, affordable housing, and reparations for the descendants of Linnentown, a Black Athens neighborhood that UGA and the city razed in the early 1960s to make way for student housing.

Hattie Thomas Whitehead is one of just a handful of surviving residents of Linnentown, out of dozens of families affected by the displacement. She’s written a book about growing up there, and what happened to her family and others; they lost not just their connections to a thriving community but the possibility of building generational wealth through property ownership. Now 75, Thomas Whitehead remembers meeting Parker at a forum in 2019, when Linnentown descendants and their supporters had just begun spreading awareness about their experiences. “I didn’t know much about Mariah,” she told me. “But I knew they were interested in social justice. I knew they were their own person.”

Thomas Whitehead worked with Parker on a committee charged with creating a resolution that documented the erasure of Linnentown, acknowledged the injustice, and laid out what reparations would look like. Along the way, Parker grew impatient at times with the pace of fellow commissioners in responding to the resolution. At one early 2020 meeting, they addressed the body with a packed room in attendance: “When we last had a showing like this, it was about cats,” Parker said—specifically, about changes in a local animal shelter. “And you know what we did? We did something. We acted swiftly—to ensure that justice was had—for the cats, y’all.”

It wasn’t just the molasses pace of their colleagues that upset Parker. It was what they saw as the reason behind the delay: seemingly endless debates about language, “nitpicking about, ‘Can we call it ‘white supremacy’ or should we say ‘racial intolerance.’” The experience was “a lesson in power,” Parker told me, including in “what the white supremacist power structure needed to feel okay” about such a historic decision.

Nearly two years later, the commission approved a series of measures developed by Thomas Whitehead and other community members, including $2.5 million set aside for affordable housing and a Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures. When you ask Thomas Whitehead about Parker’s role in the years of work behind the historic resolution—work that continues to this day—she mentions the importance of having someone on the commission who could keep track of where things were and help push them forward. Parker says that was their intention: simply to “show up with what they”—the Linnentown residents—“wanted.”

• • •

Meanwhile, Parker kept working on their music. In late 2021, answering a call on Twitter seeking dancers for an upcoming Linqua Franqa video, Nolan Huber-Rhoades sent Parker a message: “I don’t dance, but I edit videos.” Parker invited Huber-Rhoades, an Atlanta organizer and filmmaker, to visit Athens, where the two went to a queer bar. “I remember there were all these activists, queer organizers, coming and talking to them,” Huber-Rhoades recalled. “They were really just organizing while in office.”

“It was so striking,” he continued. “They had deep relations with the mutual aid group, the Linnentown project, all kinds of people. I had never seen a politician do what I always wished they would do—not on a pedestal, but as part of the people.” The two wound up working together, including on the video for the 2022 song “Wurk,” which recycles Woody Guthrie’s 1930s refrain “Which side are you on?” and Cesar Chavez’s grape-grower rallying cry “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido”: The people united will never be defeated. Huber-Rhoades gushed to me about the song, and Parker’s work generally: “It hits on everything that makes a good political song,” he said. “It’s got the resonant, classic parts of the labor movement, plus a really hard beat and lyricism.”

Courtney Terry, an assistant professor of Black studies at Portland State University, pointed to the baggy, light-blue jumpsuit Parker wears in the video as an example of how they break away from the “hypercommercial” rap commonly associated with Atlanta. Parker’s “aesthetic aligns with their content—rapping about unions, queer love, and so on,” Terry told me. “They’re creating their own lens, how to be involved. It reminds me of the early days of hip-hop, like with the Young Lords and their activism,” she said—referring to the Puerto Rican group, born in 1970s Chicago and New York, that provided healthcare and other services to their communities, and included some of the genre’s early break dancers and MCs.

Music was also at the center of Parker’s doctorate degree, completed at the same time as they were attending monthly commission meetings and attending to the needs of their district. The 2022 dissertation, “Bellringer,” shared a title with Linqua Franqa’s 2022 album; the album lacked the dissertation’s subtitle—“An Autoethnographic Homecoming to Hip-Hop as School-Abolitionist Praxis”—but Parker conceived both in tandem. The third chapter of the dissertation is the recorded album; the second chapter is the annotated lyrics; and the first chapter provides the sociopolitical context and theoretical underpinnings of the project. The idea, Parker told me, is that “there is knowledge in hip-hop, and it can be used as an educational tool in spreading knowledge.” Consulting freedom movements in places as far-flung as Hong Kong and Burma, the text is also grounded in the civil rights and Black Power movements, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s “freedom schools,” which “worked to free youth from the repression that defined their schooling and tooled them to carry that work forward in their communities in the name of liberation.”

