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an interview with Hurray for the Riff Raff on activism, her Puerto Rican heritage, and new LP

hurray for the riff raff

Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s anticipated new album, The Navigator, is out next Friday (3/10) via ATO. NPR is streaming the album ahead of its release date, and you can listen to it below.

It’s the followup to the folk/alt-country leaning Small Town Heroes, and, while main member Alynda Segarra hasn’t abandoned that sound entirely, The Navigator focuses more on the importance of her Puerto Rican heritage than her previous albums. She hasn’t shied away from discussing political topics in her past work, but those topics are more in the forefront here. The themes of resistance and pride are vital in the wake of Trump’s presidency.

The album focuses focuses on a narrative driven by a character who she refers to as “The Navigator” named Navita Milagros Negrón. Navita fuels the album’s story, giving it a cinematic — or even Broadway musical — feel that could easily make the whole LP a soundtrack to this character’s life.

Each song tells a story about growing up in a big city, finding a place within the world, and finding empowerment in her identity as a Latina. Alynda uses Navita as someone to tell her own story, evoking that childlike wonder and teenage rebellion she felt growing up, while also voicing her current resilience.

“Rican Beach” is one of the standouts of the album, with Alynda relating both Standing Rock and the water contamination in a rural Puerto Rican municipality, Peñuelas. The song is sonically influenced by plena, a folkloric Puerto Rican genre of music with African roots. It’s a protest song of defiance against destruction “You can take my life/But don’t take my home/Baby it’s a solid price/It comes with my bones.”

The other major standout from the album, and probably the most important track, is “Pa’lante.” The phrase translates to “moving forward” and the song is an empowering ballad with lyrics that encourage those who are not respected in society to keep going despite obstacles along the way. It’s a song that resonates now more than ever, as Alynda sings, “To all that lost their pride, pa’lante/To all who had to survive, pa’lante.” Mid-way through, the song pauses as you hear Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri recite part of “Puerto Rican Obituary,” his powerful poem about Puerto Ricans who left their island behind to move to the United States in order to fulfill their dreams, yet struggled to be respected and fulfill those hopes.

As someone who grew up in Puerto Rico with both country music and the inescapable traditional music like bomba and plena that are a large part of the island’s culture, this album feels like home. Alynda explores the theme of identity — finding your place as a Puerto Rican woman, both racially and culturally. It’s a theme that has resonated so much to me and many women from the island after moving to the United States, as well as those who have Puerto Rican ancestry. This narrative is rare, yet so vital — especially now.

Hurray For The Riff Raff are about to begin a new tour at NYC’s Baby’s All Right on Wednesday (3/8). That show is with Las Rosas and a DJ set by Brooklyn LGBTQ collective Papi Juice. It was sold out, but a few tickets just went back on sale. They’ll return to NYC for a bigger show at Bowery Ballroom on 4/20 with Ron Gallo (tickets). All tour dates — including SXSW — are listed below.

I spoke to Alynda ahead of her tour to discuss getting in touch with her Puerto Rican roots, the importance of activism as an artist, and how to stay strong during Trump’s presidency. Stream the new album and read on for the interview:

For this album, The Navigator, you have this character Navita. How does she represent your own story?

AS: Well, Navita is like a comic book version of what I was like when I was 17. A lot of our rebellious nature is similar, and also definitely I was drawing from the feeling I had of just like total suffocation growing up in New York City, even though, at the same time, I loved New York City. But I had this very — this desire to always be out and be on the street and to explore the underground. I was really always searching for this city life that was hidden away from view and was just like the underbelly of everything.

I think that’s a lot of what Navita has too… this desire to really just like be feral and free and that’s where her longing to leave comes from. I think also there’s a little bit of this brat attitude that I had that came from this feeling of shame, and not even fully of shame but of this feeling like I didn’t belong to anything and that I didn’t feel like I fit in with anything, especially with being Puerto Rican. I just felt like I could never satisfy anyone around me with their idea of what a Puerto Rican woman should be. That’s what her desire to leave comes from. Her desire to escape and to not be connected to anyone in her family or anyone in her community. She just wants to wake up and not recognize anyone and be somewhere completely new.

Now that you mentioned that you felt like you didn’t belong within the culture, do you think that you’re helping redefine what it means to be an artist who is Puerto Rican?

I hope to. I feel like what I hope to do is to shine a light on the history that took me a while to discover. You know, there is a really long history of very good poets and feminist Puerto Rican women, whether they were in Young Lords or whether they were poets like Julia de Burgos. Also Sylvia Rivera was a transgender Puerto Rican activist who was there during the Stonewall uprising. I feel like there is this history of Puerto Rican rebels and artists and so I would really just love to shine a light on that for some young people who aren’t aware of it.

