Hurray for the Riff Raff Wants You to Know Boricuas Belong in the US’ Folk Music Canon

Photo by Sarrah Danziger. Courtesy of ATO Records

As a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx, Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray For The Riff Raff has become a somewhat unlikely folk music hero in the U.S. With her forthcoming album The Navigator, Segarra is not only working to cement her place in the nation’s folk music canon, she’s making it clear that she’s part of a long and ancestral tradition. “My people were poets and troubadours,” she says when talking about Puerto Rico’s cultural legacy. “I make sense.”

Making sense of herself, her place in folk music, and her place in the world has been Segarra’s driving vision for The Navigator. Using the tradition of protest music, she addresses issues pressing to people on the island and across the Puerto Rican diaspora: colonization, gentrification, poverty, and displacement.

“There’s this narrative that folk music, and Americana, and American-ness is white,” she says. “That was never my experience.” She tells me that her America is the dudes that ran the corner bodega. It’s drinking 40s in Tompkins Square Park and growing up in the projects. On The Navigator, Segarra creates an Americana that reflects her reality, effectively challenging the discourse around the country’s folk music traditions through its changing demographics.

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The Navigator is an ambitious concept album that tells the story of a street kid named Navita. The last time I interviewed Segarra, she told me that she was listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and thinking of doing a concept album herself, so I ask if that was the seed for this project. “I’m so glad I told you that!” she laughs, knowing that at the time she didn’t quite believe herself. “I thought to myself, ‘I’d love to make a concept album’ and immediately the voice in my head was like ‘you could never do that; you’re too lazy’ – you know, your inner critic.” But she’s kept her word, and a strongly developed storyline threads the album together. She wants to take the concept even further, with dreams of turning The Navigator into a play. “[Listening to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust] was when I would sit with it and I would think about it. What would my heroine do, and what would she be like? That’s what really started the whole concept of the album.”

“There’s this narrative that folk music, and Americana, and American-ness is white. That was never my experience.”

Navita’s story is inspired in many ways by Segarra’s own life as a street kid, but they’re not the same person. “She’s definitely a lot braver than me,” she laughs. “She’s more outgoing. She can dance better.” With The Navigator, Segarra is exploring herself, but also her past, her ancestry, and her people. Using a fictional character has been a useful exercise for this mission. “With Navi I could take stories from my uncle, and from my brother,” Segarra noted, thus integrating a set of experiences that tell a story of a people through one character. “It helped me feel like it was OK to talk about the city and gentrification and poverty.”

Living in a city on fire, Navita longs to escape the urban dystopia she hails from to embark on a quest in search of her voice. Fittingly, the album begins with a healthy dose of melancholy and despair; the suffering of hunger and pain, of living in the rubble in close proximity to exorbitant wealth, of wanting something more and finding it just out of reach. These songs are excellent examples of Segarra’s ear for Americana; they are works about the kind of resilience that can be developed only in the face of heartbreak. Unlike many of Segarra’s previous compositions, however, the city plays an important role. “All of a sudden I was like, ‘I’m a city kid. I want to talk about the city.’ That’s my experience.” “Living In The City” is one of these songs, the cruelty of an unforgiving urban landscape at the forefront. “Hungry Ghost,” a blistering anthem about Navita’s search for her own voice, follows “Living in the City.” Its video, released today, pays homage to the sanctuary of queer-friendly DIY spaces.

As the story continues, Navita asks a wise woman to put a spell on her, to take her out of the city to a place where she is free from the confines of her identity. When she wakes up 40 years later, she’s in the same place, but everything – and everyone – is gone. “For me, that was running away,” she says of her years as a train-hopping, homeless young person. “I’ve realized throughout the years that you just can’t cut off all of [your past]. You gotta learn how to be who you are.”

By the time we reach the title track halfway through the album, there is a formidable turning point. As Navita comes into herself – as she becomes the heroine that will lead her people through the path of remembering their past and moving forward – Segarra truly finds her voice. Caribbean percussion meets folk guitars, and soaring strings become the backdrop for Navita’s burning questions (“Where will all my people go?”). It is at this point that Navita’s despair transforms into a righteous rage, a rage felt deeply by Segarra herself. “What is the plan?” Segarra asks as we consider the forces of white supremacy, the gentrification she has seen in her native Bronx, and the colonization that Puerto Rican people continue to endure on the island. “That was the question I kept asking myself.” She grows quieter and emotional. “I think the plan is that they don’t want us to survive.”

Segarra has never hidden from her background as a puertorriqueña, but The Navigator sees her leaning into this identity more heavily than ever. “I definitely went through a major change,” she confesses. After years in New Orleans, she moved to Nashville and there experienced a profound culture shock. “That’s when I was like, ‘I’m from the Bronx, what am I doing here?’”

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She set herself on a journey to dive deeply into her people’s history. She visited the Young Lords exhibit at the Bronx Museum. She read Julia de Burgos. She spent time at the Nuyorican Café and walked around the Lower East Side. The more she learned, the more she felt right with herself. “It just felt like, ‘Wow, this is where I fit in.’”

This shift is perhaps most visible in the sonic universe Segarra builds on the record. Congas carry the rhythm on “The Navigator” and “Rican Beach.” Coquís chirp in the background on “Fourteen Floors.” Shoutouts to Sylvia Rivera and other Puerto Rican heroes pepper “Palante.” This is American folk, yes; it is also distinctly Puerto Rican.

“I wanted to write something that my mom could listen to and say, ‘She knows where she came from.’” Segarra says. “I wanted to give something to the Latinx community. This is for us.”

Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator is out March 10 on ATO Records.