Alynda Segarra shot from below, playing guitar onstage in front of a microphone.

Feministing Jamz: Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff

If you are not familiar with Hurray for the Riff Raff, the time to catch up is now. Breathing new life into the American folk tradition, the Bronx-bred, New Orleans-based Alynda Lee Segarra — the woman behind Hurray for the Riff Raff — writes music celebrating, about, and for anyone who might be considered the “riff raff.”

I completely fell in love with the song and video for The Body Electric, which tackle racist, gendered, and transmisogynist violence with simple yet stunning visuals, so it was a pleasure to sit down and chat for a moment with Segarra about her background, how feminism is tied to her songwriting, and the ways her former life as a street kid influences her craft currently.

We are also very excited to be hosting a contest: one lucky reader will be the winner of a copy of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest album Small Town Heroes on vinyl, and a pair of tickets to a show on their upcoming tour. Read up for details!

How does a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx end up in the South, integrating a lot of that musical history into her work?

A lot of it had to do with traveling. I left New York when I was 17, and the way that I was traveling was hitch-hiking and riding trains.

From living that life I started to pick up the music of Woodie Guthrie, and also I really needed a way to support myself. When I went to New Orleans, I started playing on the street with some people and really learning through other travelers about American folk music. I really loved this idea of everybody sharing their story. I was really into the punk scene when I was growing up and I found it really similar — the two genres and the way that it’s so much about the individual telling their story and telling their dreams about what they want the world to be like, and also about their hardships and giving their world view. So that immediately connected with me, and then it just kind of grew from there.

New Orleans took me in — it just really embraced me. I didn’t really think I had that much potential, but it seemed like people in the city did. When I went to New Orleans it felt like all of it started to come together.

Alynda - with bangs, hair past her shoulders, wearing red - stands in front of a green curtain and looks at the camera

So in my day job, I work with a lot of street-based youth, and I’m wondering if that aspect of your life — being a street kid — how or whether that’s influenced your artistic background. 

I’ve actually thought about my life as a street kid so much, especially with the murder of Mike Brown this summer. There’s something about it that really struck me that I wasn’t even in touch with until recently. I know what it feels like to have someone look at you when you’re so young, and just decide that you are a thug, or that you are a bum — that’s what I got called. It pained me so much to see such a young person get criminalized just for the way he was and get so much of his potential taken away from him.

And my musical partner Yossi, he also was a street kid, and we both talked about it a lot — just how different we experience the world now that people have decided that we are giving them back something. And how we’re still the same exact people. I mean, we’ve grown, and we’re older and we’re wiser in a lot of ways but we’re still those street kids.

I think about it a lot when I’m writing songs. I always say that I try to bring the Velvet Underground into a John Pryne song, that’s my idea of a perfect song. I really want to tell stories of characters that are coming from a side of life that isn’t really represented in folk music right now. A lot of folk music is so male, white. I decided that I really want to choose my characters and I wanted to really make them come from a similar place as me.

Especially with the song “Small Town Heroes,” I really wanted to have a complicated female character, who’s dealing with a lot of demons, who’s trying to navigate through life, who has these other people in her life that care about her that don’t know how to navigate that with her. So much of that comes from my experience living on the street, and my family trying to understand what the fuck to do with me — if they should believe in me, if they should be worried about me, and just what brought me there and what brought me here. In so many ways, I just feel so lucky to have survived it all.

Yeah. There’s so much lack of survival of that experience for so many people.

Yeah, and what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that it doesn’t really have anything — some people chalk it up to like, if you can get out of a situation like that it’s because there’s something better about you, but really it’s just that you’re lucky. And that’s what I’ve thought so much about since this summer. There’s nothing more special about me than your average street kid — it’s actually that I got lucky and I found a community in New Orleans that really supported me and encouraged me, and if that didn’t happen, I would still be there.

I wanted to talk to you in particular about the song and video for “Body Electric.” I was really moved by the video, the way it seizes on this political moment. I’m interested in how you thought about it, you and the director, and how the decision came about to bring in Katey Red, what your thought and process was.

It was a long journey. I went to [director Josh Shoemaker] and was just like, I wanna make this video, and I wanna make it all of these things. And it was kind of the most intense, broad amount of things you can say. Like, here’s this feminist song that I wrote, but it’s more than that. It’s something so much broader than just an idea about gendered violence, and so much more than about the simplified idea of a response to murder ballads. The thing about folk music is that it’s about the past, and the present, and the future, and that’s what I wanted to make that song about.

I wanted it to represent all these different types of people who feel this suffocated feeling of being a target for some reason. How does that violence interact with them? How do they escape it and still flourish? With bringing Katey Red in, I was really was like, I want to take this classic art, this very iconic image, and bring a trans woman of color in there, and have her fucking be a goddess. And have it be this really powerful statement: this is our idea of beauty. I really wanted it [to be] about feeling powerful, I didn’t want it to be just about victimization.

The mother character was really important to me because I wanted to show how the death of young black men especially is also a feminist issue in a very obvious way in that it affects motherhood, it affects sisters. I wanted to make this more broad statement of how this affects everyone.

Then we have these women who are all judging each other. The woman wearing that thing that you put deer on — to me that was really important because it’s about being turned into a trophy, but [also] feeling like actual prey. That’s something that I’ve experienced very intensely.

How has feminism influenced you as a songwriter, as an artist?

I really didn’t consider myself a songwriter honestly until I found feminism. When I was younger I listened to like, Ani DiFranco, and that changed my life, and it helped me survive. Music like Bikini Kill helped me survive, it made me stand up for myself and just survive situations that could have been so much worse in life and in adolescence. But then when I was about 18 was when I was introduced to Audre Lorde, and bell hooks, and the writing of Angela Davis, and that specifically made me want to tell my personal story. It made me want to write a song, you know?

Audre Lorde specifically — there was something about her writing that made me really want to embrace all aspects of myself and be a complicated person. I felt like I couldn’t bring being Puerto Rican into the folk music scene, or I couldn’t bring that I was a street kid, or I couldn’t bring being queer. Reading Audre Lorde made me be like, “Fuck that, I’m gonna be everything.”

Those writers, I take their words with me everywhere. I still get those feelings of “do I really belong here?” And I get intimidated. And it’s when I think of those writers that it really give me the strength.

What artists are you listening to right now? What artists are inspiring you right now?

I really love Laverne Cox. Her acting is just incredible, me and Yossi really love her. We also really love to watch her speak.

Also I just started listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie. I’ve never heard it before, which is really exciting. I just missed out on a lot of classic albums as when I was teenager so now I get to rediscover them. I’m working on ideas for a next album and I want it to be more like conceptual. Not about a rockstar alien, but something like that.

Also I’ve been listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye. Which has been really awesome.

And also there’s been a lot of Patti Smith lately.

If you were on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist.

One food, I think maybe flan. It’s light, you could eat it all day, it would always make you happy. One drink: I guess red wine, even though I should probably bring water. And one feminist…I think bell hooks. I just saw her speak in Puerto Rico, and she just seems like she would be endlessly interesting, a great companion.


Hurray for the Riff Raff is going on tour starting in March, and we are very excited to raffle off a pair of tickets to any of their non-festival shows along with a copy of Small Town Heroes on vinyl! Check out the tour dates here to see if they will be stopping by near you, and comment below to enter the raffle. We will pick a winner next week!

In the meantime, familiarize yourself with the album if you haven’t already:

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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