ALYNDA SEGARRA TALKS to MTV’s DOREEN ST. FÉLIX ABOUT THE NAVIGATOR, HER ODE TO THE FIRST-GENERATION BLUES.
Jimi Hendrix never had a chance to get comfortable in the psychedelic shelter he built underneath Greenwich Village. The suite on the bottom floor of Electric Lady Studios holds four studios, which artists and engineers have used for the 47 years since the space opened, just four weeks before Hendrix’s death in the summer of 1970. On a mild Sunday morning in February, it took Alynda Segarra just 20 or so minutes to travel to this musician’s cove from the apartment she was subletting in Harlem, not far from where she’d grown up. On the express-train ride downtown, she sensed the first 17 years of her life vibrating above her — the life she had lived before running away from the city, her family, and her history, into the grasp of New Orleans.
“It feels like a homecoming,” Segarra tells me, warming her hands on a coffee cup. The Hurray for the Riff Raff musician makes confident eye contact from underneath a fringe of dark hair. She’s settled in the seating area outside of a back studio, the last stop down a curvilinear wall decorated with plaques from Weezer, D’Angelo, The Velvet Underground, and the abundant stars of many genres who have created within these walls. Segarra, 30, leans over, stretching her forearm over a burnt-orange Persian rug. “I got this tattoo a day or two after I ran away,” she says. “It was at this woman’s apartment. I felt like I needed armor. You can’t really tell that it’s Frida Kahlo, but it is her profile. She always spoke to me. She was queer, she had all these roadblocks, physically, and she refused to give up.”
Scrawled beside the skin/shadow tableau is a phrase derived from the name of a 1944 self-portrait by Kahlo, a stern rendering of the painter both constrained and supported by a brace resembling the steel corset she wore while suffering from polio: “The Broken Column Rebuilds Itself.”
Affection for Kahlo is ubiquitous and commercialized, but Segarra is genuinely drawn to the painter’s original darkness. Segarra’s own biography is rooted in a sort of American urgency that starts to sound like a myth. She was born to hardworking Puerto Rican career educators in the Bronx, but spent most of her childhood staying with her aunt and uncle, Jose and Nereida, in Marble Hill, an uptown enclave just nominally in Manhattan. Her aunt, she says, understood her in a way her mother did not: “My aunt’s love for me is psychic.”
Still, her aunt couldn’t give her the sort of home Segarra hungered for. Downtown could.
Segarra, who couldn’t speak Spanish, recalls feeling lost observing the language, style, and behaviors of the Puerto Rican and Dominican kids on the uptown blocks. During her teen years, she haunted the punk scenes of the early aughts, revitalizing efforts that were gaining ground in the Lower East Side and the Village. There, she started to find people — misfits — with whom she shared common, Riot Grrrl-laced ground. She began to consider a more itinerant life, and the sort of people it might lead her to. She hopped on freight trains that zigzagged the country, leaving the city in its post-9/11 reel.
“I wanted to be a white man from Oklahoma,” Segarra jokes, reminiscing on her late teenage psyche. “I wanted to be Guthrie. I didn’t want ancestors. I didn’t want roots. For a while, I just wanted to be this traveling troubadour.” It was around this time that Segarra grew fluent and intimate with essential Americana — every sound from the primitive blues to big band to melancholic folk. Segarra linked up with fellow earnest New Orleanians, including Sam Doores and Dan Cutler, who now perform as The Deslondes. With their help, she put out the first recordings under the band name Hurray for the Riff Raff in 2007.
Ten years later, Segarra has completed a project that shows all the maturation she’s experienced since starting the band. The Navigator, released earlier this month, communicates, through lyric and sound, a first-generation energy. The folk music that Segarra has carefully arranged since the beginnings of her career sounds audacious in this new, cultivated form: Americana protest music that’s relevant not just in this country, but across the Caribbean, in Latin America, and further beyond.
“The instruments — that’s why I started playing folk music,” Segarra says, looking over at one of Electric Lady’s pianos. “I started playing instruments I could literally carry around.” And perhaps the logistical mobility of traditional folk instruments — guitar, banjo, washboard — was part of what drove her toward Americana. Still, Segarra’s style as vocalist, instrumentalist, and writer expresses a knowledge of the catalogue that is much more than functional. What it sounds like is something bordering on loyalty.
