Stirring up the Riff Raff: An Interview with Alynda Segarra
By Zach Schlein and Riyana Lalani
Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff has never been one to shy away from speaking her mind.
Although best known as the front woman and songwriter for her beloved folk band, Segarra has also become something of a figurehead for achieving social justice through music. Picking up on the legacy left by socially conscious-folk trailblazers such as Pete Seeger, Segarra is equally adept at both sharing stories and conveying uncomfortable truths to listeners.
Beyond her lyricism, Segarra’s non-musical endeavors have illuminated her commitment to leaving the world a better place than how she found it. Through her work with organizations such as Radical Monarchs and her own Body Electric Fund, Segarra is an inspiration for many seeking to achieve a more just, equitable world.
We had the chance to speak with Segarra on identity politics, overcoming one’s fears and insecurities, as well as the importance of alleviating pain through art.
Q: So much of your music and persona revolves around making substantive, palpable change in the world around you. How does it feel to be headlining a festival that shares those values?
It’s a great feeling to share space with other artists who feel like social justice is a part of their work.
Q: Although the tragedies you speak and write about occur on a global scale, many of the incidents you touch on have pointedly happened in Florida; “The Body Electric” was inspired by the story of Marissa Alexander, and your campaign of the same name collaborated with the Trayvon Martin Foundation. Is it odd at all to be performing in a state that has, in a very direct manner, driven the course of your work and causes?
I don’t feel it is odd at all: Florida is where much of my family has moved to since New York has become so expensive. The Puerto Rican population is growing in Florida, so I feel connected to the state. From my experience, Latinos in Florida have kept a hold on their culture in spite of living in a racist environment. It is a very powerful feeling for me – after living for some time in Tennessee – to be amongst that energy.
The stories of Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander struck me, and I felt like I needed to use whatever platform I have to do my part in the struggle against a racist and sexist society. My goal is to be vocal about their stories because first, they are examples of injustice, and second, I have skin privilege: Puerto Rican people are of Taino, Spanish and African descent. We come in all colors, and I am aware that in society, I have been treated differently than someone darker than me. I also have been in situations where I am very aware I am Latino, not white. It is my unique experience that makes me struggle to always be aware and to use my voice. To me, the black lives matter movement has been amazing to witness, and I do not feel like the statement “Black Lives Matter” in any way belittles my own life. I think it is important; It is okay for us to focus on this specific racism and legacy of brutality.
Q: Having worked so hard yourself towards social justice, how can individuals combat institutionalized oppression on a day-to-day basis?
I do not have answers for everyone, but I know for myself, I have had to do some research into my own people and our history. Researching the history of the Young Lords in NYC has given me a renewed sense of pride in my people. In my research, I learned a lot about the history of the Island and the ways my ancestors have been oppressed throughout time. Knowing the history of your people and where you come from, gives you the power to work for the freedom of others.
Here are some tips I have for Poc, Woc, queer people or anyone who falls into the intersection of these identities:
Find out about people who share your background, who’ve changed history. When I began reading the poetry of Julia De Burgos, I felt like I was continuing the lineage of Puerto Rican feminist poets.
Surround yourself with images and representations of your people that are positive and empowering. There are some awesome Instagram accounts, like latinarebels, moremodelsofcolor, etc that can give you positive images to see everyday that aren’t portrayed in mainstream media.
Surround yourself with people who respect and love all parts of your identity. If this is not possible, try your best to reach out to a loving community online. Never give up on the fact that there are people out there who respect you as you are.
Take self-care seriously and admit to yourself that the oppression you face is real. Do not let others convince you it is not real, because they have privilege that makes it not a part of their day to day life.
Q: In interviews, you’ve spoken at length about feeling like and being an “other.” As you talked about in your public call to justice, interviewers and critics have been quick to tokenize or fetishize your status as a female folk singer with Puerto Rican heritage. Fortunately, you’ve been able to channel your identity and life into having a positive impact not only for yourself, but for countless fans and listeners. How can those who feel like an “other” or feel ostracized translate their tribulations into a meaningful, self-affirming life?
I think pride is everything. Examining my internalized racism and my internalized misogyny is a long process that has been rewarding and difficult for me. I have worked hard to feel proud of who I am and where I come from. I will always experience situations where my identity will become a token, but I do my best to believe in my abilities despite that. Having a community of people who encourage and challenge me is key.
I have also taken the time to listen to others experiences. For example, I watch lectures by Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison sometimes to hear their experience as writers and as people of color in the public eye. I try to always see myself as one part of a web of stories and work that must be told if we are going to change popular culture in America such that people of color and women can represent themselves.
Q: This festival, like your music, is hoping to inspire people to walk away with a renewed sense of purpose, power and drive to affect change. In an ideal world, what do you hope people take away from this gathering and your performance?
Everyone is capable of art, it is never too late and you do not need a formal education. I want to encourage people to follow their desire to create art however they can, especially for their own healing. Not everyone will be a public entertainer, but it’s important for us to celebrate folk art and music in our everyday lives.
Posted: February 25, 2016