Had Alynda Segarra released a perfectly innocuous album of folk music this year, critics still might have foisted the protest label on her. Segarra, who has been making music as Hurray for the Riff Raff since 2008, is of Puerto Rican descent. Any record she put out might have been mistaken for a referendum on the current climate for immigrants, even though Segarra is from the Bronx (and even though Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States…) and has made folk music firmly rooted in the New Orleans scene for her band’s entire existence. The color of her skin is now of political interest, whether or not she makes direct protest music.
With this year’s The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff made something better than a protest album, something richer and deeper. We will always need songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Redemption Song”, albums like What’s Goin’ On and To Pimp a Butterfly, that address head-on the issues of the time. Directness is a virtue, but it has its limits. I’ve always been more partial to albums that tell a story and address issues through characters. Give me a Born in the U.S.A. or a “Fast Car”, works of pop art that paint pictures of the forgotten and beaten-down. These vivid lyrical images move me more than a lyrical jeremiad might.
The Navigator is a concept album about a Puerto Rican girl named Navita who seeks to escape her childhood hometown by enlisting the help of a witch. The witch’s influence eventually wears off, and Navita returns to her city and mourns the loss of her family’s culture. The album comes with liner notes mimicking a Playbill, and musical theatre’s influence can be felt all over the contours of The Navigator’s music. But as performative as this album is and as theatrical as the production sounds, it is hard to digest The Navigator as anything other than a reflection of Segarra’s real life.
On the first half of the album, in which Navita is attempting to escape her past, Segarra sounds like her old self, committed to the folk vibe she’s made her bones on until now. This could have been Act II of Hurray’s last album, 2014’s Small Town Heroes. Shades of Caribbean and Latin influences feel their way into the music, foreshadowing the album’s midway shift, but she’s largely focusing on the same Americana beats she’s trod over the last 9 years of her band’s existence, only with a new focus.
Segarra’s always had an eye on female empowerment (hear: “The Body Electric” off Small Town Heroes), and that’s no different here, though this time she’s exploring the theme through the power of story. “Living in the City” finds Navita shaking off chauvinism and the confines of growing up in a place a lot like New York. “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” explores Navita’s commitment to herself over the prospect of romance, knowing that one or the other will shape her life. They are powerful songs in and of themselves, but the through line of Segarra’s narrative imbues them with a shared catharsis, an empathy that a lot of girl power anthems sacrifice for a catchy hook.
The story turns around track 7, “Halfway There”, when Navita realizes the idea of escaping your past is a lie. By the next song, the fiery “Rican Beach”, Navita has returned home, and Segarra sings of the victims of white colonialism and the thievery therewith. It is a historical fact that every race has lost something to white people, and Navita is coming to terms with what her response to that should be. The song ends with a repeating mantra, “I’ll keep fighting to the end.”
The whole album is great, but the final five songs really clarify the album’s purpose for Segarra. “Fourteen Floors” has Navita return to where her childhood tenement used to be, and she finds a connection between the removal of her old home and what the system has taken away from her people. Segarra has been vocal about the folk music community’s failure to live up to their genre’s role as activists, remaining largely silent in the face of rising xenophobia. The first half of Navigator suggests Segarra feels complicit; the second half promises: no more.
The album’s climax, both narratively and musically, is the penultimate track, “Pa’lante”. That song title is important to the history of Puerto Ricans here on the mainland. It translates to “onward, forward.” It is a call to arms, a battle cry, but, one distinct to her culture. So much of the recent protests have been to call outside attention to long-standing injustices; “Pa’lante” is an encouragement to her people, a plea to “be something”, a prophecy meant to unite. As her will crescendos with the music, she cries, “From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, pa’lante!”
It would be a struggle not to feel of one mind with Segarra on this song and, by association, on this album. The Navigator tells a story that equates life’s value with moving onward and forward, and not with how much anyone or anything is holding you back. There’s a temptation on the right side of the aisle (especially the alt-right side) to find complaints of victimhood in any mention of oppression or injustice. The Navigator is a fine argument that one of the greatest forms of strength is admitting victimhood and still choosing hope over despair.