Hip Hop Enters Athens' Bustling Music Scene
“You know what, I’m tired of rapping at you. So I’m gonna rap with you,” said Dedric Knowles to a hesitant crowd at Caledonia Lounge in Athens, Georgia. He jumped off the stage right into the frontlines of the crowd and—sporting an oversized Los Angeles Lakers beanie that nearly covered his eyes—orchestrated concertgoers to form a circle around him. His deejay started a song and he began reciting some verses. His flow was honest and raw (think Joey Badass) and his lyrics were blunt (think Earl Sweatshirt). Bars flowed out like methodical boxing jabs—each verse verbally calculated and building upon energy from the previous one. His impassioned hypnotic flow effused into the venue, and in just a few minutes, Knowles had harnessed the latent crowd energy that would fuel the rest of the Friday night hip-hop concert in Caledonia.
Knowles, better known by his stage moniker DK, is a hip-hop artist hailing from Athens, Georgia—a town heralded as the birthplace of college rock which produced R.E.M. and The B52’s. On any warm Friday night in Athens, you can bet music is sounding from the streets. The music scene in the quaint southern city is extensive and eclectic, and music venues are sprawled across the downtown area. Though Athens has been a hub for experimental and alternative rock for decades, hip-hop has recently begun to establish a niche within the Athens’ music scene.
Sequestered from the crowded, noisy Atlanta hip-hop movement, Knowles and other artists find more creative connectivity in Athens’ closer knit music scene. In a small town like Athens, artists are more accessible to other artists, and it’s simply easier to build relationships in a smaller music community. Coffee shops and restaurants like Hendershots and The World Famous, which frequently host music events, are hotbeds for creatives to interact and influence each other. “It’s given me an advantage...when you go to the shows, it’s mostly fellow artists supporting you and we like to give each other genuine feedback,” said Knowles. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and people trying to help each other.” This is part of the reason why Athens has produced so many influential artists since the 1980s—there is a robust rapport between music creatives that cultivate a distinct artistic community within the city.
Along with Knowles, other hip-hop artists have cultivated Athens’ growing hip-hop music movement. One of the popular artists in the city is Mariah Parker, who goes by the stage name Lingua Franca. Much more than an artist, Parker is a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Georgia and also a candidate for Athens’ District 2 Commissioner seat. Somehow, Parker balances academic rigor and glamorous performances (she rides a glittering gold bicycle onstage) with efforts to fight for livable wages and criminal justice reform in Athens. Parker has also helped develop the Athens hip-hop movement: she created Hot Corner Hip-Hop, a music community organization based around advancing hip-hop in the city. “I then became really involved in electoral politics by using the skills I learned from hip-hop organizing to help organize political campaigns. It’s interesting to see how the two work together,” Parker said in an interview with FiveSeventy.
Source: Lingua Franca
Secluded from Atlanta’s trap music scene, Athens rappers wield a different flavor—community-focused, political, and philosophical. Lingua Franca’s lyrical themes often contain political tones. Her song “Urgent Message” contains the opening lyrics “The time has come. We can longer longer ignore the injustices in this world. Together, we will rise up and obliterate hate, intolerance, greed, and bigotry.” Other Athens hip-hop artists, like Kxng Blanco, L.G., and Squalle incorporate politics into their songs, and recently performed a concert to benefit progressive county commissioner candidate Tim Denson. “It’s funny how they’re killing us for reaching for our phones,” Kxng Blanco shouted to the crowd during Denson’s benefit concert, according to The Red and Black. Knowles’ lyrics during his Caledonia Lounge show delve into spiritual undertones. “I’m searching for the juice, which is my allegory for self-love,” said Knowles. “It’s hard waking up every day and finding reasons to love yourself,” he said during his performance. Compared to the neighboring city of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, Athens’ hip-hop has developed a much more political, spiritually introspective tone.
Four years ago, Athens was almost entirely musically defined by experimental college rock. And while the city remains a hotbed for this style of music, other genres, namely hip-hop, have begun to enter the music scene. When she first moved to Athens, Lingua Franca “Didn’t really see a very unified hip hop scene”, according to FiveSeventy. But her efforts to establish a hip-hop community has introduced Athenians to a new flavor of hip-hop that starkly diverges from the trap music that has defined Atlanta in recent years, which may appeal to newfound hip-hop listeners in the city. Other Athens artists like Knowles and Kxng Blanco employ profound lyrics with heady rhythms that are laying the groundwork for a hip-hop style distinct to Athens—a style influenced by reverie and sometimes local politics—augmented by the close knit creative community within the city.
Photos of DK shot by Tenzin