From the Bronx to the Lower East Side, San Francisco to New Orleans, Alynda Segarra sings for the displaced and the dispossessed.
What constitutes “punk” or “punk rock” in 2017? Is it found in the DIY ethos of releasing your music yourself on Soundcloud? (Ex-Replacements front man Paul Westerberg has been releasing one song per week on Soundcloud under the moniker “User 964848511” and posting it on a barebones website called Dry Wood Garage. That seems fairly punk rock to me…). Is it playing pedestrian rock & roll while wearing all the right clothes (down to the oversized newsboy cap, scarves and bracelets) and aping the elegantly wasted Keith Richards look? Maybe it’s woodshedding in a garage or basement somewhere, then hitting the road in an Econoline van held together with duct tape for dingy bars in Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville and Asheville?
Though you wouldn’t label her music as “punk rock,” the backstory of Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra is pretty punk, if you ask me. A young Puerto Rican woman currently living in New Orleans, Segarra was born in the Bronx and raised by an aunt and uncle. Growing up, she soaked up the music coming out of ABC No Rio, the punk and hardcore collective located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, falling in love with the anger and energy of the music.
At the age of 17, she ran away from home, hitchhiking, and hopping freight trains across the country in search of America and American music. She ended up in San Francisco in the early 2000s, sleeping for a time in city parks and making use of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. After a couple years, Segarra hit the road again, this time making her way to New Orleans where she joined up with a group of street musicians. She started by playing washboard, then picked up the banjo, then guitar. The communal feeling of the city’s street musicians was appealing to Segarra. As a queer Puerto Rican woman whose music defies classification, she always felt like an outsider, but for the first time in her life, she felt embraced by New Orleans and the people she met there.
It was in New Orleans where she put together her band, Hurray For the Riff Raff, in 2007. While they’ve had a couple members come and go, the band is really a platform for Segarra and her vision. After self-releasing two albums of folk and blues songs and two more records via a small label, the band released Small Town Heroes in 2014, which included “The New SF Bay Blues,” a rewrite of the Jesse Fuller classic. In “The Body Electric,” she takes on the misogyny behind the American murder ballad (“Delia’s Gone,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Hey Joe,” even Neil Young’s “Down By The River”) with the lyrics “Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.”
Segarra returns to the Bronx, as the setting for The Navigator, her band’s new album, released earlier this year. A self-described “concept album,” Segarra places her alter ego, a young girl named Navita Milagros Negrón, a teenage punk, at the heart of the album. In the storyline of the song “Rican Beach,” Navita travels into the future to a hyper-gentrified New York City that she no longer recognizes. She sings “You can take my life, but don’t take my home. Oh, baby, it’s a solid price, it comes with my bones.” Eventually she finds the only place familiar to her, the tar-covered rooftops of the Bronx.
Throughout the story-songs, she worries what is happening to her people – Puerto Ricans who helped build the city, people who have greatly contributed to cultural fabric of New York. They are being pushed out and priced out of the city. These themes run through the songs on The Navigator – with the narrator, Navita, navigating both her life journey as well as her own identity and the cultural identity of her ancestors. The album was inspired by Pedro Pietri and the Nuyorican poetry movement as well as the political direct action of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican nationalist group. The album’s most overtly political song is also its most personal. “Pa’lante” (a contraction of “Para adelante”, “Forward”) was also the name of the Young Lords’ newspaper. On the song, Segarra calls out to her ancestors, living and dead…“to all that lost their pride, I say Pa’lante! To all who came before, we say Pa’lante!”
Which all brings me back to this question of punk and so-called “punk rock,” and what it means in the year 2017. Is the band Hurray For The Riff Raff punk rock? Is that term even relevant anymore? What’s the litmus test? Should there be one? If punk rock means going your own way, doing things yourself (for yourself, for your friends), bringing music alive with energy, raw feeling and emotion, making music that is both personal and political, Alynda Segarra and her band are punk as fuck.
“The people who have gotten me through my life are the weirdos and the poets, the rebellious women and the activists. They were considered the riff-raff by the people in power and they’re the ones that make history.”
– Alynda Segarra