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Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra revisits her Nuyorican roots 

click to enlarge After returning home to the Bronx, Segarra adopted the signature red beret of the Young Lords, the Nuyorican activist group that inspired the themes on her band's latest recording. - SARRAH DANZIGER
  • Sarrah Danziger
  • After returning home to the Bronx, Segarra adopted the signature red beret of the Young Lords, the Nuyorican activist group that inspired the themes on her band's latest recording.

'You can never go home again," Thomas Wolfe once wrote, and Hurray for the Riff Raff bandleader Alynda Segarra agrees. But that didn't stop the native New Yorker from doing her damnedest on the group's new concept album for ATO, The Navigator, for which she returned to the Big Apple to dig deep into her Puerto Rican heritage there. In the process, Segarra uncovered some song-inspiring truths.

"I gave it a shot, trying to live in that world again, but I came crawling back to New Orleans," she sighs in resignation. But New York was an experiment she felt compelled to undertake.

Segarra has lived a decidedly vagabond existence, ever since she left high school. That's when the singer first hit the road, traveling across the States like a hobo, hopping freight trains and periodically squatting in exotic ports-of-call like San Francisco, and often depending on the kindness of strangers for sustenance. Eventually, she wound up in New Orleans, which felt like home for a while. But then she turned 30, and felt that old familiar wanderlust, which morphed into an identity crisis.

"In stories, I always loved the character that has to go wander off into the woods and really think hard about where they come from and where they want to go," says Segarra, who moved to Nashville first because she loved all of its country music mythology. She didn't stay long — for the first time in her life, she felt completely alone, and she started thinking about her family in the Bronx.

"Going back to New York felt like it was really something important for me. I felt like I needed to revisit the place where I grew up, the city that raised me," explains the musician, who earnestly began researching Puerto Rican — then Nuyorican — history, and discovered '60s/'70s activist groups like the Young Lords, whose signature red beret she quickly adopted.

"I learned about the women of the Young Lords, and how focused they were on fighting sexism and homophobia," she adds. "And it just gave me so much pride, that Puerto Rican women have been thinking out of the box for a long, long time. That was something I took with me into this record, and it gave me so much strength."

Ultimately, Segarra discovered that the apple hadn't fallen very far from the cultural tree. As a kid, she and her punk rock pals would travel an hour and a half by subway to visit a Lower East Side neighborhood that they thought was hip. Later, they found out that it was the same place where her playwright/jazz-artist dad had been part of a resistance movement years earlier.

"I thought I was being totally original and breaking away from the music that my father would listen to," she says. "But then I realized later on that I was hanging out where all the Puerto Rican artists would hang out, at the Nuyorican Poets Café. So it was this funny circular journey that I wasn't even aware I was on."

Ultimately, The Navigator evolved into a concept album, with a 17-year-old protagonist named Navita ("Sort of a Tank Girl version of me," Segarra says) who tries to make her way across a dystopian metropolis in which her people are being systematically uprooted by creeping gentrification.

"It's a future that's not far off," she says, of her Mink DeVille-style urban reflections "Living in the City," "Fourteen Floors," "Rican Beach," and "Pa'alante," (which is the name of the Young Lords' newspaper). Someday, Segarra would like to transform the work into a Broadway musical.

"That's definitely a dream — to put it on as a play — but I think I would need a lot of help," she says. "So hopefully, I'll make some new theater friends out there this year. Maybe I better call Lin-Manuel Miranda!"

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