In her army shirt and beret, sporting a pin badge that reads “Right On Peace Justice Together”, Alynda Segarra looks ready to lead her people to freedom. For now, she’s going to lead me downstairs for lunch and outline the thinking behind her remarkable new concept album. Next week’s The Navigator, by her band Hurray for the Riff Raff, must be the first long-player of real political significance to emerge during the Trump presidency, and surely won’t be the last. At least he’ll inspire some great music, I say. “Oh definitely,” she agrees, “while it’s still legal.”
Segarra, who turned 30 last month, already has a life story worthy of fiction: raised in the Puerto Rican community in New York’s Bronx district, she gravitated towards the city’s punk scene, then ran away from home at 17 to live with other young people as a freight hopper, riding trains illegally and spending two days in jail when she was caught in North Carolina. Moving to New Orleans, she formed her band with transgender fiddle player Yosi Perlstein and set about queering and feminising the sounds of country and Americana over five earlier albums. Now, with a new backing band and Michael Kiwanuka’s producer Paul Butler, she has rediscovered the Latin sounds of her family home, immersed herself in the Nuyorican culture which she was previously trying to escape, and written new songs about the trials of being an immigrant or outsider in a world which is pushing them aside.
On The Navigator she has fictionalised her own life as the tale of a teenage girl, Navita, who leaves her city and returns years later to remind her displaced compatriots of their proud history. “I felt like it was my duty, as someone who has a spotlight, to connect with that part of my past. It felt right,” she tells me. “Learning about Puerto Rican history and culture, I realised that political poetry is very much a part of Puerto Rican history. Our folk music, Plena, is basically like Woody Guthrie – guitar-based music that’s telling of current events. I realised that even though I had tried to get far away from all this, I’d actually just circled back.”
The album’s centrepiece is the six-minute Pa’lante, which translates as “keep going forward”. It samples the voice of Pedro Pietri, a founder of the Nuyorican movement of Puerto Ricans in New York, reading his epic political poem Puerto Rican Obituary, and culminates in Segarra howling “Pa’lante!” to “all who came before”, “all who had to hide” and “all who had to survive” in a voice that becomes increasingly cracked and emotional. It’s extraordinary. “The songs on The Navigator are about this idea of how a lot of people have to navigate through society, because they fit into different identities but also they don’t fit anywhere. That’s how I always felt,” she explains. “It’s about finding your way through the maze. How am I going to live my life no matter what? How can I dodge all these things that are trying to stop me?”
As we talk, she wonders aloud whether she should have released her album with footnotes for all the people and styles that she references. While she wrote the songs she was listening to Mexican-American singer-songwriter Rodriguez, the music of Brazil’s Tropicália movement and South Bronx street gang-turned-band the Ghetto Brothers. Her own music, previously largely acoustic, now features dominant electric guitar, doo-wop, gospel and Puerto Rican bomba drumming. She read up on The Young Lords, who she describes as “kind of like the Puerto Rican Black Panthers”. Then it was belatedly listening to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars that inspired her to unite all of this in a concept album.
“I didn’t want to go about it like, ‘Let me tell you my life story.’ I wanted to have this character that I could hide behind but also get a lot of strength from,” she says. “She very much is me, but she’s stronger and braver and all the things I would like to be. Also her story is very magical – it’s very Wizard of Oz.”
Her new music comes closest to today’s reality on the first single, Rican Beach, a tense Latin groove that includes the lines: “Now all the politicians, they just squawk their mouths/They say ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out.’” On its release she dedicated it to those protesting the construction of the pipeline through Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and to Puerto Ricans protesting the dumping of coal ash in the island’s Penuelas Valley.
“I wanted to say that the wall is against ‘Them’ now, but we’ll be walled off too. Whoever ‘Them’ is can easily become ‘You’,” she says. “It’s very scary. I don’t know how somebody who is so obviously not a good role model for children could become the leader. There are a lot of people who are very afraid and don’t know what’s coming. People my age are saying: ‘I always wanted to have children but I don’t know if I should now.’ That sounds like the lyrics of Dylan’s Masters of War – we’re back there. It’s a very deep sadness that I think me and a lot of other people feel. How could I mean so little to the world?”
She has politics in her blood as well as Puerto Rican culture. Her mother is Ninfa Segarra, formerly Rudy Giuliani’s Deputy Mayor of New York City, though it doesn’t appeal to the musician as a career. “Oh I would never want to. Never. The only politician I’ve ever thought, ‘Wow, you really are always there consistently saying what you really believe,’ is Bernie Sanders. It makes me feel a little better that Bernie’s still here.”
Her mother was divorced from her music teacher father when Segarra was two, and she was raised mostly by her aunt. Their strong bond kept her sensible even when she was riding the railroads, and she says she never did drugs. “It was around me all the time, and a lot of those kids had a lot more money than me, but their parents didn’t act like they loved them. There was always something in me that thought, ‘I can’t die, that would kill my aunt.’ I was selfish enough to run away but there was always this feeling that I knew she loved me. As far away as I got, it made me come back.”
Now she’s back in the fold completely, and lived in New York once more while she made the music that unites her personal and political story to best effect. She has found the process so inspiring that she suggests she could end up making The Navigator into a stage play too. “I really had a vision, to make something that feels very alive and also has a message,” she says. Though there will no doubt be plenty more collections of protest songs to come over the next four years, the bar is now set very high indeed.
The Navigator is released on March 10 on ATO. March 22, The Dome, N19 (020 7272 8153, dometufnellpark.co.uk); March 24, Rough Trade East, E1 (020 7392 7788, www.roughtrade.com)