You got in touch with your Puerto Rican roots for this album and found influence from salsero Héctor Lavoe, whose music is like such a huge part of our Puerto Rican culture, yet so different from your folk sound that you’ve used in the past. What inspired you to use those traditional elements in your music for this album?

Well I was trying to look into the history of bomba and plena and really trying to do as much research as possible. My father is a musician, and he knows a lot about traditional Puerto Rican music and played a lot of Latin jazz when he was younger. He was able to tell me some personal stories about meeting Héctor Lavoe in the ’70s. When he told me that, what really struck me was what he was saying. He was like, “He was the voice of the people, and everybody just felt his voice like he was singing for them.”

From hearing those stories and listening I felt like it was just going through my own filter of influences. I was thinking there’s no way I could replicate this. It takes your whole life to be a salsero, but I can listen to their story. They were a bunch of young kids who were playing a traditional style of music, and yet never quite making the mark for what the older generation thought was right or correct. So their salsa shows up because they just put everything together, and they were like, “Well this is what we sound like.”

When I heard that, I was like “Well that’s what I do!” Then it became a lot less of this scary thing. I could never play salsa, but what I can do is bring in these influences and try to do my best to make a song a little bit more rhythmic to just like give it this new life, and to make what I think is city music. Because when you’re walking around New York City, you hear a little bit of everything, whether it’s like reggaeton or you’re hearing like some old school, ’60s rock and roll coming out of somebody’s radio. You’re hearing everything, so that’s what I wanted to do. Make some kind of like city music.

I really loved how in the end of “Fourteen Floors” you feature what sounds like pleneros. It evoke memories of being back home in Puerto Rico. Can you tell me about the inclusion of that clip?

Actually that was Tompkins Square Park!

Oh, wow, really?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. People jamming, but they’re going like “Agua, yo quiero agua…” That one?

Yeah.

That was people jamming in Tompkins Square Park, and then earlier in the song though there is the coquí that comes in, and I recorded that in Puerto Rico when I was there for my last birthday. […] Then I came to New York to take in a lot of influences, and do some research. Then I found [the musicians in Tompkins Square Park] and I was just like, “Whoa, this is badass!” Everybody is just like drinking and playing, and I was like, “This still happens?!”

That’s awesome!

But it’s kind of like a full circle. It’s like, the sound is coming from the island to the city and it’s this circular motion of where the inspiration is coming from.

Hearing that just took me back home.

Oh wow.

You also mentioned that you dedicated “Rican Beach” to both Standing Rock and people in Peñuelas. To be honest, I had no idea that there was an issue of water contamination there. How did you find out about this issue?

Well, I do my best. Honestly, Twitter is where I get a lot of my news. I find that I have been really trying to do my best as a child of the diaspora, as a person who grew up here in the mainland, in New York City, and have all this privilege, but who also feels like I’m not… I don’t feel like I’m fully from there. I do feel like I have this tie to the island and to really wanting to do my best to, I don’t know, be a good ally. I’m not sure what the place is yet, but I’ve been really trying to form that type of relationship, and to understand what I can do and what is helpful and what is not helpful.

I’ve been really trying to follow a lot of activists on Twitter, and a lot of news sources from Puerto Rico to really try to get the clearest light of what’s happening on the island right now. At the time our country was really focused on Standing Rock, which we should’ve been, but then also to see what was happening in Peñuelas. These people are just fighting to protect their land, and they’re being criminalized for it. They’re just trying to protect the future and to make sure that people don’t get sick, and that children have a safe space to grow up.

I found it really — it fits with “Rican Beach” because I felt like it was people putting their bodies on the front line. Saying “I might get hurt, I might get tear gassed, but I am fighting for this land and to protect the land.”

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Can you tell me a bit more about your trip to the island? Did you decide that you were going to go there to visit just for the album or did you actually just want to explore more about that culture?

Well I was there in 2014 for a feminist conference [NWSA Annual Conference], and that was my first time being back since I was a little kid. I really wanted to go back because my grandfather, on my father’s side, he had died and they brought his ashes to a beach in Ponce, which is where he was from. I really wanted to visit his ashes, and I really wanted to obviously go to this conference. It was just such an emotional experience for me because Small Town Heroes had just come out. I was really being seen as this Americana artist, and I was kind of struggling with what am I, and where do I fit in and what do I count as racially. Just very in the middle of everything.

When I went to the conference and I was surrounded by so many very strong Puerto Rican feminist women, it was just kind of like this light went off where I was like I have to really search into this feeling, and I need to just try to understand it more and be inspired by it. Then last year for my birthday I went back. I’ve never really done a lot of exploring, just like very much off the tourist track, which I hope to. Last time I went it was definitely that I wanted to be there, and I wanted to just kind of experience the island for a week or so, for as much as I could afford at the time.

