Alynda Segarra is 36, or a little less than halfway through the average American lifespan. In that comparatively brief time, though, the Hurray for the Riff Raff founder has been something of a modern Huck Finn, an itinerant traveler whose adventures prompt art that reminds us there are always other ways to live.
Born in the Bronx and of Puerto Rican heritage, Segarra was raised there by a blue-collar aunt and uncle, as their father navigated Vietnam trauma and their mother neglected them to work for the likes of Rudy Giuliani. They were radicalized before they were a teenager, baptized in the anti-war movement and galvanized in New York’s punk haunts and queer spaces. At 17, Segarra split, becoming the kid in a communal squat before shuttling to California, where they began crisscrossing the country by hopping trains. They eventually found home—spiritual, emotional, physical—in New Orleans, forming a hobo band and realizing that music was not only a way to share what they’d learned and seen but to learn and see more. Hurray for the Riff Raff steadily rose from house shows to a major label, where Segarra became a pan-everything fixture of the modern folk movement. But that yoke became a burden, prompting Segarra to make the probing and poignant electronic opus, 2022’s Life on Earth, their Nonesuch debut. Catch your breath, OK? We’re back to 36, back to now.
During the last dozen years, these manifold tales of Segarra’s voyages have shaped an oral folklore of sorts, with the teenage vagabonding or subsequent trainhopping becoming what some may hear about Hurray for the Riff Raff before hearing the music itself. Segarra has dropped tidbits in songs, too, but they always worried that their experiences were too radical, that memories of dumpster diving or riding through New Orleans with a dildo dangling on an antenna were too much. But on The Past Is Still Alive, Segarra finally tells the story themselves, speckling stirring reflections on love, loss, and the end or evolution of the United States with foundational scenes from their own life. “It felt like a trust fall, or a letting go of this idea of proving something to the music industry—how I can be more digestible, modifiable, sellable,” Segarra says. “I feel like I’m closer to what I actually have to share.”
The wanderlust that leads to piñon fires near the pueblos of New Mexico’s high desert and all-night escapades in New Orleans. The independence that shapes communities of like-minded outcasts, looking after one another. The inequality that makes such enclaves essential, that makes one of us eat out of garbage and the other with a silver spoon: It is all tragically and beautifully bound inside The Past Is Still Alive. Just as Louise Erdrich has done of late with Native Americans, Lonnie Holley with African-Americans, and Julie Otsuka with Asian-Americans, Segarra expands the scope of American stories here, stretching a long-safeguarded circle to encompass outsiders forever on the fringes. “The past is still alive/The root of me lives in the ballast by the mainline,” Segarra sings at one point, sweeping their days of riding rails directly into whatever success they have found now. Hurray for the riff raff, indeed.
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