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Full Interview & Performance: Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra on Democracy Now!

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Full 35-minute interview and performance by Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra in our Democracy Now! studio. Over the past decade, Hurray for the Riff Raff has become one of the most celebrated bands in modern folk music while tackling issues from gentrification to gender-based violence. Segarra talks about her upbringing and inspirations. She also performs four songs: "The Body Electric," "Rican Beach," "The Navigator" and "Hungry Ghost."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re joined now by the musician and activist Alynda Segarra, leader of the critically acclaimed band Hurray for the Riff Raff. When she was just 17, Alynda left home in the Bronx and began hopping freight trains. She eventually landed in New Orleans, where she learned to play banjo.

Over the past decade, her band, Hurray for the Riff Raff, would become one of the most celebrated bands in modern folk music, thrilling thousands of fans at the Newport Folk Festival, New Orleans Jazz Fest and elsewhere. In 2014, her tune "The Body Electric" was named song of the year by American Songwriter. NPR declared the song the political folk song of 2014.

Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new record, The Navigator, is out this week. Part of it celebrates Alynda’s Puerto Rican heritage. One tune, "Pa’lante," is named after a newspaper published by the Young Lords. Another tune, "Rican Beach," has been described as an anti-gentrification anthem.

Well, Alynda Segarra joins us today for a conversation and to share some of her music.

It’s great to have you in our studios, Alynda.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: It’s an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to see you. So, tell us about your journey.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, I left home when I was 17, as you said. I was just kind of like a rebellious kid that felt like there was this big world out there for me. And I grew up in the Bronx. I, for some reason, just really felt like—like I didn’t belong here, or anywhere, for that matter. And I really wanted to just kind of escape and see the country and get to know this America that was very like mythical to me. I was listening to some Woody Guthrie. I think he definitely influenced me. And I was like doing bad in school. I just decided to risk it and to go out on the road.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you already playing music?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: No, not really. I was writing a lot of poetry. That’s what I was doing, writing a lot of poetry, going to see a lot of music. I was really involved in the Lower East Side punk scene. And I was a young feminist, you know. So, it was when I got to New Orleans when I started playing music, because I started playing music on the street there, busking and just trying to make some money.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you pick up the banjo?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, I first played the washboard, actually. And, you know, the group that I met there was a lot of other young street kids. And somebody actually gifted me a banjo. And I learned in a very communal atmosphere, like playing around the campfire and learning a lot of American folk songs, a lot of like Appalachian songs and blues songs. So I learned in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you really hop trains across the country?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: I did, yeah, a lot of hitchhiking and train riding to get around. I was always with a group of kids. We were really just wanting to live on the outskirts of society, basically. We wanted to get in touch with an America that, we felt like, was hidden. You know, we wanted to like be in touch with the land, you know, just live this very radical, like romantic life, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about who your inspirations have been.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, it definitely started with poetry. I was really influenced by beatnik poetry. Once I heard Pedro Pietri, like Nuyorican poetry, I really—it sparked something in me. And then, from there, I started listening to folk music. I was really drawn to Woody Guthrie, because I felt like folk music and his songs were like the songs of the people. And that’s what I wanted to be a part of. That’s what made me want to write songs, you know, was writing songs that were about what I saw and what I experienced.

AMY GOODMAN: I wish Juan were here right now, but one of the founders of the Young Lords and Democracy Now! co-host—

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —for all of its 21 years, Juan González. Talk about one of the songs on your album, "Pa’lante."

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, "Pa’lante," it took me a while to get to that song. I feel like I’ve had—it’s taken me this 10 years of songwriting to get there. I grew up, you know, kind of with this internalized shame, from the media and from popular culture, about what being a Puerto Rican woman meant. And I think it was this hidden history that I had to search for that really brought me to writing that song. I wanted to write a song that was about feeling out of place, feeling like you didn’t want to be a cog in this machine, and then finally arriving at your ancestors and the legacy of your people, and realizing that you fit in somewhere, you know. And I wanted to just honor the people that worked so hard so that I could live this type of life, you know, and also to say forward, to say that we have so much work to do.

AMY GOODMAN: But that lead song, "The Navigator"—

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —which tells your story and your navigation through life.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah, the idea of "The Navigator" really sparked a lot of concepts for me. You know, it asks questions like: Who’s driving us as a country? It asks questions like: Who’s driving you as you go through your journey through life? Is it your ancestors or your intuition? And also just the concept of navigating identities and obstacles through society. I feel like my whole life I was trying to learn: How can I be as free as possible as a young Puerto Rican woman? How can I, you know, divert these obstacles that are in my way?

AMY GOODMAN: So, OK, "The Navigator."