Besides their original songs, which tell bracing stories of uniquely American dramas, Hurray for the Riff Raff often release their own versions of canonical Americana songs. Though male keepers might have been the initial symbols that drew her, Segarra has also tended toward the feminine. On 2013’s My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, she covered Lucinda Williams and Billie Holiday. (Last year, Segarra and Williams performed “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World.”) Her voice, earthen yet buoyant in its clarity, rejuvenates the bluesier roots of what we currently accept as folk music via Dylan.
Segarra felt culturally indebted to New Orleans once she settled there in her early twenties in 2008, even and especially in its post-Katrina impoverishment. “I knew that I was a privileged person there, even though I was basically homeless,” she says. “I saw people moving there and choosing not to engage with the immediate traumatic history, but I couldn’t do that” — meaning the recent influx of well-off millennials to the area. In 2014, Segarra and her band released the lauded Small Town Heroes, their first album for the rootsy label ATO Records, a charismatic interpretation of life and death in a forsaken American city. One highlight, “St. Roch Blues,” is a doo-wop, ’60s-minded elegy for all the friends lost to violence, both governmental and casual, in the years since she’d moved there. The video was shot in a tall church. “There must be somewhere in this whole world,” she sings.
Finding a physical and musical home inevitably made the consummate traveler restless. And the apparent apathy of many of her white genre peers in the face of racist police violence drove her to frustration. A refuge had become a site of maladjustment, once again. “This is a call to all of you folk singers,” Segarra wrote in an op-ed in May of 2015. “I am asking you to, as bell hooks says, FALL IN LOVE WITH JUSTICE.”
“I remember when I first moved away from New Orleans, a musician who will remain nameless said, ‘Who’s going to listen to you if you don’t have your ‘New Orleans’ thing?” Segarra tells me later when I ask about the post. “In the Americana world, the sentiment was more, ‘I can’t tell what she is racially, but she has a banjo, so we’ll give her a pass.'”
Around the same time as her op-ed, Segarra’s last living grandparent grew ill. She had spent childhood Christmases in her grandmother Hobita’s place in the Chelsea projects, fighting for room in family pictures amongst her dozens of cousins. “I was able to thank her while she was dying,” Segarra says. “She came here from Puerto Rico with nothing and worked so hard. At that moment, I realized I needed to do work for my grandparents. The Navigator would be for my ancestors.”
Her relationship to this land also changed. “With the rampant demonization of Mexican people happening, black and brown people being arrested and killed for just walking, I knew things wouldn’t be the same,” she says. “I couldn’t passively be on the side of xenophobia.” The album Segarra was working on began to take on double weight: a channel for her to return to the ancestry she’d felt detached from, and a vehicle through which to condemn the contemporary political climate.
So she went back to Nashville, where she’d recorded two earlier albums. Nashville was where she could find loneliness and the hint of environmental hostility some artists need in order to sit down and create. Nashville had Andrija Tokic, her producer and friend. Nashville had Ron Browning, a vocal coach who pushed her to sing while looking into his eyes until she had to cry. Nashville was where she could live in a converted house with a wall that had been blasted out in favor of a window facing the water, which was important in crafting the character of Navita Milagros Negrón for The Navigator.
You could say that New York is in the Caribbean. Over the course of the 20th century, immigration from the Caribbean islands to the city increased multifold. By 1960 there were more than 600,000 Puerto Rican-born or first-generation people within the five boroughs, making Puerto Ricans one of the first and most robust Latinx populations in the city. Segarra’s grandparents were among that generation, helping inaugurate the Caribbean spread in New York and its surrounding states.
The city began to pulsate like the island, with cumbia and bomba patterns running through bars, clubs, and living rooms. In 1964, the legendary Fania Records was founded. Fania blueprinted salsa and rebutted conservatism, putting out sensual, energetic, innovative Afro-Latinx-rooted music by icons like Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, and his collaborator, Puerto Rican vocalist Héctor Lavoe.
Segarra recalls a 2015 tour with Making Movies, a pan-Afro-Latinx band from middle-of-America Kansas City, Missouri, as a turning point. “They had Panamanian, Mexican, and American flags onstage all at once. They asked me where I was from, and I said I was from Ponce in Puerto Rico. They were like, ‘Héctor Lavoe is from Ponce!'” Making Movies ended up becoming a spiritual and musical guide to Segarra during her negotiations of identity and of sound. Juan-Carlos Chaurand, the band’s percussionist, plays the congas on “Rican Beach,” a song from The Navigator about the theft of human lands, which Segarra dedicated to the water protectors at Standing Rock and the people of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, where water is being contaminated by coal waste.
