For many in Athens, academia is their lifeblood. For others, it’s music. But for Mariah Parker, known to the Athens scene as Lingua Franca, the two worlds are entwined.
After visiting Athens on a whim, the hip-hop enthusiast found herself studying linguistics in the graduate program at the University of Georgia, where “it became very clear to me how rap is structured around the basic patterns of English,” says Parker. “So I started looking at it as, like, a puzzle. These are the pieces—how do you put them together to make a picture?”
Linguistics has helped shape how Parker writes her music, but hip hop is also her specialization within linguistics, and she takes her research to the street, recording local rappers as they perform, often freestyle. She then transcribes the performances and studies the intricacies of each person’s style.
“It’s like how they say, if you want to be a good writer, you gotta read the greats and stuff like that,” Parker explains. “So, I kind of take to heart picking apart other people’s style in a very systematic way.”
In “Midnight Oil,” a track from Lingua Franca’s new, self-titled EP—Parker celebrates the EP’s release Saturday with a performance at the Hot Corner Hip Hop showcase—Parker references sitting in class and making a list of adjectives. Her songs typically start out with a list of thematically linked or rhyming words.
“Usually, whatever is going on in my life, or a thought that has plagued me for a long time, kind of fills itself in,” says Parker. “I start at the end of the line, and work backwards to fill it in with stuff that’s bothering me.”
“The Con and the Can,” Parker’s newest track, was written in bits and pieces that she says were thematically linked but in need of something to propel them into a complete song. That catalyst came post-election, as she felt the need to formalize the feelings she had been having for a while. Parker says “the song just kind of fell together out of that energy.”
Linguistically speaking, Parker studies hip-hop patterns and tools, such as slant rhymes and syllables per second, but what she finds most interesting is “the way hip-hop language kind of flips the traditional value system upside down.”
“Metaphor-making in general really relies on that,” she says. “For example, I have a rhyme that’s like, ‘Like the scent of cyanide, I’m a little bitter’… That’s a sense experience of a smell, but now you’re equating it to an emotion, so now you’re opening up that frame to encompass more meaning than is expected.”
<a href=”http://lingua-franca.bandcamp.com/album/lingua-franca” mce_href=”http://lingua-franca.bandcamp.com/album/lingua-franca”>Lingua Franca by Lingua Franca</a>
Parker’s passion for hip hop extends past her studies and her music. She was also a key figure in starting the Hot Corner Hip Hop series, which “pushes back against racism and classism in downtown Athens through events which build creative, multicultural community,” according to its Facebook page. She is also working with middle and high-schoolers to inspire the next generation of Athens hip-hop artists, and is involved with the first Girls Rock Athens hip-hop camp.
If Parker has bridged a divide in her own life between academia and music, she’s attempting to bridge a larger one in the community, as she works to integrate hip hop into the larger scene. She’s shared bills with indie and Americana artists such as Wanda and The Darnell Boys, and is working on setting up a tour with harpist and fellow linguist Lisa Lipani, demonstrating the fluidity of music and the influence different genres have on one another.
For Parker, bringing together the factions of Athens music means bringing together Athens people, and using her experience living and performing in predominantly white spaces to “create places for others who might not be able to [join in] as easily.”
“It’s a matter of extending an explicit welcome to people, like, ‘Hey, come here,’ instead of just being like, ‘Oh, well, it’s open to whoever’,” she says. “But if you aren’t in the know already, you’d never find that out.”
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