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Alynda Segarra on following her ancestors, her intuition and her conscience

"There are many different ways to characterise a culture so the nerds and people who’re not good at dancing feel like they have a place," says the Hurray for the Riff Raff frontwoman

Hurrah for the Riff Raff band leader Alynda Segarra: “I started to become more open to modern music, because so much modern stuff is truly revolutionary”

It was time for Alynda Segarra to head home. After a decade in New Orleans and some time thereafter in Nashville, the Hurray for the Riff Raff band leader found herself back in her native New York. There, she realised the Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx had a lot to say about just who she was and especially where she was from.

“I was confused about where home was and that was driving me all this time,” she explains. “Community was my major scourge. I was constantly been told to find my community, find a place I was included, but I always found I was in the middle and I wasn’t enough of this or that.”

What she’s done on The Navigator, HFTRR’s sixth release, is riff on ideas of her own Puerto Rican identity and perspective after years of musing on other themes.

“I started with Entrance and I didn’t truly understand what I was tapping into when I first wrote it,” Segarra says. “I began to think about this idea of navigator and the various things it means and that opened up all these roads.

“I began to think about who is leading me on this journey that I’m on and through different experiences and obstacles and identities. Is it your ancestors or your intuition or your conscience? That’s when the other songs began to grow and develop. My way of feeling at home was about making amends with my past and feeling comfortable in my own skin.”

Back to her roots

She laughs when she recalls how her early attempts at finding her own crew inadvertently led back to her own roots. “When I went down to the Lower East Side as a teenager to hang out with the punks, it took me about an hour and a half on the subway to get there and I thought I was going to the other side of the world.

“Then I found out later after talking to my father that he used to hang out in Tompkins Square Park and play jazz on a rooftop. How funny to be hanging out as an act of rebellion in the exact same park as my father used to hang out in during the 1970s! I thought I was getting away from my family and I was just circling back to the roots of a lot of Puerto Rican New York.”

One of the big discoveries for Segarra came when she looked into Puerto Rican art history and radicalism. “I learned there’s a long line of artists and radicals and activists from the same background as myself, which was different to what I may have thought or known as I grew up.

“Latin people in mainstream media are the maids and janitors and we’re very subservient. Once I found out about that radicalism, and especially poets like Pedro Pietri, I began to feel that the work I was doing was continuing the work of my ancestors. It gave me the sense of belonging that I was always after. Sometimes you can only get that by being yourself, as I found out.”

She believes there are many outsiders like her who feel left out of their own culture. “I think it’s important to tell people that a culture has many different stories. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of Puerto Rican culture for the food and dancing and music, because that’s kept Puerto Rican culture unique in the midst of colonialism. But I think it’s very important that there are many different ways to characterise a culture so the nerds and people who’re not good at dancing feel like they have a place.”

Deputy mayor

One of her other recent learnings was about her mother, Ninfa Segarra, a Bronx attorney and activist who was deputy mayor of New York to Rudy Giuliani from 1993 to 2000.

“I inherited a fierceness from her for sure. The relationship between us when I was a child was interesting. She came from a very humble background and she was trying to make her way in a very white-male-dominated world. But what does every child want? Every child wants to be the centre of their mother’s life.

“It taught me a lot about what it takes for women to be full human beings and have different purposes and desires. As a little kid, I didn’t see that and I was reluctant to learn about it because I wanted her to pay attention to me. As you get older, you learn more, and now I am able to see how much she taught me and how hard it must have been for her. I certainly inherited her feeling of ‘I’m going to make something of myself in a world which was not designed for me’.”

Musically, Segarra took some different bearings this time out. “I started to become a lot more open to modern music, because there is so much modern stuff which is truly revolutionary,” she says.

“Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly rocked me and changed perceptions as to what an album could be. The same with Frank Ocean and Solange; that’s modern music which is touching upon current events. It’s something I was searching for and which I couldn’t find in the folk music scene, where people were looking back and being really nostalgic.”

Segarra reckons there will a lot more music about current events to come, given what she calls “the times we’re having right now”. 

“There’s a lot of fear. If people have a lot or a little, they are afraid of losing that and that fear is being manipulated. There are a lot of people who are being told that they’re not part of the story of this country because they’re gay or migrants or Muslim, and I don’t think that is going to fly. My generation has already tasted what it’s like to be a part of the story.

“Like folk music, America is a story of progress, where you add lines to it every time. Now, they’re trying to go backwards and I think people won’t stand for it. There’s going to be a struggle, but I don’t think people are going to let the representations of themselves disappear and they’re going to band together to make this country what we want it to be for our children.”

  The Navigator is out now on ATO Records