Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra accompanies her folk-blues songs with powerful images that help further her passion for social justice and female empowerment.
Photo by Joshua Shoemaker
Whether it’s a heartbreaking reflection on violence plaguing their hometown of New Orleans or a slow burn anthem about hopping fences with a forbidden love, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s unpretentious songs always feel genuine. Perhaps that’s why when lead singer and founder Alynda Lee Segarra pens thoughtful lyrics about racism, sexism, and violence towards women, the results are often a heartfelt call to action.
As a Puerto Rican teen from the Bronx with a soft spot for the crust punk haven of Tompkins Square Park and an unyielding love for Bikini Kill, Segarra ran away from home at age 17 to hop trains and see the world. Two years later, she settled in New Orleans, finding a passion in music and a living in busking. Eventually, the sincere songwriter graduated from the washboard, picked up the banjo, and founded Hurray for the Riff Raff, a down home blues-folk collective with a punk heart that features a rotating cast of characters fiddling and crooning truth to power.
Hurray for the Riff Raff even manages to imbue music videos, so often hollow vehicles for flashy directing techniques and glamorous stars, with substance and meaning. Here are three in particular that have a lot to say.
The protest song is perhaps American music’s greatest tradition, one that Hurray for the Riff Raff proudly continues. “Everybody Knows,” a song penned in Trayvon Martin’s memory by Segarra, is a soulful reflection on the teen’s senseless killing and what it says about American culture.
“Last year, on February 26, Trayvon Martin was shot to death in a Florida suburb,” Segarra said in February of 2013. “A young black man barely 17 years old brought to his end for no reason other than suspicion. It also happened to be my birthday. As I celebrated another year on Earth, I was haunted by the fact that his life ended so soon. After a visit to the Civil Rights museum in Memphis, Tennessee, I wrote this song … We must not forget him. We must not forget about the work that lies ahead of us.”
Shot by Sarah Danzinger and Liazon Wakest and edited by Kat Soleto, Segarra’s on-screen performance (featuring Kate Cavazos) is as solemn and elegant as the song itself.
The Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls is a Brooklyn-based non-profit and part of an international alliance of organizations dedicated to empowering girls and women through music education. By teaching girls how to express themselves through music and volunteerism, organizations like the Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls hope to bolster self-esteem and enable bold girls to one day become bold women. This past summer, Segarra and her band mates paid a visit to the group’s day camp and performed “Little Black Star” for them. The resulting video, directed by Joshua Shoemaker, is heartwarming and joyful.
With “The Body Electric,” Segarra hopes to smash an Americana tradition of a much darker shade, the murder ballad. From Jimi Hendrix to Johnny Cash, the ubiquitous songs about murdering a cheating wife are startlingly prevalent and uncomfortably accepted. By writing a song from the perspective of the woman being abused and murdered, Segarra challenges the misogyny of the murder ballad and lends her voice to victims around the world.
Inspired by the 23-year-old female victim of a much publicized 2013 rape and murder on an Indian public bus, “The Body Electric” pays her homage in its name as well. Nicknamed “Damini,” meaning “lightning,” by the people of India, the woman’s painful story became a lightning rod for women’s rights in India and across the globe. Also a nod to the title of Walt Whitman’s poem about the beauty and privilege of life in human bodies, “The Body Electric” forcefully calls for and end to violence against women.
The band’s latest Indie GoGo campaign successfully raised $10,000 to fund the official “The Body Electric” video and “shed light on violence among not only women but also minorities and the LGBT community.” After surpassing the goal, Hurray For The Riff Raff announced that further donations would go to the Body Electric fund, which supports the non-profits Third Wave and The Trayvon Martin Foundation.
“The Body Electric” lyric video, drawn and edited by Erin K. Wilson, is a thing of beauty and pain. It tells the story of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who fired a warning shot as her (unharmed) husband allegedly lunged at her, threatening to kill her, only to be found guilty of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In October, a judge overturned that sentence on appeal. However, Alexander could face up to 60 years in prison if she is convicted in her new trial, slated to begin in December.
The official Indie GoGo-funded video will be shot this fall by director Joshua Shoemaker.
“It’s always been my dream to follow in the footsteps of my heroes,” Segarra wrote in a Facebook post. “Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, Nina Simone, artists who lived unafraid to speak the truths about the world around them. Truly continuing the tradition of American folk music, which is to tell the story of the people and the trials of the time. Today, with The Body Electric Fund I feel like I’m truly on the path I always wanted to be. Combining the worlds of social activism and art. I look around us and I see we have a lot of work to do. I also see a whole generation of people liberating themselves, freeing their minds from mental prisons of hate and apathy.”