She drew inspiration from earlier experimenters, too, like the Ghetto Brothers. “They started a band in the ’70s after being in a gang and they kind of sounded like The Beatles,” Segarra says. “Salsa vibes, but with The Beatles. Listening to the Ghetto Brothers, I realized that’s all I had to do: bring in these sounds while being myself. In the first days of Fania, people were mad these kids were playing instruments ‘the wrong way.’ But they lived in New York City, and that was what they knew. They knew a little bit about all these different sounds and how to put them together.” Segarra considers for a moment. “I’m never going to be a salsera,” she adds. “I didn’t want to be corny or to do wrong by Puerto Rican music.”
The Navigator certainly has roots in the vast Fania output, both compositionally and in Segarra’s bravery in crossing sensibilities from across continents and decades. You can hear the indelible print that Latinx music has left on the city since the Second World War, sieved through her polyglot ear. The Navigator declares a Latinamericana, a reconciliation of influence that reflects the angst and earnestness of the Nuyorican dilemma (which is, at turns, a freedom). The Navigator is rock, and it is blues, a rapprochement of genre culminating in originality rather than imitation. It’s ballad and spoken word with a conga backbeat. It’s folk, and it is 100 percent pure boricua. “Pa’lante,” the album’s anchoring piano ballad, takes its name and its elegant militancy from the slogan associated with the Young Lords Party — meaning forward, we have to go forward.
The Navigator is also an atonement. Similar to her contemporaries Mitski and the Bronx-born Afro-Latina Princess Nokia (whom Segarra “fucking loves”), she writes in the shadow of a childhood pressured by expectations of assimilation. She does this through a medium — a fictional character who bears resemblance to some of the indigenous goddesses Segarra studied while coming up with the mythology for the album. “Navita is not me,” she says. “But what we share in common explains why I would have chosen to leave this beautiful neighborhood and my beautiful people.” The Navigator‘s theater is divided into two acts: Navi, while young, searching for freedom within the city, and then Navi, now old, returning to find the city she knew is now gone.
“With this album, I was athletic,” Segarra says. In addition to her biological ancestors, she consulted the works of women she admired, both living and dead. She went back to Puerto Rico for two weeks. She learned about Julia de Burgos, a poet and an agitator for Puerto Rican independence who worked in the early 1900s. “Julia de Burgos was feminist and wild — she traveled everywhere she wanted. I wished I had internalized that as a kid.”
In Puerto Rico, Segarra attended a conference held for women of color. “I met Angela Davis in the streets of Old San Juan,” she says. She gave herself an education on the forgotten music production of women of color. She rattles off their names with enthusiasm in the earth-colored studio: “I read Davis’s book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. I read about Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Elizabeth Cotten! Elizabeth Cotten invented the fingerpicking style everyone does, and nobody knows about her. She was working as a fucking maid.”
Segarra’s instinct for defiant remembrance has intervened on the sexism and race-blindness of the folk scene before. In 2014 she reimagined “The Body Electric,” which upends the unchallenged violence of the murder-ballad tradition. In the video, Katey Red, a black bounce performer from New Orleans, reconstitutes an ideal of beauty.
There are shimmers of women like Katey Red, Elizabeth Cotten, and Ma Rainey on The Navigator. Although Segarra conceptualized the project as autofictional, a reimagining of her experiences rather than a straight translation, the urban women she has fought to recognize can’t help but surface. “We’re just livin’ in the city,” Segarra-as-Navi sings on “Living in the City.” “Well it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard.”
“This is city music,” Segarra says. “I want this album to sound like every city in the world.” There are conspicuous, specific references on The Navigator that seem to speak to Segarra’s upbringing — colonization, ghosts, the gentrification that has alienated her anew from the same blocks she once fled during her teenage years in New York City.
As much as Segarra has excelled at resolving the disparate threads of her life into a bold, modern identity, she still honors the confusion of youth. She still has sympathy for the 17-year-old who ran away from where she was from. “That girl got me to where I am,” Segarra says.