ALYNDA SEGARRA: [singing] Today I feel weak
But tomorrow I’ll feel a queen
I was raised by the street
Do you know that really means?

All this hurt I’ve suffered
It just begins again
In a baby girl
Or a full-grown man

Tomorrow will come
Like the turning of the sun
Over tall buildings
And the beating of a drum

It lives in my heart
But buried in the past
Here comes the navigator
She knows you’re fading fast

Oh, where, where will all my people go?
The navigator wants to know
Oh, where, where will all my people live?
The navigator won’t forgive

Oh, where, where will all my people go?
Navigator wants to know
Oh, where, where will all my people go?
The navigator wants to know, wants to know, wants to know

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Alynda Segarra. She’s the lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff, performing in Democracy Now!’s studios "The Navigator." And this is the latest album. But over the last decade, you guys have had such an impact on all kinds of music, but on the folk music scene, New Orleans Jazz Fest, Newport Folk Festival. Talk about, back in 2014, what went into making, to writing, to singing "Body Electric"?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, "The Body Electric," at first, I really wanted to kind of respond to the tradition of murder ballads in American folk music. I feel like folk music is a conversation through the ages, and I, as a feminist, wanted to put in my voice and say, "This is what it feels like to be a woman and to be in danger and to be—you know, to be used as a prop, kind of, for a story that ends with, you know, my death." And so, this was my response song. But it also—with time, it grew, and it turned into a song that was about being dehumanized and also having your own body be used as a weapon against you, being told that violence against you was because you were too, you know, sexy or because of your race or because of your—you know, your body type. And so I really wanted to just get into that idea of what that—what that’s like to be told that you are the reason for violence against you, you know, when your own body is turned against you.

AMY GOODMAN: And the title, "The Body Electric"?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: That’s a nod to Walt Whitman, to the poem, The Body Electric, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And the way it was received? I mean, NPR called it what? The most political folk song of 2014. You won best folk song in American

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Songwriter, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Songwriter.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah, I feel like, sadly, there weren’t—there were not a lot of political folk songs going on at the time, you know, so I really—I was hoping to energize my generation, to say that there’s so much that we can talk about right now about what’s going on around us, and that we don’t have to be so nostalgic. You know, I wanted to just add my voice and try to, like as I said, energize people.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to "The Body Electric."

ALYNDA SEGARRA: [singing] Said you’re gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river
Shoot me down, put my body in the river
And the whole world sings, sing it like a song
The whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong

He shot her down, he put her body in the river
He covered her up, but I went to get her
And I said, "My girl, what happened to you now?"
I said, "My girl, we gotta stop it somehow"

Oh, and tell me, what’s a man with a rifle in his hand
Gonna do for a world that’s so sick and sad?
And tell me, what’s a man with a rifle in his hand
Gonna do for a world that’s all gone mad?

He’s gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river
And cover me up with the leaves of September
Like an old sad song, you heard it all before
Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score

Oh, and tell me, what’s a man with a rifle in his hand
Gonna do for a world that’s just dying slow?
And tell me, what’s a man with a rifle in his hand
Gonna do for his daughter when it’s her turn to go?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a song you may know, "The Body Electric." It is Alynda Segarra, lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Political songs and music—are you satisfied with politics being expressed in music, or do you think it’s not happening enough?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: I think it’s just beginning. You know, I felt like for the last couple of years, as the Black Lives Matter movement was growing, I was looking around at at least folk singers around me and wondering where our voices were. And now I feel like there is definitely more of a push for us to wake up and to sing what’s going on around us. You know, one of my heroes is Nina Simone, and I feel like it’s definitely the artist’s duty to talk about the times and to—in scary times, to bring these fears that we deal with alone into the public sphere. And that’s how we can feel stronger and feel like we can change something, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you set the scene for us for "Rican Beach"?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, Rican Beach is a place in my mind, because in the album there is a storyline. There is a character and a kind of a play-like story that’s going on, and it’s following this character Navita, which is based off of me. And she goes into the future in her own city, and she realizes that she does not recognize anything. Everything has been so gentrified, rapidly. And she’s looking for her people, her neighborhood, and she ends up at Rican Beach, which is where they all are. And so, Rican Beach was used as this—you know, it is a place in my imagination, but it represents what happens when people are pushed out of the city that they, you know, helped create, this city that they’re responsible for the culture, and they’re responsible for the soul of the city. And it’s what happens when you’re told, "We don’t want to see you anymore." You become the other, and you are pushed out. And I thought it was an important theme for right now, because I think it’s really easy for people to feel safe and to say, "Oh, these certain people are being attacked, but I’m safe." But "Rican Beach" kind of makes it—it brings it into this personal place, saying, "No, they’re building a wall around you and all of your neighbors." You know, so that’s what it’s about.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us some of the models of protest and protecting home that inspired you for "Rican Beach."