The 78-page dissertation was “a really novel thing—a talented hip-hop artist reflecting on their art, how they made it, and why—the sociopolitical context. I could see it being published,” said Ruth Harman, Parker’s dissertation supervisor, a professor in UGA’s Department of Language and Literacy Education. The threads Parker connected included using rap in teaching as a kind of freedom-school praxis. This was not just theory for Parker: A lesser-known part of their packed time in Athens included programs, with Harman, to teach middle and high schoolers using rap as a form of self-expression en route to building collective power. Focusing on schools with large concentrations of students of color, the two reached children who weren’t generally asked about themselves, or what they wanted out of life, and worked with them using a tool they already knew how to use—rap—for articulating their visions. “A lot of times, people are up in their little rooms, doing school,” said Harman, speaking of scholars, generally. “Mariah didn’t. They were doing life.”

• • •

On August 29, 2022, Parker wrote the 45th and final installment of their constituent newsletter, explaining that they’d decided to resign their position: “We all feel it, but many are scared to say it: the Mayor & Commission are elected, but it’s money that governs. Housing cartels buy up whole blocks of Black neighborhoods . . . while families scramble in the face of eviction. The University of Georgia, with a billion dollar endowment and an immensely wealthy Board of Regents, sits pretty by keeping thousands of essential workers in poverty.”

The resignation capped a tumultuous 12-month period: Parker had also given birth to a son named Aesop, graduated with a doctorate, and made the decision to move to Atlanta. “I got so tired in academia,” they told me. “You aspire to tenure—the idea being, if you as an individual strive enough, you’ll be fine. But that’s disconnected from reality. We’re all closer to being fucked at any moment. Instead of, What can we build together?

In the newsletter, they continued, “Our crises are compounding, and leaders are needed in the streets to help build new mass movements insistent on a level of transformation that far transcends what we as commissioners can deliver.” (Not coincidentally, since landing in Atlanta they’ve become involved in the campaign against the controversial police-training facility known as “Cop City,” which has pitted a coalition of residents and organizers against the city’s Democratic leadership, as well as the state and the justice system.) For the “substantive leaps forward in affordable housing and living wages, and smaller but much-needed steps toward a more humane criminal punishment system, like marijuana decriminalization and cash bail reform,” the commissioner gave credit “to the people who organized and insisted.”

Now, as one of five organizers for the USSW, Parker is homing in on “how to seize power for working people.” They’re once again studying movements—this time, in labor. They visit workers gathering shopping carts in parking lots, or getting fries ready for the takeout window. “I go to workplaces and listen to workers talk about how things could be better,” they said. The entry of the USSW into the labor movement complements other regional organizing efforts of Starbucks workers across the South, as well as separate efforts in retail outlets like dollar stores in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Mariah Parker
Parker with their infant, Aesop.

Photograph by Rita Parker

Parker has also been getting to know the city—and observing the distance between the stories Atlanta tells itself and the realities on the ground. “When I drive around and see murals, it’s like the access to history is celebrated, almost commodified.” As they’re “spending my days thinking about pockets of poverty,” there’s a disconnect, they said: “I feel like I’m being told, two plus two equals oranges.” Like the barbershop where Malcolm X hangs on the wall in black-and-white. “But where do you get your food? Or what’s your housing like?”

Where possible, Aesop joins the crowd. At the USSW rally in April, Parker’s partner, Paul Glaze, carried the 20-month-old on his shoulders for a while before passing him off to Parker for the march through downtown. As with everyone, being a parent has also shaped their approach to life. In their dissertation, they wrote about “mortality as a catalytic force in life and in movement-making,” a notion that underlines “one of the album’s main lessons: though some of us will not live to see our people set free, the folks we lose plant the seeds of struggle that will bloom as liberation long after we are gone.” The focus on mortality derives from the imagined possibility of dying at the hands of police or a random racist, as well as from what Parker refers to as their “struggle with self-harming thoughts and behaviors.” Now, however, “if it’s like I feel I wanna give up, like it would be great to not be here—that’s not in my calculus anymore.” They also approach activism differently, by avoiding the sort of direct action protests that might get them arrested. “Once upon a time, it was like, fuck it—someone has to do this. Now it’s like, it cannot be me!”

As for making new music: After touring 20 cities last year, “the sponge is dry,” they said—no new songs on the way, at least for now. In part, that relates to having left the county commission and being able to focus more directly on the issues of working people. “There’s a way it’s stuffy” being in local politics; the experience contributed to a frustration that they channeled into their music. But now they have less need for that kind of outlet, they said: “Now, I get to live my truth.”

This article appears in our June 2023 issue.