In the spring of 2014, for the first time in her life, Alynda Lee Segarra started to feel homesick.
It had been ten years since the mastermind behind the roots collective Hurray for the Riff Raff fled her Bronx home in Kingsbridge at the age of seventeen to hop trains and hitchhike across the country before eventually settling in New Orleans. Shortly after the release of 2014’s Small Town Heroes, a collection of old-time folk, blues, and traditional country that cemented her reputation as one of the most promising young voices in roots music — earning her a nomination as Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards — Segarra had decided to do what any singer-songwriter in her position might: She moved to Nashville.
But as soon as she arrived, Segarra began to yearn for home. “I moved to Nashville, which is a very white, or at least segregated, Christian place, and all of a sudden I was like, ‘I’m Puerto Rican,’ ” she says during an interview at the Jalopy Theatre, a music venue in Red Hook where she performs whenever she’s in town.
“I had been trying to convince myself that, because I can pass, I am part of this world. But I felt very uncomfortable. Suddenly, I wanted to be in the Bronx with people double-parking their cars, blasting reggaetón. I wanted to go get a Tropical Fantasy from the bodega. It made me long for this stuff that I hadn’t missed in a really long time.”
Segarra channeled those feelings into The Navigator. Partly because she was seeking a new musical direction, and partly because it helped assuage her homesickness, she spent the past three years fully exploring her Puerto Rican identity — an identity she had worked hard to disavow and distance herself from as a goth-punk teenager growing up in New York. She devoured documentaries about the Ghetto Brothers, the street gang turned musical revolutionaries; engrossed herself in the Afro-Cuban sounds of Sixties New York label Fania Records; and reconnected with poetry she had read in high school by Nuyorican writers like Pedro Pietri.
“The more I learned about Puerto Rican rebellious history, the more I was like, ‘Oh, I make total sense,’ ” she says. “When I learned about the Young Lords” — the Puerto Rican nationalist group affiliated with the Black Panthers — “I was like, ‘OK, that’s where I came from.’ ”
Trading in country-folk for a mix of decidedly more urban styles (doo-wop, punk, new wave, and traditional Puerto Rican genres like bomba and plena), The Navigator is not only Segarra’s most definitive statement, but an extravagant creation whose origins can be traced to Seventies conceptual standard-bearers like Ziggy Stardust. “Alynda pretty much sent me a novel that she had written about what she wanted,” says the album’s producer, Paul Butler. “I had never seen so much dedication to a musical path. She planned out every step.”
The album is divided into two acts. Its liner notes include Segarra’s hand-drawn map of “The City,” a simulacrum of New York inhabited by the album’s heroine, Navita Milagros Negrón, who is herself representative of some teenage version of Segarra. (As for the “novel” the singer had sent Butler, Segarra is in fact nearly finished writing an entire script of The Navigator that she hopes can one day be brought to the stage.)
The Navigator follows the story of Navita, or Navi, witnessing the destruction of her city and the displacement of her people as she travels through time. Some of the songs, like the introductory “Entrance” and the title track, directly trace Navi’s tale. Others are looser interpretations: “Hungry Ghost” is the song Navi and her friends dance to when they go clubbing; “Living in the City” and “Life to Save” are tunes Navi listens to or hums along with on her journey.
New York bears a heavy influence on the album, both in its musical influences, which range from Patti Smith to the Fania All-Stars, and in the topical issues of poverty, displacement, and discrimination addressed throughout. In the liner notes, Segarra describes the setting for Act Two as a dystopian, not implausible vision of the future Bronx: “Rican Beach and the City she once called home, which is now segregated and gentrified beyond recognition.”
The story of The Navigator is the story of Segarra’s spiritual homecoming, the tale of an artist who needed to distance herself from her heritage and literally run away in order to one day return anew. Call her the prodigal daughter. “The whole album is a lot about me, through Navi, coming to terms with a lot of shame I had growing up,” Segarra says. “It’s a lot of ‘Why did I want to leave?’ and it’s a lot of guilt about leaving and trying to make amends with my ancestry.”
One of Segarra’s main goals for the album was to more explicitly incorporate politics into her music. “She wanted to say something and do a bit more with her art,” Butler says. Recording The Navigator in the midst of Donald Trump’s rise made Segarra all the more resolute. “I felt this desire to make it very clear that this is where I come from, these are who my people are, this is where I stand, and these are the people that I stand with,” she says.
And exactly who Segarra stands with becomes all the more apparent a few weeks later, at an album release party at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg. It’s International Women’s Day, and Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” blares over the venue’s PA, before Hurray for the Riff Raff takes the stage. Segarra dedicates her new song “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” to the women in the audience. “The patriarchy is over,” she announces. “Thank fucking god.”
Backed by a traditional four-piece rock band, Segarra transforms quiet, old material like “The Body Electric” and “Good Time Blues” into heavy thrashers, but the show’s high points all come with the new material. There’s an inspiring, magnetic earnestness to Segarra’s newfound showmanship as the singer dances and jumps around onstage, turning each song’s outro refrain into a rallying call: “I’m ready for the world”; “I’ll keep fighting till the end.”
Indeed, Segarra felt a sense of activist duty as she became increasingly disenfranchised with what she saw as a crippling lack of social consciousness in the alternative roots music community in East Nashville, where she lived. “I went through a period of bitterness and wrote something where I said that, if you call yourself a folk singer, you’ve got to start talking about all these black people who are getting killed by police. If you’re not saying anything, you’re not a fucking folk singer.”
“A lot of folk singers have shied away from politics,” says Feral Foster, a New York–based singer-songwriter who hosts a weekly show at the Jalopy. “There’s an ironic aloofness or coolness in a lot of songwriters, but Alynda’s never just focused on herself. As soon as she starts singing, she pulls the audience in, speaks to them, and makes it a conversation. When her music carries an important political and social message, it makes the whole thing very potent.”
The most potent moment on The Navigator comes during “Pa’lante.” Interspersed with audio from a reading of Pietri’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” the song, whose idiomatic title translates, roughly, to “forward” (para adelante), serves as Navi’s call to action. “I just want to prove my worth/On the planet Earth/And be something,” Segarra sings. It’s an intersectional song, she notes, one that links the plight of Marble Hill with “the ghost of Emmett Till.” Segarra closed her band’s set in Williamsburg with an emotional, intense rendition, which she introduced as a song “about learning where we came from in order to move forward.”
These days, Segarra is trying to take her own advice to “be something.” She’ll be bringing Navi’s story on the road for the remainder of the year, but her ambition runs larger. She hopes to turn Nosotros Fest, a show she held in Manhattan last fall “dedicated to uniting Latinx people of all backgrounds to come together in the name of art, expression, and protest,” into a traveling festival with stops in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. She also dreams of fully realizing her plans for The Navigator and transforming the work into a multimedia theatrical production.
Halfway through the Jalopy interview, Segarra outlines the initial concept behind the character of Navi. “It was really fun to think of what my superhero would look like,” she says. “I wanted it to be a teenage girl that everyone thinks is really bad, but she feels very confined and wants to be totally free of everything and be her own thing.”
As she continues to describe Navi, it becomes obvious that Segarra is also talking about her own grand ambitions and long sought-after hopes and dreams — that Navi represents the best possible version of Segarra herself.
“More and more the story started coming together, and it was like, if she was a superhero, what would she do to save everyone? And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if the girl who was the most ashamed, in a way, ends up being the person who reminds her people what their worth is, what their contributions have been?’ ”