Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra on learning from Bowie, resisting Trump, and the importance of kindness

Alynda Segarra

Alynda Segarra Sarrah Danziger

After five albums as the singer, songwriter, and soul of Hurray for the Riff Raff, Alynda Segarra had established herself as a rising folk star.

The sound of New Orleans—a city she’d arrived in after running away from her Bronx home at 17, hopping trains around the country—proved an empowering match for her voice and her socially conscious storytelling.

But forces internal and external pushed Segarra to explore something new for her sixth record. One was a shift in America’s political landscape. The rise of Trumpian rhetoric horrified her. The other was a need to be true to who she was as an artist, to not be limited by the expectations of being labeled a specific genre.

The result was 2017’s critically acclaimed The Navigator, an album that brought Segarra’s underlying themes of resistance and penchant for subverting expectations to the forefront. Joyously weaving in Latin rhythms and references to her Puerto Rican ancestry, Segarra explores her own identity through the album’s fictional protagonist, Navita Milagros Negrón, allowing her to discuss social injustice, political issues, and the importance of cultural history.

Ahead of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s show at First Avenue tonight, the 31-year-old Segarra spoke with City Pages about how she’s evolved as an artist, the responsibility she feels to under-represented groups, and why she thinks people have so much trouble simply being kind to one another.

City Pages: The Navigator introduced a new sound for you. And lyrically it feels more declarative than previous albums—you’re using your own questions about identity to explore bigger issues, and you brought that to the forefront, like you really wanted to say something. What got you to a place where you felt like, I need to be talking about these issues in my music now?

Alynda Segarra: When I was making my old albums, I didn’t realize I was creating this genre space for me. All these certain words, they carry this little seat for you that you have to sit down in, and if you do anything that confuses people they really don’t like that. It makes them upset.

I started to feel like I wasn’t allowed to be myself. I started to feel like, well, I guess I’ve led people astray with who I am. And I really was like, I want to make an album that says who I am, and that feels true to the way I grew up and feels true to other city kids who are watching their cities change rapidly, you know? So that was my first intention.

And then the other thing that happened obviously was Trump was rising to power. And it was horrifying to me. There was so much going on that I felt like, Wow, I’ve always dreamt of being a songwriter that adds my narrative to the times that we’re in, who continues this legacy of witnessing and telling my story. So I thought, well this is my time and I have to be brave and I have to say what I’m seeing, and talk about what I’m feeling. And at the same time I was scared. So people like David Bowie helped me understand, oh, create a character. Create a concept album. You can be as bold as you want when you have a character.

CP: How did you get to that point of deciding a character is the way to work through those fears?

AS: Well, I think it was easy in certain ways, because I was so unhappy with being misrepresented—or, I guess just unheard. I grew up listening to punk rock, grew up listening to rock and roll like the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, and just the idea of being myself and being free and being bold was so exciting to me that I wasn’t really that scared of losing any audience or anything. I felt like I was going to gain an audience.

CP: Your new direction lined up with a similar change in American culture, in that these political and social issues are constantly on everybody’s mind, in a way I don’t think was happening when your previous album, 2014’s Small Town Heroes, came out.

AS: Not at all.

CP: It makes The Navigator seem prescient. Did you sense that cultural shift as you were writing for the album?

AS: I didn’t know that it was going to be such a huge cultural movement, but I had already been paying attention to so many artists that were very fiercely political—whether they were actors, or whether they were performance artists or musicians. And that happens when you listen to especially women of color and queer performers, and that’s what I was already clued into. So I felt like, I was just trying to keep up with artists that really inspired me. And to see it become such a mainstream movement is really exciting.

CP: You’re female and a feminist. You’re Latina, Puerto Rican. You identify as queer, and you’re a vocal LGBTQ ally. All of these are under-represented groups that have found themselves under attack in the national conversation at times. What kind of influence can music have on these types of conversations?

AS: I’ve been saying since the election that the minute our cultural conversation ends, it’s kind of like game over, you know? And I feel like a lot of artists have done a really great job of keeping a culture of resistance alive. And also keeping it joyful, which I think is so important, because it can get so exhausting—it’s just exhausting to be so frightened all the time.

So I think that music, it’s really a transfer of energy. And it’s a transfer of love, and it gives people this renewed sense of, OK, I can go out tomorrow and I can do my job. Also it can really help people feel seen. And I think something that I’ve been trying to focus on is not only make people feel seen but make them feel loved, and make them feel like they are, you know, just like, precious I guess.

I feel like existing and being true to yourself and your many different identities and your ancestry, it’s such a revolutionary act because there are so many people that are trying to make us afraid. You could try to hide, you could hate yourself, and this idea of loving who you are is such a beautiful act of resistance.

CP: You’ve got a line in the song “Rican Beach”: “Now all the politicians, they just squawk their mouths/they say ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out.’/And all the poets were dying of a silence disease/so it happened quickly and with much ease.” In the current political and social climate, do you feel a responsibility to use your music to address issues that affect under-represented groups?

AS: Oh definitely. And sometimes you can feel like, man, I just really want to write a love song. I want to write a song about a breakup or something. And I still do. I think that the trick is to write them all, and to not edit yourself, but to be aware. I mean, I fall into many different categories. I also have so much privilege, and I have a platform. There are a lot of people with a bigger platform than me, but I’m really proud of what we’ve built as a band.

So I feel like it would be such a waste to not use this space that we’ve created for ourselves. And sometimes it can feel scary, and other times it can feel like such a joy. [But in] times that it has felt scary I felt like, you know what, this was my dream when I was a kid, just to be heard and to be respected, and to try to help people.

CP: You’ve spoken about not being mean to people, and even compared artists to children, saying they can look at a situation people claim is complicated and find a simplicity just by recognizing whether something is wrong. And if it’s mean or wrong, you shouldn’t do it. There are days where it feels like meanness is everywhere.

AS: Oh yeah, yeah.

CP: Why do you think people have so much trouble being kind? Why can’t they see that simplicity?

AS: There is so much in our society that is consistently pushing us away from our own humanity and our own needs as human beings. And there’s a lot of lacking in our spiritual life and our daily lives—and so many people don’t experience love. I often say that patriarchy for example, it really hurts people who are socialized as men. They are taken away from emotion, from love, from vulnerability, from all these very human things. And then we have technology, we have social media, we have so much in our society that’s pushing us away from what we need as human beings.

It also comes from, I think, a lot of people have a hard time with their ancestry. If there’s a lot of brutality, if their ancestors had committed acts that were really cruel and horrible, I think a lot of people don’t want to look at that. They don’t realize that maybe this is the time that, if your ancestors have done that, you can change that lineage. And it’s such a beautiful opportunity.

It’s really hard because I want to be fierce, and I want to be unapolgetic, and other times I also want to be this bridge that can talk to people you know? But it’s really confusing for me. Sometimes, there are just this moments in our current state I’m like, Wow, some of y’all are really brainwashed and it is very sci-fi and I can not deal with you. You are so hateful, I just can’t. I can’t, you know? I just feel like a lot of that empathy has been attacked.

CP: So what’s next for Hurray for the Riff Raff?

AS: There’s a lot of exciting stuff. I hope to bring Navita to the stage. That’s like the big dream of mine is to turn the story into some kind of play. For the band I think we’re going to start putting out music under my name and try to make a new album sometime soon. And just a lot of touring and trying to keep our heads up.

Also voting. We’re all going to be voting a lot.

Hurray for the Riff Raff
With: Waxahatchee, Bedouine
Where: First Avenue
When: 8 p.m. Mon. Apr. 23
Tickets: $18; more info here