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, definitely, the water protectors at Standing Rock were very inspirational to me. You know, I was just watching it, and reading about it, unfold, and felt like it was so—it lined up so much with the lyrics of the song to say that these—these folks were saying, "I will put my body on the line. I will be in danger, because that is how much I care about this land." And also it’s about protecting the land for future generations. And I think that is a theme in the album and a theme in "Rican Beach," saying that I’m going to protect this place because I want my children to have this space, and I want them to be able to thrive in this space.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is an album. It’s not a Broadway show.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: No.

AMY GOODMAN: But some have been talking about the way you tell this story with this figure, oh, some comparisons to Hamilton. Do you mind that?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Oh, I don’t mind it at all. I mean, Lin-Manuel is such an inspiration to me, for sure. I’ve been a fan of him since In the Heights, because I felt like he was bringing the stories of Latinx people into this very prestigious arena, you know? And I felt like when I—I never got to see In the Heights, but when I’d hear the songs and watch snippets of it, I felt like, "Wow! Those are my people and my stories that I—you know, and my neighbors, and we deserve to be represented like that, too." So, I hope to put it on as a play someday.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to you singing, here in our studio, "Rican Beach."

ALYNDA SEGARRA: [singing] Man built the railroad
Man gotta move
Man made a record
Put a needle to groove
Man been up
Oh, and man been down
Now man don’t want
No one around

Well, first they stole our language
Then they stole our names
Then they stole the things
That brought us fame

And they stole our neighbors
And they stole our streets
And they left us to die
On Rican Beach

Well, you can take my life
But don’t take my home
Baby, it’s a solid price
Comes with my bones

Now all the politicians
They just squawk their mouths
They said, "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

Well, you can take my life
But don’t take my home
Baby, it’s a solid price
Comes with my bones

I may never see you again
I may never see you again
But I’ll keep fighting ’til the end
Oh, I’ll keep fighting ’til the end
Well, I’ll keep fighting ’til the end
Oh, I’ll keep fighting ’til the end
’Til the end
’Til the end
’Til the end
’Til the end

AMY GOODMAN: That’s "Rican Beach," Alynda Segarra singing one of the songs on her latest album, The Navigator. A terrible tragedy that happened, Alynda, in Oakland in December. Thirty-six people die at a fire that ripped through this converted warehouse where people went to perform electronic music concert, and it was a real sanctuary.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what it meant to you and why you chose to sing about it and write a song about it?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, I really—I felt like those type of—those type of spaces, DIY spaces, especially intentional queer spaces, are where I’ve felt for the first time like safe and protected and, you know, represented, I guess. As I was growing up, when I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, it was those types of spaces that helped me feel like a full human being, I guess, and also helped me find community, when I was feeling incredibly alone, and a place to share ideas and a place, as I said, to really put like my feminist ideals into practice. So when this tragedy happened, I felt like the younger me was suffering, and I thought of all the younger kids out there who, especially in this climate right now, need a place to feel like being queer, being female. You know, it’s a sanctuary that we really need. So, I wanted to dedicate the song to these people that we lost and to the kids out there who felt like their sanctuary was, you know, destroyed, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Alynda Segarra singing "Hungry Ghost."

ALYNDA SEGARRA: [singing] Ahh Ahh
Ahh Ahh

I’ve been a lonely girl
I’ve been a lonely girl
But I’m ready for the world
Oh, I’m ready for the world

I’ve been a heart for hire
I’ve been a heart for hire
And my love’s on a funeral pyre
Oh, my love’s on a funeral pyre

When will you
When will you help me out?
You can’t even pick me out of the crowd
Ohhh ohh ohh ohhh ohh ohh
Ahh Ahh
Ahh Ahh

I’ve been nobody’s child
I’ve been nobody’s child
So my blood started running wild
Oh, my blood started running wild

I’ve been a hungry ghost
I’ve been a hungry ghost
And I traveled from coast to coast
Oh, I traveled from coast to coast

When will you
When will you help me out?
You can’t even pick me out of the crowd
Oh, and I
I don’t need you anymore
So then why am I standing at your door?
Ohhh ohh ohh ohhh ohh ohh
Ahh Ahh
Ahh Ahh

I’ve been a lonely girl
I’ve been a lonely girl
But I’m ready for the world
Oh, I’m ready for the world
Well, I’m ready for the world
Oh, I’m ready for the world
Well, I’m ready for the world
Oh, I’m ready for the world
Oh, I’m ready for the world
Well, I’m ready for the world

AMY GOODMAN: Alynda Segarra, singing "Hungry Ghost," to remember those who died in December in Oakland, California, in what was called the Ghost Ship. I wanted to ask you about Pedro Pietri—

