The band's sixth LP demands more seats at the table. It's a powerful folk concept album from a Nuyorican runaway who grew up obsessed with West Side Story before being liberated by Bikini Kill.
Hurray for the Riff RaffVia
Alynda Lee Segarra, the creative force behind Hurray for the Riff Raff, spent her formative years crisscrossing the country on greyhounds and freight trains. She climbed from the streets of New Orleans to the airwaves of NPR with a washboard and a banjo, a Horatio Alger narrative for the Americana set. Her last LP, Small Town Heroes, felt like a thesis presentation from a student of American folk music. She’d spent years studying the form and its practitioners, a product of a community that helped lift her from street corners and coffee shops to international tours and a record contract. While searching for herself, she also imitated others, living inside classic folk, roots, and country songs while shaping her own powerful voice.
In that sense, The Navigator represents a departure—she hasn’t abandoned those sounds, rather she’s graduated to something singular. It's roots music for the immigrant ID, a folk concept album from a Nuyorican runaway who grew up obsessed with West Side Story before being liberated by Bikini Kill. They lay bare the conceit in the album’s Playbill-themed packaging: The songs are presented in two “Acts” that follow her alter ego, a Puerto Rican street kid named Navita Milagros Negrón, who visits a bruja at the end of Act I looking for an escape from the oppressive confines of her city. When she wakes up from the bruja’s spell at the start of Act II (40 years later), everything she knew is gone, and she begins to realize what she’s lost.
Navi is a character, but she’s also very much Segarra. She puts years of telling others’ stories to work telling her own; in “Living in the City,” she sets the scene for the first act, a snapshot of life in the PJs for a young girl. Navi brushes off casual harassment with a shrug, watches friends self-destruct with drug abuse, and sneaks into stairwells for fleeting moments of intimacy. The city is a thinly veiled but unnamed stand-in for New York, a city and culture Segarra fled from the day after she turned 17.
The Navigator is ostensibly a rock’n’roll record, but it expands Segarra’s palette beyond the folk/country/blues lane she’s thus far occupied. Her boozy, morning-after croon is still gorgeous, but now there’s elements of Puerto Rican bomba and salsa, son cubano, doo-wop, and even the spoken-word poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe she haunted as a teen. Her band has gone through a variety of lineups, but this one feels like a clean slate. Her longtime creative partners Sam Doores and Yosi Perlstein are nowhere to be seen—in their place, she’s recruited five hand percussionists, a trio of doo-wop backup singers, and Yva Las Vegass, a Venezuelan folkie from Brooklyn. She even samples the ghost of Pedro Pietri, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe co-founder whose “Puerto Rican Obituary” serves as a bridge between the two movements of her piano ballad showstopper, “Pa’lante.”
In the few moments when she strips away the beer-soaked barroom blues of “Life to Save” and the acoustic spiritual “Halfway There,” she almost sounds like her old self. But when the bongos break in on “Rican Beach,” and she begins to list “our” things that “they” stole—language, names, neighbors, streets— she’s in a different place. Like many Latin-Americans, she’s somewhere in the middle, colored not just by her ancestors but the stimuli of the diaspora: The places she’s seen, the people she’s met, the music she’s loved. The Navigator, which reclaims folk’s protest roots and marries them to the sounds of the Caribbean, is a statement of that identity.
Segarra speaks to a broader reconciliation with the assimilation engrained in the American Dream, an acknowledgment of the limited perspective that comes with the white history taught in schools. She never learned Spanish and admits that for years she carried an inexplicable shame of her heritage. While writing this record, she pored through the Fania records back catalog, fell in love with the Puerto Rican poets Julia de Burgos and Pedro Pietri, and learned the history of the Young Lords and their newspaper, Pa’lante. Like Navi, the city Segarra returned to after traversing the country was unrecognizable from the city she left—the culture she once took for granted now fading away. When the “Fourteen Floors” of her old project building come crashing down, she wistfully remembers her father’s tales of the long journey from Puerto Rico, a haunting whisper of “it took a million years.” It's the universal dilemma of the displaced—where do you go when you can’t go home again?
Segarra’s first big foray into activism came with the feminist murder ballad “The Body Electric,” the centerpiece of Small Town Heroes; she would later re-release her 2013 Trayvon Martin tribute “Everybody Knows” as part of the Our First 100 Days project. But the most declarative statement she’s made yet came in the form of a scathing blog post admonishing the silence of her peers in the folk scene, near demanding that they use their art to join the struggle of their black and brown brothers and sisters whose bodies have been on the front lines of a civil rights movement that never really ended.
The Navigator’s activist bent leans mostly towards systemic symptoms of colonization and gentrification, issues at the heart of both Navi and Segarra’s story. If the call to arms of “Pa’lante” is the spiritual heart of the album, “Rican Beach” is an angry protest, a condemnation of both the villainous and the apathetic: “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.”
La gente del barrio has always had a voice, but too often it has been silenced. Not unlike Solange did on her stunning 2016 opus, Segarra uses The Navigator to demand more seats at the table for those voices that have always existed, but simply went unheard. And as she rallies the troops for the fight to come on “Pa’lante,” “From El Barrio to Arecibo…from Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till” she unites the struggle of all the survivors of white supremacy, and urges them onward, together.