What were some of the things that stood out to you the most while you were there?

Well definitely I noticed that there was such a huge difference in the amount of vacant space. I noticed… I was in San Juan and there were so many places that were for sale and that were abandoned now. A lot of businesses. One conversation I had really stood out to me where this woman was like, “It feels like there are some people out there that want Puerto Ricans to just leave this island altogether so it can be just a vacation spot. The culture that’s so strong will just be wiped out, and it will just be used as a playground for very rich people.”

That was something that really struck me, and I was really struck by this feeling of being very personally offended by that idea, even though I did not grow up there. I think it came from this feeling of being like: this is my father’s place, this is my grandmother’s place. It was instilled in me to have my back for the island and to want to fight for the island however I could.

That was something that really struck me, to feel like I was very invested in the future of a place that I had not spent that much time at, and that I wanted to do, that I want and continue to do whatever I can to just, as I said, elevate the work that people are doing there right now.

I feel like that’s very important that you’re doing that.

Thank you. It is scary. I feel like it’s sometimes… I question myself, and I just feel like it’s scary to try to figure out where you fit in in a struggle, in a movement, and you’re always worried you’re going to do something wrong. You’re always worried that you’re going to overstep your boundary or talk to someone else on something you don’t really know about. I think that’s a lot of the problems that we have right now with like social media and stuff. Really I would just love for more Puerto Rican artists and Puerto Rican actors to get in touch with me to work with them. I just want to learn as much as I can.

Not many Puerto Rican activists have the power to have that platform to be listened to in the States. It’s great that you’re using your music as a platform to do it.

Yes, I really… You know what? I discovered with Small Town Heroes. I was like, wow, I’m like this racially ambiguous person where people are just like, “I don’t know. She’s playing some country song. I’m going to assume that she’s white.” It was just a thing of I don’t even know what I count as, I don’t even know what I am, which I think is a very American experience actually. So I started to realize, okay, if that’s going to happen to me then I’m going to say things to you, listeners, that you might not be open to hearing from people who are experiencing it first hand, from people of color that have something very important to say. I just started to feel like well if people are going to listen to me because for some reason they’re assuming I’m just like them, then I’m going to bring them like the real story, you know?

Sometimes I feel like I’m like undiscovered, in some sense.

How has growing up in the Bronx, as somebody who has Puerto Rican ancestry, and then moving to New Orleans, influenced your music?

Well I just like, I’m back in New Orleans now, and New Orleans just seems so Caribbean to me. I brought my Aunt here, and she was like, “Wow, this feels like where I grew up.” I really feel like the music in New Orleans — the way that it reminds me of growing up in New York City and growing up in the Bronx is that it’s very focused on community. We all are sharing and experiencing it together. It was interesting for me to become a songwriter who was very introspective, who was going deep within myself, writing kinda sad songs for so long. I was doing that while having these two places that really influenced me.

New Orleans was where I learned how to take those very introspective feelings and to find the aspects that are human, which is mourning, which is love, which is feeling like an outsider. These feelings are very universal, and New Orleans taught me how to share it with people, and to also, to really understand that music is not to make you feel better than somebody. It’s not something to make you feel like you are cooler than somebody else or you are smarter than someone else or more powerful. It’s actually, it’s just a way to be a human, and to share your humanity with people.

I really felt like New Orleans took me in because when I came here it was like “Well kid, you’re a little rough around the edges, but you’ve got heart so we’re not going to give up on you because we know that you care.” I don’t think I would have gotten that in the New York City that was starting to form around me when I left. I feel like I was probably intimated by the industry and just the idea of this pretentiousness that sometimes floats around certain scenes in New York City.

You recently contributed to the Our First 100 Days series. How did you become involved, and how did you pick the song that you contributed?

Well, I was just asked if I’d be interested, and I really loved the idea so I was like, “Of course.” I think after the election there was like this mourning period where people were very scared, and people are still scared right now. We kind of needed that time to gather our strength and to mourn and to feel. Then once the inauguration happened it was like right away I felt like people were really showing up and being like, we are standing united, and we are not going to leave anybody behind. We’re going to watch out for each other no matter how different we are. I really thought it was a great idea to have music to add to that energy, to keep people feeling like there was a battery recharge. That’s what we need.

Every day, after reading the news, you just feel like curling into a ball. Music can really be there to give you this strength that kind of comes from nowhere.

Do you have any advice for Latinx people who are currently fearing losing their rights with Trump as President?

