Dr. Mariah Parker, AKA Linqua Franqa, Diagnoses Schools With A Bad Case Of Prison Conditioning

Imagine abolishing schools, says the rapper, scholar, union organizer, and former county commissioner
"School is a lot like prison," says Mariah Parker, here performing as Linqua Franqa (Credit: Heather Nigro)

Bundled against Atlanta’s crisp late December air, I meet Dr. Mariah Parker, AKA rapper Linqua Franqa, at a hip coffee shop in Grant Park. A gentrifying, touristy neighborhood with new breweries and bourgie food, Grant Park also has attractions like the city’s oldest park and Zoo Atlanta.

Parker (they/them), 31, who until now I’ve only seen on stage performing in Athens, GA, where I live and they used to, waits for me in a yellow ball-cap pulled tight and high while starting on food-truck tacos. The contrast to the Lingua Franqa stage persona – wide-eyed, free-fro’d, amped, pontificating – is striking, but Parker isn’t here to perform.

Parker is here because they have a vision: to use language – beyond the mic – to help people. I’m here to understand that vision and what it might have to do with hip-hop.

Parker made national headlines in June, 2018, when they were sworn in as a county commissioner for Athens-Clarke County in Athens, Georgia, with their left hand on The Autobiography of Malcolm X and their right raised in a fist.

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Before this, Lingua Franqa already had recognition in hip-hop circles. February 2018 saw the release of the first Lingua Franqa album, Model Minority, a sophisticated aural exploration of self, race, mental health, and social justice supported by a sound and groove reminiscent of 1990s neo-soul but powered by Parker’s cunning language and flow. That year also saw Parker start a doctoral program in Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia after finishing a Masters in Linguistics at the same school a year before.

If much was sown in 2018, then 2022 was a year of reaping. April saw the release of the second, long-anticipated, full-length Linqua Franqa album, Bellringer. In August, Parker not only completed their graduate program and received the title of “doctor,” but also resigned from the Athens-Clarke County Commission to commit to greater activism (and hopefully less death threats). Parker then moved to Atlanta.

The media often overlooks the complicated, multifaceted human being that Parker is, instead selectively zeroing in on whichever of Parker’s identities – politician, rapper, graduate student – that’s deemed newsworthy at the time. But Parker sees all these selves as working together towards the same goals.

(Credit: Heather Nigro)

I’ve driven two hours in mostly dense traffic to be here, but Parker – whose career I’ve followed for some years now – is such a compelling conversationalist that I don’t even think to get a drink for the first half hour of our talk, which roams through a Kentucky upbringing, formative college years in North Carolina, how schools are like prisons, how the education system could be reformed, and much more – including hip hop.

SPIN: You’re originally from Kentucky?

Parker: Yeah. I’m from Louisville, Kentucky [but] I don’t really remember a ton. I left when I was 17. I only found out that it was cool when I got older and other people were like, “Oh, Louisville; they have a great music scene. Oh, it’s quirky, and, you know, da da da da da.” So I’ve trusted people’s feedback but I didn’t get to experience any of the cool things: things that, for example, drew me to Athens [Georgia]: like the music scene; like a walkable city where you could go places as young person without a car.

And so, you left Louisville for college?

Yeah. For Warren Wilson in Asheville, North Carolina. I wanted to go since my extended family is from North Carolina; I was drawn back to the homeland.

And I was particularly drawn to the [college’s] work program. It was really cool that folks could work at the school while taking classes, and in a variety of different functions. You could learn to help in the mechanic shop [for example] where folks would work on the school vehicles. What I ended up doing [was] working in the writing center as a tutor, and in the print shop: learning how to print the big binders of texts that people get from their professors; helping coordinate student activities, and run the student newspaper — all these things I ended up getting to do. Then there’s a culture of service on campus where folks are always finding ways to help out around the community.

I was really drawn to the idea of a triad of ways to learn [study, work, and service to the community].

I’ve read about Warren Wilson in that context, this wonderfully progressive style of education, and I’m wondering how that experience at Wilson set up what became your future understanding of education in general?

Absolutely: not just thinking about experiential education but living it.

Like learning about the surrounding rural communities where the kids that would do Big Brothers and Big Sisters came from, through hanging out with them, playing ping pong with them, and inventing makeshift sleds with them to go down the hills together and hear their stories.

Through doing insulation work on trailers that were falling apart in some of the surrounding communities. Things like that as a way to get to really understand the environment beyond just the majesty of the mountains and the forest, but the real durable poverty that folks in a rural context are dealing with is very different than what you imagine in an urban center.

Then also learning through work — in my experience at the writing center — how impactful writing well is to how one is perceived intelligence-wise.

A lot of students would come in who I would talk to about their ideas for their papers, and they were brilliant. They’re clearly incredibly smart people, but they were getting all these bad grades on their papers [which were] making them feel dumb — because they weren’t articulating themselves well with prose.

And so, realizing folks know so much, folks know so much already: they’ve taught themselves so much. They’ve learned so much from here and there, but how is that learning then exhibited to others or manifest to others and how does that influence everything? That inspired my decision to go into language education.

