by Abaki Beck
Our Feminist Hero Friday this week is Alynda Segarra, lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s album the Navigator was released on March 10, and is already garnering attention for it’s potent storytelling and political voice.
Segarra grew up in the South Bronx and became involved with the underground punk scene in high school. She left home at 17, a joined a group of young people traveling the United States, sometimes hopping trains. She eventually found herself in New Orleans, where she learned to play the banjo, making money as a street musician. Though she wrote poetry frequently as a child, this was her first foray into music making.
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s debut album, Small Town Heroes, was released in 2014. The centerpiece of this album was a song titled “The Body Electric,” a slow, folksy tune about gendered and racist violence. Segarra was inspired to make the song both to discuss the prevalence of rape and sexual violence globally and to call out the music communities relative silence on the issue. She noted in an NPR interview:
“Normalizing rape, domestic abuse and even murder of women of all races is an effort to take the humanity out of our female bodies. To objectify and to ridicule the female body is ultimately a symptom of fear of the power women hold."
The music video adds layers to the song, providing commentary on the acceptance of violence against LGBTQ people and people of color. Throughout the video, bullet casings are thrown and sucked about, and the main sequence imitates Botticelli’s classic painting The Birth of Venus but stars queer artist Katey Rey as Venus.
Her newest album, the Navigator, reads almost like a Broadway musical, earning her comparisons to Lin-Manual Miranda. The album explores issues of gentrification, colonization, and community through the eyes of the character Navita Milagros Negron, meant to be Segarra herself. Navita is ashamed to be Puerto Rican, and is growing up in a big city trying to navigate racism, classism, and sexism. She eventually meets a witch-type woman and asks to “wake up and not recognize anything around me.” But when she does wake up, decades later, she recognizes nothing: her people are gone, her neighborhood is gentrified, and she must continue to navigate what it means to be a strong, outspoken Puerto Rican woman.
Each song tells a new aspect of Navita’s navigation through life - life in the city, life as a young Puerto Rican, life as marginalized. The song “Pa’lante,” for example, was inspired in part by the Young Lords, a prominent Puerto Rican nationalist group who organized in New York (primarily Spanish Harlem) and Chicago in the 1970s. The word Pa’lante (forward) was a rallying cry of the group, and her lyrics read loud and clear: “I just wanna prove my worth on the planet Earth and be something!” Like with “The Body Electric,” the music videos for this album are filled with commentary as well. For the song “Hunger Ghost,” the video celebrates the importance of safe and queer spaces. Segarra noted of the song in an interview with the Fader:
“These sanctuaries will only become more important in these grave and uncertain times. Queerness is the future of our country and we, the future generation, are aiming for the freedom of gender fluidity and intersectional justice for all people. As artists and freethinkers we must care for each other and hold these safe spaces close to us.”
One particularly stunning visual is her upbeat song “Rican Beach.” Rican Beach is the name of a song as well as a place that Segarra imagines people go to once they are displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods. In the song, she describes the stages of gentrification - from appropriation of culture (“first they stole our language / then they stole our names / then they sold the things that brought us fame”) to the ongoing segregation and exclusion of people of color from neighborhoods that were once theirs (“now all the politicians just squawk their mouths / they said they’ll build a wall just to keep them out”) - as well as the emotional anguish of losing home. Throughout the song, she repeats the phrase “You can take my life, but you can’t take my home and “I may never see you again, I’ll keep fighting till the end”