When she was just 17, Alynda Segarra, the leader of the critically acclaimed band Hurray for the Riff Raff, left her 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 has become one of the most celebrated bands in modern folk music. In 2014, the publication American Songwriter named her tune “The Body Electric” the song of the year. NPR declared the same tune to be the political folk song of 2014. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new record, “The Navigator,” is out this week. For more, we speak with Alynda Segarra.
AMY GOODMAN: We end our International Women’s Day special with the musician and activist Alynda Segarra, leader of the critically acclaimed band Hurray for the Riff Raff. When she was just 17, Alynda left her 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, has become one of the most celebrated bands in modern folk music. In 2014, the publication American Songwriter named her tune “The Body Electric” the song of the year. NPR declared the same tune to be 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-gentrication anthem.
Well, Alynda Segarra recently came into our Democracy Now! studios to perform and talk about her music. I began by asking her to talk about her life journey.
ALYNDA SEGARRA: 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: 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
AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Rican Beach,” Alynda Segarra singing one of the songs on her latest album, 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, one more treat here: “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
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 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: 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”
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a song you may know, “The Body Electric.” It is Alynda Segarra, lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff. 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: Alynda Segarra, leader of the band Hurray for the Riff Raff. In 2014, American Songwriter named “The Body Electric” the song of the year. NPR declared it the political folk song of 2014. Alynda’s new album, The Navigator, is out this week.
Visit our website at democracynow.org to see our full interview, with Alynda Segarra’s full performance in our studio. And that does it for our show and this special on International Women’s Day.