(Credit: Heather Nigro)

Can you talk about your Masters thesis: “Flipping the script, jousting the mouth: a systemic functional linguistic approach to hip hop discourse.”

I looked at Athens rapper, Squallé, and differences … through his freestyle rap versus the conscious rap versus the trap rap he was creating, with the hope that studying these differences [would enable me to] see the patterns within genres. It’s not just all random noise. It’s not just like a degradation of how good hip hop used to be, you know? It remains very internally coherent.

I’m not a music critic or anything, but you can hear the difference between, let’s say; De La Soul and Kendrick. But not many people can put a word to it — especially in terms of grammar and syntax and what kind of slant rhyme is going on. We can then start to appreciate modern hip hop more.

And I wanted to see how it can be useful for educators … and to use some of these patterns in the classroom context to guide students: “Okay, so you’re a brilliant freestyle rapper. I see you at the lunchroom, or waiting on the bus, et cetera. And I know these patterns exist within freestyle rap as a genre. So how do we get you from these things that you’re really great at and you already know how to do, to the things that you’re gonna be expected to do in writing a five-paragraph essay. In what ways do you have authority? Your street authority is conveyed in these ways that you rap. What kind of pieces of that can we put in that essay to keep your voice alive?”

I almost continued that project for my [doctoral] dissertation, but then a professor in my department, Melisa Misha Cahnmann-Taylor, came to a show I played at Flicker [a club in Athens, GA]… and she saw the set and was like, “That should be a dissertation.” And I was like, “What?”

But I knew what she meant, ’cause I was familiar with the discipline she worked in: folks using art in analysis or note-taking or presentation in the research process to capture qualitative elements that are harder to do through other means. And I knew she was a poet — knew she did drama — but when she said that, I was like, “What are you, for real?”

I had been working on that album for three, four years. She was like, “Yo, you could write a paper reflecting on how hip-hop songwriting has been a research tool for you.”

So that’s what I did instead.

(Caption: Heather Nigro)

In your PhD dissertation, “Bellringer: An Autoethnographic Homecoming to Hip Hop as School-Abolitionist Practice,” you talk about “carceral logics of schooling.” Can you explain that term along with another: “school abolitionist practices?”

Carceral logics? Yeah. School is a lot like prison.

They mobilize you. They tell you where you can go, and when you can go there, including to the bathroom, and [when you can attend to] other basic human functions. You can speak only when you are told to. And if you don’t adhere to this behaviorally then … [there’s trouble]. And you’re measured based on your grades, obviously. It’s familiar to all of us.

And these ways of controlling people are very, very much similar to the prison.

Then we have the criminalization of children within the school. I’m thinking about tracking systems which separate people, oftentimes blatantly on the basis of class and race and given the backgrounds and living conditions of various students.

We have isolation and in-school suspension. Detention and things like that. And pushing kids out of school through suspensions and expulsions for behaviors that are deemed non-normative.

For example, you speak when you’re allowed to. But if you grew up — like I did — in a black church, folks is yelling out hallelujah, amen, just willy-nilly cuz that’s what you’re supposed to do. And so, you get these kids who come into school and they’re yelling out answers, yelling out jokes in response to what the teacher’s saying. Suddenly they’re in in-school suspension, and then they’re in there enough that [next] they’re getting suspended. Suspended and then da da da da: criminalized, eventually.

Add on top of that the actual incorporation of surveillance technologies, and state agents — cops — into schools, and you got something that’s looking kind of like a prison.

Like metal detectors …

Exactly. Metal detectors; kids who gotta have clear backpacks, et cetera. It’s looking a little bit like prison.

There is this concept that the school exists to perpetuate social inequality. All these things are in place to make sure everyone stays in the class, not classroom, but the social class that they’re supposed to. If you’re poor, you stay poor. If you’re rich, you stay rich – unless you disrupt that.

Those are some of the carceral logics of schooling.

But then I’m thinking about school abolition, not necessarily like I wanna like tear schools down, but abolitionist like an imaginary lens: a way of understanding a social problem and thinking outside the school-shaped donut hole in our understanding of how education works.

So, the same way that prison abolitionists think about how to de-link things like [welfare and mental health] care from prison. So, it’s like no longer DFCS or something like that saying: “Oh, you have to come prove to us that you got X, Y, Z or we’re gonna take your kids away.” But instead giving people what they need to stay out of trouble, to stay safe, to keep their neighborhood safe. Separating those two things.

That’s when I talk about imagining — just imagining — that education is separate from schooling: lifting education out of the school house, and imagining a totally different way that we can be educating people that isn’t constantly stuffed into and reinforcing this idea of school as we know it. And trying to think outside of these carceral logics of schooling.

So: abolition.

