To enter the Tip-Top Bar & Grill is to travel back to a pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Pictures of Martin Luther King and Michael Jackson hang from wood-panel walls. Christmas lights dangle above bar stools and reflect off a metallic “Happy Birthday” sign.
Like Tip-Top, Mariah Parker seems plucked from another era. On a recent Saturday night, the Athens, Georgia, county commissioner stepped into the bar with the flair of a Black Panther, sporting an Afro and a black hoodie printed with a black-power fist. In town for the 2019 Young Elected Officials’ Women’s Conference, she sat down, and we made hip-hop small talk and ordered wings and drinks before diving into her whirlwind year in politics.
Last June, with one hand placed atop The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the other raised in a fist, Parker was sworn in to represent Athens–Clarke County’s 2nd district. At 26, she had won her election by just 13 votes on a platform to raise the minimum wage, deprioritize marijuana arrests, and expand access to affordable childcare.
A few days after the official proceedings, Parker informally inaugurated herself with a performance on Georgia Public Broadcasting. In Athens City Hall, she faced a wall covered with framed photos of past public officials and greeted the portraits: “Good afternoon gentleman. I am glad you could be here with me on this fine sunny day and join me in my chamber. I want to welcome you, not only to my chamber, but to a new era of politics in Athens, Georgia.”
Then Mariah, who is also an emcee and a PhD student in linguistics, broke into a rap about patriarchy, feminism, and her own intelligence: “Born for excellence because my chromosomes got a second X in it / I don’t think it’s an accident, not in Athens, I’m the best there is / And I happen to have all this extra estrogen, Ooooooo!”
I asked her about performing in front of images of old white men in suits and ties. She sipped her whiskey and ginger ale and told me, “I can feel the ground shake as they all roll over in their graves. It’s like a magnitude 7 earthquake, as they scream, ‘Nooo!’”
I got it. I grew up in Georgia about 70 miles from Athens. I watched Georgia Public Broadcasting as a kid. I am used to seeing the faces of white Confederate generals carved into the side of Stone Mountain, white segregationist busts at the state capital, and white politicians occupying the Governor’s Mansion. But I am wholly unaccustomed to seeing a young, queer, black feminist confront generations of white male authority.
We chatted more about the South, politics, and music as the bar came to life. People laughed over Jack Daniel’s and fried-fish sandwiches as Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” faded into Keith Sweat’s “Twisted.” I asked Mariah about what challenges she faced early in her tenure, and she told me about her efforts to curb the over-policing of the poor.
“A lot of homeless services are located in our district, so people just camp out. There is a little block—people just hang out there,” she said. “And constituents call me and ask if I can do something about the people hanging out on the block. But what other public space do we have for cash-poor people? I am not going to criminalize these people for standing in public.”
Calling attention to the way the criminal-justice system “unfairly punishes poor people” sits at the heart of Mariah’s political vision. In addition to discouraging aggressive policing, she’s fighting to end cash bail and is advocating for a municipal civil-rights committee and an anti-discrimination ordinance.
This same passion that Mariah applies to social justice and equity also surges through her artistry. At the bar, I asked her whom she preferred: SZA or Solange, two black women at the vanguard of R&B.
“That to me is a question of whose message is more vital to black womanhood. And I feel like SZA gets at the more difficult things,” Mariah said. “Both have important messages for black women to hear, but I feel like SZA’s is more messy and that’s important.”
“There are these dichotomies that keep people out of civil service of a variety of kinds— be it as an organizer or running for public office. It’s like, ‘I’m not perfect so I can’t go do that,’” she explained.
Her answer reflects her own work. Like SZA’s, much of Mariah’s music rejects moralistic categorization. On her latest tape, Lingua Franca, she raps about activism, abortion, and addiction, and bemoans the way people “trade conversations for secrets.” This is the type of intimacy that can catalyze the career of an artist—and crash that of a politician. And because she was a rapper before a candidate, she feared her artistic honesty might sink her service in politics before it even started.
“I was avowedly out in public like these are my struggles,” she told me, but added that voters ultimately reward honesty.
“We have so many people who would rather put up a veneer, and when it cracks, we’re so disappointed,” she said. “Instead, just from the get-go, I am who I am, and I own that. I invite you to own that in yourself too—in all your weirdness and messiness. Let’s just be ourselves.”
Mariah’s openness is radical and refreshing. For generations, respectability was the passport to black politics. It was a system that required people to put lye in their hair and a belt around their waist. It was a system that told people they were too gay to lead a march or too pregnant to lead a protest. But today, Mariah is part of a new generation expanding the parameters of black leadership.
As Mariah looks to the future, I asked her if she’s concerned about staying true to herself and her community, and she told me she has habits to keep her anchored. She goes to church. She hands out newsletters. She talks to constituents on their porches. It is all part of her recipe to stay connected and humble. Still, it seems that the journey ahead of her is treacherous. After all, the path to success in both music and politics is littered with folks who failed to keep it real. Yet, after our conversation, I imagine it might be a little easier for Mariah to take the authentic road less traveled, because being honest is what got her this far in the first place.