The bands leader, Alynda Lee Segarra, is defiantly Puerto Rican, but she wants to stand up for all Americas marginalised voices. Now, with a new concept album, she is doing just that
Hurray for the Riff Raffs new album, The Navigator, is set in an imaginary city gentrified beyond recognition. It could be the Bronx, where bandleader Alynda Lee Segarra was raised, or even here in Elephant and Castle in London, where the established Latin American community is threatened by regeneration. The Sunday morning after the global womens march, in January, Segarra climbs out of her tour van wearing a camouflage shirt over her pyjamas, her winged eyeliner pristine. Looming overhead is a gaudy pop-up shopping centre built, from shipping containers, on a patch where the local Latin football league used to play. Shes in Britain to play a one-off show in east London, a prelude to her returning to tour here later this month.
After a decade in New Orleans, Segarra lives in New York again for now,but has to leave once the tour to support The Navigator starts properly. Sadly, I cant afford to live there, she says, helping to wake herself up with a cappuccino. Landing back in New York had brought her search for the Puerto Rican heritage she rejected as ateenager full circle. Ive been really trying to examine how I inherited the shame thatI did, she says. Gentrification is psychological as well as physical, a concept that The Navigator explores through a character called Navita who flees her community, only to find it crumbling on her return. Ohwhere will all my people go? The Navigator wants to know, Segarra demands, as doo-wop vocalists and bomba percussionists invigorate theAmericana she honed onfive previous albums.
In the spirit of Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, The Navigator is a rousing call for community, written when Segarra found herself without one. Aged 17, she ran away to hop trains, and spent three years exploring Americas fringes. When a fellow wanderer was murdered, Segarra became determined to live for her, she says. Because I just got lucky, thats all that happened. She settled inNew Orleans, but never felt at ease. Travelling with other women, you become very instinctual. If you have abad feeling, you get the fuck out immediately.
During the 10 years Segarra lived in New Orleans, Hurray for the Riff Raff went from street musicians to being signed to Americana powerhouse label ATO. But when Segarra returned from touring 2014s Small Town Heroes, shefelt unsafe, lonely and isolated from her old scene, so she moved to Nashville. That was worse. Even though Id travelled, I was still sheltered from the idea that its conservative, Christian, white America, she says. Id had harder times I lived on the street. And yet being away from community, belonging, thats what really hit me hardest. I felt like I was in middle school. Back then, Segarra was too white for the Puerto Rican kids. But when I was in Nashville I was like, I gotta claim this, this is who I am.
Living alone, she obsessed over Ziggy Stardust and fantasised about making a concept album. She threw herself into researching cultures of resistance, listening to the NuYorican salsa label Fania, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; watching lectures by writers Junot Daz and Toni Morrison, and documentaries on the sterilisation of Puerto Rican women, and the Young Lords, a NuYorican activist group from the early 70s. Ithink it was meant to be this way, Segarra says of the period. My whole life, I was really afraid of being alone. Itwas a strengthening experience.
Embracing her identity was also anattempt to repair family ties after running away, simultaneously the most important moment of my life and the one I most regret. Segarras parents split when she was two. Her brother lived with their father, a jazz musician and veteran, while she grewup with her aunt and uncle. Her mother, Ninfa Segarra, was the last president of the New York City board of education and became Rudy Giulianis deputy mayor in 1993. Motherhood was really just not on the menu, says Segarra. Its not like Puerto Rican women havent always been independent, but it was a really new thing for my mother to have this really big career.
Segarras family were proud of their heritage. But somehow, through American culture, I inherited this shame, she says. They would tell me what we had accomplished, but I just didnt think it meant anything. All I saw was, like, Jennifer Lopez. Much love to Jennifer Lopez, but I wanted something more than a sexy pop star. Segarra discovered punk and began to frequent DIY haven ABC No Rio and the NuYorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side. She thought she had gotten away from my family, but thats where my dad was young and revolutionary, he wrote plays and jammed there, she laughs.
Thats where Segarra first read Pedro Pietris seminal poem Puerto Rican Obituary, about the spiritual death of assimilation. It struck a nerve. I had never seen it so raw and real. But even then I felt like, But this is all we have: poverty, being stuck in ghettos. I didnt see the beauty in it. She has just turned 30, and has learned to embrace her place in the lineage of Puerto Rican radicals. Palante, The Navigators standout track, is her tribute to them and all who had to survive. Its name (an affirmation meaning onwards) was the title of the Young Lords newspaper, and she samples Pietris poem between verses that intertwine defeat and blazing rallying cries.
If political anthems still existed, Palante would become one, as might Rican Beach, Segarras cool condemnation of community displacement. Now all the politicians, they just squawk their mouths /They say, Well build a wall to keep them out, she sings. While it was written before the US election last November, Donald Trumps presidency only reinforces Segarras message about psychological ghettoisation. She brings up his erasure of LGBTQ and Spanish-language content from the White House website. Hes trying to terrorise, mentally convincing everybody that we have no rights, because once we think we have no rights, we act like we have no rights.
Rican Beach also challenges her fellow musicians, dying of a silence disease, to make themselves heard. In 2015, Segarra wrote an op-ed demanding that white folk singers fall in love with justice. She has since seen a positive shift, but says: Its definitely black musicians who are leading the way because theyve been in danger this whole time. Now its hit everyone.
The light glints from her ring. Were going to have to heal those wounds and really work to make amends and show that were not going to leave each other behind any more.
The Navigator is released on ATO on 10 March. Hurray for the Riff Raff tour the UK from 20 March