I feel like the advice I have is more for white people really. For people who are born here who have that privilege and are not scared of the terrorism that’s happening to Latinx people right now. My advice to white people is this is not a time to sleep on their solidarity. This is the time to really use your privilege to stand up for people, and to show the Latinx community that you appreciate the contributions that we’ve made to this country, and that you’re not going to let us be erased.

You’re not going to let us be pushed out. I think what I would actually tell Latinx people right now is to do whatever you can to look into the history of your people, and to constantly tell yourself as many times as you can that you come from an extremely strong people who have probably dealt with countless years of oppression. Just to remind yourself of how strong your ancestors are, and to know that they’re with you all the time.

That’s something I really learned making this album — that anywhere I go, I’m not alone. I have the ancestors with me, and that’s such a powerful feeling. It really takes away some of that powerlessness, which I think is just the only way we can really survive all of this.

Yeah. That’s definitely something that’s pretty important to keep in mind. I kind of got goosebumps when you said that, to be honest.

Well I do too. I’m learning how to not talk-cry. I’ve been practicing with my friends and not cry like I’m on Oprah. It feels like we get over one hurdle and there’s another, like we’re in Indiana Jones and there’s another giant wrecking ball coming our way. I do think that we just have to stay as active as we have been.

I’ve been really impressed and really heartened by the way people have responded, especially with how people showed up.I really hope that we’ll see more people showing up saying, “Not on my watch. We are not going to take these people away.”

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Yeah. It’s so important for bands like yours to actually keep doing that. I really liked how last year you organized Nosotros Fest in New York that celebrated Latinx music and activism. I wasn’t able to go, but it looked really great. Are you planning on doing anything like that again?

Yeah, I think I’m going to do it again. I don’t know if I can announce when, but we’re going to do another showcase basically. I also really was so proud of how unapologetic everybody was. Everybody was just so themselves. There was no, like, respectability policies going on, and I loved that. Like Downtown Boys were playing, and they were just being so fucking punk rock, and I just felt like it was a very intersectional event and I was really proud of it. I just felt like that space, that night was — it was transformed, and it was turned into our space. I really would just love to continue that however I can.

I’ve been getting a lot of inspiration because I feel like there’s a lot of great dance parties that are going on in the city right now. I think there’s a lot of people who are doing good work right now so I’m just trying to learn and follow everybody on Instagram to do my part.

That’s very important because obviously bands like Downtown Boys usually play in spaces where there’s a large white audience, so having bands like that actually play somewhere where it’s a mostly Latinx crowd is so vital.

Yeah. A very big inspiration to me is Afropunk. I’ve never gone, but from what I see and read, it just… I was like, this is such a brilliant idea. I felt like it could be so healing and important for, like, Latinx weirdos, artists and visionaries to get together and to be political, be unapologetic, be feminists, be all of the complicated things that I think we are. I thought that would be really powerful.

Hurray for the Riff Raff — 2017 Tour Dates
3/8 – Brooklyn, NY – Baby’s All Right
3/13 – Los Angeles, CA – The Masonic Lodge @ Hollywood Forever
3/15 – Austin, TX – Stubb’s BBQ
3/16 – Austin, TX – ATO Records SXSW Showcase
4/15 – Middlebury, VT – Middlebury College, McCullough Student Center
4/16 – Northampton, MA – Academy of Music Theatre*
4/18 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair*
4/19 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair*
4/20 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom*
4/21 – Philadelphia, PA – World Café Live*
4/23 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club*
4/24 – Cincinnati, OH – Woodward Theater*
4/25 – Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom*
4/27 – Ferndale, MI – The Magic Bag*
4/28 – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall*
4/29 – Madison, WI – High Noon Saloon*
4/30 – Minneapolis, MN – Fine Line Music Café*
5/2 – St. Louis, MO – Old Rock House*^
5/3 – Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge*^
5/4 – Birmingham, AL – Saturn*^
5/5 – New Orleans, LA – Civic Theater*
6/2 – Dallas, TX – Trees
6/3 – Houston, TX – Free Press Summer Fest
6/4 – Austin, TX – The Mohawk#
6/6 – Santa Fe, NM – Meow Wolf#
6/7 – Phoenix, AZ – The Crescent Ballroom#
6/9 – Los Angeles, CA – Teragram Ballroom#
6/10 – Santa Cruz, CA – Rio Theater#
6/11 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore#
6/13 – Portland, OR – Revolution Hall#
6/15 – Vancouver, CA – Imperial#
6/16 – Seattle, WA – The Crocodile#
6/18 – Boise, ID – The Olympic Venue#
6/19 – Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge#
6/21 – Denver, CO – The Bluebird Theater#

* with Ron Gallo
^ with Becca Mancari
# with Making Movies

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