Hurray For the Riff Raff On Her Energizing Visit to Puerto Rico: Musicians 'Keep the Resistance Alive'
Alynda Lee Segarra -- the mastermind behind Hurray For the Riff Raff -- describes herself as someone “whose home is many places.” Puerto Rico is one of them, ancestrally: The singer-songwriter grew up in the Bronx, but the roots of her family tree unfurl in the island’s soil, as both of her parents hail from its southern coast.
Segarra’s exploration of her identity intensified after she left her home and eventually settled in New Orleans (and later Nashville), and this process -- the spiritual journey of a soul-mining nomad -- inspired her 2017 concept album, The Navigator. The record explores Segarra’s place in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and it frequently throws to the familiar sounds of her childhood: Spanish conversation, street traffic and subway cars.
One track off The Navigator took on a new, urgent strength under the trickle-down xenophobia championed by the Trump administration. “Pa’lante,” inspired by the inclusive radical ethos and rallying cry of ‘70s Puerto Rican activists the Young Lords, is a tribute to the disenfranchised. Its lyrics speak in particular to the dehumanizing effects of colonization, which Puerto Ricans and the Latinx population at large have been subject to under Trump’s wall-championing agenda and the neglect his administration has shown Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.
The music video for “Pa’lante,” filmed in Puerto Rico and released earlier this year, focuses on the strength it takes to weather the winds of apocalypse -- something Segarra witnessed again during a week-long trip to the island this month. On Dec. 2, Segarra went to Puerto Rico with the Newport Folk Festival to donate $20,000 worth of musical instruments -- paid for through a retail collaboration between Newport Folk and Keen Footwear -- to students living in rebuilding communities. They also teamed up with with independent musicians from the island’s non-profit organization PRIMA to perform intimate shows throughout the island, and Segarra was struck in particular by a crew of school kids in Orocovis who had learned “Pa’lante” before her arrival and performed it with her during her visit.
“We met this amazing music teacher named Omar who was so passionate,” she recalls. “He was saying, ‘You give these kids an instrument, a trumpet, a bass -- it’s amazing how much they calm down.’ I could feel that energy. It was a punk moment for sure.”
Segarra says the trip has imbued her story, her music and her activism with new meaning. Below, she tells Billboard about the transformative powers of her visit, the connection she felt to the island and what it was like making music with those healing and moving forward.
On the origins of her trip:
[Festival producer] Jay Sweet called me months ago, saying, “Newport is really trying to focus more on giving back with their foundation to communities that are being underserved when it comes to arts and music education. What do you think about going to Puerto Rico?” For the past year, I’ve been trying to get to Puerto Rico, and trying to think of how to go there not to take, but to give. It felt like a really great idea. He teamed up with a company called Keen, and they were like, “Okay, we’re going to make a shoe and put the Newport logo on it. Let’s give half the [proceeds] to folks trying to rebuild in different communities after a natural disaster.” Jay took those funds and was like, “Let’s go to Puerto Rico, let’s make sure that kids in rural towns have the instruments that they need.”
On working with PRIMA:
I connected [Newport Folk] with an organization called PRIMA, which was created by independent Puerto Rican artists. They wanted to give grants to independent musicians and artists on the island -- grants that could just help them live, help them survive the storm and also create community and really blossom the scene. There are so many artists and musicians doing cool shit here.
On her expectations for the visit:
There was so much excitement, and also nervousness and a little bit of fear, on my way out here. Puerto Ricans who are not from the island, a lot of us -- I should say I -- have this insecurity about being an outsider. Coming here is like coming to the motherland. I’ll always be from New York. I’ll always have my life experience. There’s so much about wanting to be good enough. I came into this trip really trying to put my insecurities away and just be present, open and sincere.
On the connection between New Orleans and Puerto Rico as hurricane-ravaged places:
I’ve met a lot of people [in Puerto Rico] who are extremely raw with me. It’s been a tool, honestly, to connect, to be like, “Hey, I’ve seen this before. I live in a city and in a community of people who know this pain.” Working with PRIMA, I’ve been able to be like, “This shit works, they did it in New Orleans.” There were musicians who weren’t getting their weekly gigs and trying to feed their families. People came in like, “If we want to make sure that New Orleans stays New Orleans, we have to keep the musicians alive.”
On music’s healing powers:
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are extremely aware of how the dehumanization that they were exposed to -- after the storm, during the storm and before the storm by people in power, whether it’s the Puerto Rican government or the States -- affects them spiritually, emotionally, physically.
That’s been a really beautiful thing, to talk to so many people who are willing to name it, who are aware that it’s trauma to their psyche, who are very focused on using music and art and connecting with ancestors to heal the trauma. In the States, there’s a lot going on with self-care movements -- people who are getting in touch with this idea of healing and using spirituality as a way to heal. With the Puerto Ricans I’ve hung out with, this did not feel like a new realization. This was a tool given to them by their grandparents, their parents, something they had in their back pockets: “It’s time for me to use our tools, these old ways and these old traditions to keep the Puerto Rican people alive.”
On her changing relationship with “Pa’lante”:
Just playing it for people here -- for kids, for the elders, their parents, the teachers, the people who have seen the effects of this storm and are feeling a lot of fear -- it was this moment of connection for me. It felt like the song was coming from another place when I wrote it, and when I was [in Orocovis], I was like, “This is where it came from.” It felt like I didn’t write the song -- we wrote the song. It was really good on a personal level, to get out of my own head and be like, “This is about letting the music speak through me.” I have a hard time with that. To be honest, in this political climate, my anxiety has gotten worse. Performing has been difficult, because it’s so hard to put away all of the ugliness and the fear, and it permeates your body and comes out in your psyche in weird ways. To come here and play “Pa’lante,” it felt like a moment of clarity: “This is what it’s about, all of those evil motherfuckers can fuck off right now.”
On the trip’s impact:
It taught me a lot about how powerful it is when I focus my energy on collaborating and amplifying the work of people who are out there organizing their community. That energizes me as opposed to drains me. Connecting with a landscape like Puerto Rico and with children, it really taught me a lot about, “Wow, this is what I want to do with my life -- how do I keep doing this? How do I think big-picture and be a musician but how do I continue to get instruments to Puerto Rico? How do I make sure kids are able to channel their trauma and their pain into music so they can survive? So Puerto Rican music can survive?”
It was such a battery charge, like, “I don’t have to just sit at home and fucking cry about how fucked up our country is right now. I can connect with people who are doing the good work. How can I help them? How can I do it myself?” When you keep the musicians alive, you keep the resistance alive.
On what she’d tell other visitors:
I really want to encourage any artists that go there, especially if they’re not directly emotionally attached to the island and this is something new for them, to remember, the trauma people went through. It’s easy to forget when you haven’t experienced it. In the future years, I hope people continue to remember what people have gone through. Two, three years after Katrina, people were like, “Well, why don’t people get over it?” And that’s not how PTSD works. That’s not how trauma works. I just would like to really remind people that this stuff takes a long time to work through, and it’s something to be respectful of.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and length.