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —who was such an inspiration to you, and the whole leader of the Nuyorican movement.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he so significant for you?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, as a Nuyorican, I grew up really feeling in the middle of this—you know, the land, of the island, you know, where my father came from and where my family had come from, and then here I was, this city kid. And I think it was really important to read the work of a Nuyorican poet, who was speaking to my environment that I was experiencing. When I read Puerto Rican Obituary when I was in high school, you know, I had read beatnik poetry, I had read Allen Ginsberg. But this was the first time I was like, "This is the building I live in. These are my neighbors. This is the reality that I’m facing, and that this is the reality I see as my future and that I want to try to find another way." I felt very suffocated by it, you know? But I did feel this relief when I saw it in print, and I felt myself represented in that way. And, of course, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe has been a haven, and I would go there, when I was in high school, and hear works of other poets. So, I’m just really glad it’s still here.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the late poet Pedro Pietri reading his landmark poem, Puerto Rican Obituary.

PEDRO PIETRI: They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They worked
They never went on strike
without permission
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
passing their bill collectors
on to the next of kin
All died
waiting for the garden of eden
to open up again
under a new management
All died
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
All died
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans
All died dreaming hating and waiting

Dead Puerto Ricans
Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans
Who never took a coffee break
from the ten commandments
to KILL KILL KILL
the landlords of their cracked skulls
and communicate with their latin souls

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
From the nervous breakdown streets
where the mice live like millionaires
and the people do not live at all

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pedro Pietri reading Puerto Rican Obituary. And Julia de Burgos, her importance to you, and who she was, Alynda?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Well, I just recently started to research Julia de Burgos, and she just became this feminist icon to me. You know, she was just so independent and such a poet and also was kind of a wandering spirit, so I really felt this kinship to her. And to learn about her really opened up this idea to me of what Puerto Rican women have always been, even though it’s been hidden from us. You know, the representation of us is often overly sexualized or, you know, very—it’s not really in an artistic realm. And so, when I learned about her, I felt like it was this healing that happened, where I was like, "Wow! I make sense," you know? Like this is my poet—my poet mother. So I really wanted to mention her, and I wanted to spread the word about her from young Latinx women out there who need someone like that to look up to.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about Sylvia Rivera—

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —because I was just down at the Stonewall Inn, a mass protest of thousands—

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —people protesting Trump around everything from the Muslim and immigrant ban to his position on trans people. Sylvia, who bridges Young Lords—

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —and one of the leaders of the Stonewall uprising that was really the beginning of the modern-day gay, lesbian, trans movement.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Yes. Sylvia Rivera is such an inspiration to me. You know, her—she just really represents to me this intersectional future that we need to strive for. Here’s a trans woman who fought for the rights of—you know, she was on the front lines of this movement. And I feel like she really—she speaks to how, when we—when we go to those of us—our brothers and sisters, who are the most oppressed, who are the most in danger, when we focus on them and we fight for them, we are all free, you know? And she’s another icon, that once I found her, it was this link in my mind of Puerto Ricans have always been rebellious. Puerto Ricans have always been standing up. And I wanted to spread the word about her.

AMY GOODMAN: You ran away when you were 17 years old. What do you tell other young people who feel disillusioned, alienated, alone? What do you say people—what do you suggest people do?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: I say that to turn to art and music is how I survived. And I feel very lucky that I also had, you know, an alternative community. I had a community of artists and dreamers and radicals that I could rely on, who told me that I wasn’t crazy, you know? And that’s what I hope that young kids right now, who are feeling so scared about the future, can turn to each other and turn to us artists and to know that we are here, and we are representing them, and we care about them. And also, I think it’s really—as much as the internet can be harmful, it can be really a way to communicate and to feel not alone. If you live in a rural area, I would say, search for your people. Search—if you’re a Latinx young woman, search for groups who are fighting for you. And you can see yourself, and you can see people who care about you, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve always been fiercely political and also personal. Do you feel your music shifting now in the era of Trump?

ALYNDA SEGARRA: I feel it’s definitely a time to be brave. You know, I feel like I—when the election happened, I was very afraid, like many people. And I think it’s OK to say that I was afraid, you know, because I want—I want us to all share that together. But to be—you know, you have to be afraid at first in order to be brave. It’s really a time to put all these ideas that I always had into practice. And I look to my idols—you know, like I look to Nina Simone, I’ll look to bell hooks, I look to Sylvia Rivera and Julia de Burgos—to give me strength and to just continue the work that I’ve been trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for that work, that artistry, that bravery.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Alynda Segarra, lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Thanks so much for joining us.

ALYNDA SEGARRA: Thank you.

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