On Hurray for the Riff Raff's latest album, The Navigator, Alynda Lee Segarra creates a world of her own in order to examine the way gentrification is changing our psyches and our cities. Set in Rican Beach — an imagined region where the greedy transplants displace the community's original inhabitants — Alynda Lee pays tribute to the far too often overlooked experience of urban life via the perspective of those pushed out once a neighborhood is deemed "up and coming." As a native of the Bronx and resident of New Orleans, Alynda Lee has witnessed firsthand the desolation gentrification can leave in its wake. "It's fueled by this idea that as a person of color, nothing is really yours," she explains. "You create a culture, a neighborhood, a community, and all of a sudden it's not yours anymore. You're pushed out." The Navigator operates as a cautionary tale through the melody of "Living in the City," the heartfelt chorus of "Life to Save," and the rallying cry of "Rican Beach."
A few months before her LP's release, I spoke with Alynda Lee about the importance of facing your fears and why she'll keep on fighting for what's right no matter what.
Dianca Potts: In an interview earlier this month, you mentioned that music and the DIY scene saved your life. How did being a part of that sort of creative community give you strength?
Alynda Lee Segarra: I've loved music ever since I was little, but then I got into my angsty adolescence. I started listening to Hole and Nirvana, and that's kinda when I lost my confidence. I was more into listening to music rather than thinking that I could be a musician. When I ran away, music became a necessity. It was something I could do to make money, so I started playing on the streets of New Orleans and was really lucky to meet a group of kids to do that with. Music literally saved my life.
DP: The Navigator is a concept album, which is a first for you. What was it like to approach songwriting from that angle?
ALS: It was really heavy for me. When I started thinking about making this album, I had just listened to Ziggy Stardust, and I thought that it would be cool to do a concept album. But then the voice in my head was like, You could never do that, so then I had to prove myself wrong. I had to take myself and my art seriously, and I learned so much from that. Now I feel more comfortable with being an artist and having a vision.
DP: Your album opens with "Entrance," which reminded me of the gospel music I grew up listening to as a kid. It's really inviting and feels holy in a way. Can you talk a bit about your vision for that track?
ALS: I wrote this song in a hotel room right after my last album was released. It started with a melody in my head and I knew that I wanted to write a gospel song. I'm drawn to spiritual music of all forms, whether it's gospel or Santeria music. I just enjoy the way music can be communal and create a space and a time for people to be open and feel protected. "Entrance" is like the opening scene of a play. It asks the listener what "the navigator" means. It opens up their imagination.
DP: "Living in the City" highlights the struggles and tensions of city life in an era defined by gentrification and commodification. As someone who's spent her life in the Bronx and New Orleans, can you talk a bit about your relationship to the city?
ALS: There's this idea that some people in our generation have, that they can buy culture or authenticity, like you can move somewhere and wear it. So there's that type of mind-set, and then there's the type of mind-set where no matter what you buy, people will project a certain identity on you. Right now, I'm living in Harlem, and I'm always wondering if I'm gentrifying it by being there. It's complicated, but I try to interact with my neighbors, which is something I learned to do in New Orleans. Gentrification is complicated, but that's why I wanted to talk about it on my album. We need to take it seriously. We need to honor our cities, not just live in them.
DP: At the end of "Rican Beach," you sing "I'll keep fighting 'til the end." It's the perfect reminder that we have to call out injustice and stand up for what we believe in. As an artist and an activist, what is your mode of resistance?
ALS: The number-one thing I've been trying to do is fight my fear. After the inauguration, I was afraid to play shows, but my number-one goal is to be brave, to be who I am, and play my music, because that's why I'm here on this earth. I'm going to do my fucking thing and take it seriously. I'm going to be there for my friends and reach out to other women of color, especially those who are artists and those who are speaking out. I want to be intentional about everything I do, to be obvious about where my allegiances lie. Whenever I feel really scared, I remind myself that I'm on the side of love and justice, that I believe in the power of people and equal rights for all people. I just want to be really vocal about that to our generation because I think we're the ones who can turn things around.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Dianca Potts is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can follow her tweets here.