We often apply that imaginary lens to carceral institutions. How can we keep people safe without state violence perpetrated by the police? How do we have better behavioral health without locking people up in a mental institution, et cetera? How do we educate people without criminalization, these carceral logics of isolating students, penalizing students, but then how do we just escape it all together by finding other spaces in which to really educate and not just school people? The idea of school abolition, quote unquote: I cite David Stoval a lot and Dylan Rodriguez and folks like that who are using this idea that has existed since the nineties in regards to carcerality, but applying it to the problems that we’re seeing in schools.

(Caption: Heather Nigro)

What would you do to improve the education systems?

There are reforms that can make schools more welcoming and supportive and affirming places for kids.

First of all, it’s necessary for us to have more student input on the shape of their lives within schools. In local government I experienced a number of times where we took input from young people on things, and then it was just completely dismissed because kids “don’t know what they’re talking about”, or “That’s not really realistic,” or “They’re just trying to get away with this or that.”

Our leisure services department took a poll on what sorts of activities youth would like to see more of, and the local government never used that information for anything. We went ahead and pushed through a bunch of other programs that nobody had asked for.

So I think making sure that kids’ voices get heard [would] improve the programming and structure of schools, Making sure voices, kids’ voices, get heard extends to having enough folks in schools to listen to them, because the current in-school student-to-counselor ratios in Athens-Clarke County – and a lot of high-poverty school districts generally – are abysmal.

It makes it such that kids can’t be heard by supportive adults who can give them what they need to be academics, to be successful, to stay out of trouble, to stay in school, to avoid joining a gang. These matter for the health of our communities broadly. So that is investing in youth health, and it would be vital for making schools healthier places all around, right?

Obviously I think we gotta stop these attacks on trans children and like LGBTQ youth, but I feel like … I’m almost loath to even bring that up given that it’s such a ridiculous culture war thing. That I don’t wanna give that any more light of day other than saying like, of course yeah, school should be gender-affirming places where kids feel like they can talk about who they’re becoming as people, who they are as people.

Schools are not just about producing good robots for the workforce, et cetera. It’s also about helping people grow into healthy adults. And that includes like having a healthy relationship with their gender, with their gender and with sexuality.

I’ve even heard recent comments by our Democrat-appointed secretary of education, this very neo-liberal: “Oh, we need to, you know, produce like a strong workforce and it starts with education.”

We gotta get out of that mindset that schools are just for preparing people for exploitation in the workplace. They need to know how to stand up for themselves in the workplace. It’s not just soft skills like, how to do an interview, but how to collectively bargain. What are your rights under labor law? And not just, oh, now you have the skills to go out and, I don’t know, make $12 an hour as a chef or something like that. These are some things that I think need to be improved.

Do you think the motivations behind that are less insidiously about making good workers, and more about naively expecting that people don’t need to worry about being exploited in the workplace – just go out and show them what you’re worth?

It’s the American myth of meritocracy: if you work hard in school to become a good carpenter or a nurse or a mechanic – if you put in that effort, you’ll have everything you need. If you don’t ‘work hard’ because actually you’re interested in art or you’re just a good writer or whatever, then, well, that’s a moral failing on your part. So you deserve whatever happens to you. It’s tied into that. It’s tied into the Protestant work-ethic and this myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, by working hard in ways that are valid to the government and to the people that run the economy.

(Credit: Heather Nigro)

This year you’ve finished the PhD and left your position as County Commissioner. You seem to be devoting that time to activism, from what I’ve seen on your social media. So, I’m wondering what this period is like for you. Is it transitional, or are you kind of finally doing or being the truer self that you were heading towards?

I was recently reminded of this quote: “There are years that asked, and there are years that answered.”

It feels like 2022 was a year that answered a lot of questions that previous years have asked, like: ‘How do we get ourselves out of the situation that we find ourselves in? What is missing in our current political milieu that explains the situation we’re in? What forces are at play that explain the situation that we’re in?’

The answers have been emerging piecemeal to me – laying there as pieces in a puzzle. Finally it’s like “Oh, snap.”

We as working-class people are not well organized enough to fight, effectively fight, the forces that are shaping the entirety of our lives. You know, what food is available for us to eat, where we can go because we have a car or have to take the bus, the quality of the education, the air we breathe in, the water we drink, et cetera. And the need for all that before anything to really be able to move things in a direction that is collectively decided and hopefully collectively beneficial.

And so that’s where you are now?

Where I am now is devoting myself to that. Rather than being the person to come to who has all the answers and can fix all the problems, I’m actually building a longer table of folks sitting together to figure out what the problems are and really getting used to practicing actual democracy.

Folks kind of conceive of it just like you go and vote every four years, but it’s there are so many decision points at which we can incorporate more voices. If folks are not used to that it’s like you have to learn how to participate, and learn the skills to bring in even more people to make that table even longer.

I now work as a labor organizer for the Union of Southern Service Workers and find that my work in helping folks grow as leaders is very much similar to what I did in the classroom at the University of Georgia when I was developing pre-service elementary school teachers to be leaders in their classrooms or graduate student tutors to be leaders in constructing educational experiences in the reading clinic that I helped oversee for two years.

And so where I’m at now is focused on that work: really, really organizing.

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