I feel like my generation, through groups like Black Lives Matter, is really focusing on that type of intersectionality—if one of us is not free, then none of us are free. The Navigator’s role is to tell the story, tell it to the people who don’t know their own story, so they can be free. Alynda Segarra

Born and raised in the Bronx in a family of Puerto Rican heritage, singer songwriter Alynda Segarra left home at 17. Searching for the roots of an authentic American folk tradition, she hitchhiked and train-hopped her way down to New Orleans where she eventually settled. The Hurray for the Riff Raff collective emerged from busking sessions there, set to explore the Americana repertoire and put a contemporary spin on old time folk music traditions, murder ballads, folk blues, gospel and doo-wop. The band recorded five full-length LPs between 2008 and 2014 including the much lauded Small Town Heroes. Released on 10 March 2017 last on ATO Records, The Navigator sees the musician come full circle by revisiting both the Bronx neighbourhoods of her youth and a Latin heritage that had been so far absent from her creative output.

Hurray for the Riff Raff - The Navigator (2017)
Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator (2017)

Initially inspired by the conceptual narrative behind David Bowie’s 1972 “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust…”, The Navigator is framed like a musical in two acts with an “Entrance”, a “Finale” and a cast featuring a sage, sirens, a chorus and the main character voiced by Alynda Segarra. “The Navigator” aka “Navita Milagros Negron” is an imaginary Puerto Rican street girl growing up and “navigating” her way through the boroughs of New York City.

In classic 1950s Doo Wop style, “Entrance” introduces the character of “The Navigator” and a collection of rock and Latin-tinged songs – with strings on four of them – sumptuously produced by Paul Butler. The sonic palette broadens significantly compared to the rural folk roots and acoustic vibe of previous Hurray for the Riff Raff albums, and it could almost be argued that Alynda Segarra goes electric on The Navigator, in true Dylanesque fashion.

With a stylistic nod to many of her heroes and heroines like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith or Mink DeVille among others, the songs on the album pay homage to several urban traditions that have shaped her own musical upbringing – folk rock, R&B and punk rock. Through bomba, son montuno and plena rhythms, Puerto Rican undertones gradually emerge on the title track, “Nothing’s Gonna Change that Girl” or the standout “Rican Beach”, a powerful and universal anti-gentrification anthem.

Rican Beach is a place in my imagination but it represents what happens when people are pushed out of the city that they helped to create. They’re responsible for the culture, 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.

The striking piano-led “Pa’lante” borrows its title from a newspaper published by the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican socialist, civil and human rights group formed in New York in the late 1960s and active in large urban centres. The political activism of the group in turn inspired the Nuyorican cultural renaissance from the mid-1970s onwards.

The song also features a sample from “Puerto Rican Obituary” (1973) by Nuyorican movement poet and playwright Pedro Pietri (1944 – 2004). The artist quickly became one of the voices of the marginalised Puerto Rican community in the United States and went on to set up the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York’s East Village, an influential forum for the exiled or native artistic community.

Colonized, and hypnotized, be something
Sterilized, dehumanized, be something

Punctuated by the rallying cries of “Pa’lante” (short for “para adelante”: “onward” or “forward”), the protest-song warns against the spiritual death of assimilation and highlights the importance of community as well as of cultural and historical affirmation. To the anonymous list of “Juan, Miguel, Mirado and Manuel” from Pietri’s poem, Alynda Segarra adds the names of Julia and Sylvia, probably poet and activist Julia de Burgos (1914 – 1953) and gay liberation and transgender activist Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002), both of Puerto Rican descent.

From el barrio to Arecibo, Pa’lante!
From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, Pa’lante!
To Juan, Miguel, Mirado, Manuel, Pa’lante!
To all who came before, we say, Pa’lante!
To my mother and my father, I say, Pa’lante!
To Julia, and Sylvia, Pa’lante!
To all who had to hide, I say, Pa’lante!
To all who lost their pride, I say, Pa’lante!
To all who had to survive, I say, Pa’lante!
To my brothers, and my sisters, I say, Pa’lante!

The “musical-like” framework and narrative of The Navigator is (of course) reminiscent of West Side Story which featured the Puerto Rican “Sharks” in its cast. Incidentally, the Upper West Side neighbourhood of Manhattan where the action is set was cleared after the film version was shot as part of the urban renewal project which gave way to the new Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts in the early 1960s.

There is also a nod to the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the successful contemporary Nuyorican composer and playwright. His first musical In the Heights (2005) is also set in a Hispanic-American neighbourhood of New York while Hamilton (2015) focuses on the “successful immigrant story” of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the USA who was born in the Caribbean.

By reaching back to her cultural roots, Alynda Segarra remains faithful to a political folk music trend which this time re-engages with the Latin and urban “folklore” she grew up with. In doing so, The Navigator is a modern and universal protest album that resonates powerfully in the current social and political landscape of 2017 America.