Concert preview: Hurray for the Riff Raff singer Alynda Lee Segarra celebrates the overlooked

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

On “The Body Electric,” a harrowing song that falls near the midpoint of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest long-player, Small Town Heroes, singer Alynda Lee Segarra stops to retrieve a woman’s bullet-riddled body from the river.

“And I said, ‘My girl, what happened to you now?’” she sings. “I said, ‘My girl, we gotta stop this somehow.’”

The tune, penned as a response to a folk murder ballad tradition where women are commonly treated as little more than disposable flotsam — see the nameless sharecropper’s daughter Waylon Jennings dispatches with a .22 on “Cedartown, Georgia,” or the woman Red Arnall cold-bloodedly guns down in “Cocaine Blues,” a song later performed by Johnny Cash on At Folsom Prison — reflects the empowering mindset that has remained a hallmark of Segarra’s music from her earliest days.

“I first started writing songs when I was learning about feminism, and it was a tool for me to somehow put my story out in the world and put my humanity out in the world,” said the New York-born, New Orleans-based musician, who performs alongside her band at the Nelsonville Music Festival on Saturday and Sunday, May 30-31. “I really needed my music to make me feel powerful, and now I hope my music makes other girls feel powerful.”

Though Hurray for the Riff Raff draws upon traditional sounds, incorporating elements of bluegrass, country, folk and more, Segarra’s perspective is relentlessly progressive, presenting women as steady rather than generically emotion-driven (“A woman’s heart it’s made of solid rock,” she sings on “The New SF Bay Blues”) and examining issues of race on “Everybody Knows (for Trayvon Martin),” a song penned in response to the controversial 2012 death of the unarmed black teenager.

“People of color all over the country — especially black people — are really coming together and organizing and doing this brilliant activist work, and what musicians can do is amplify the work that is being done. We can get into peoples’ hearts and talk to them in a different way than Fox News is talking to them, and just bring a more human aspect to the whole thing,” she said. “I’m interested in people and … how we can improve conditions for people. That’s what has always excited me and what has always been interesting to me.”

Segarra attributes her well-developed sense of empathy to a number of factors, including a New York City upbringing where she regularly interacted with folks from myriad backgrounds, and the experience of being raised by a father who was a veteran of the Vietnam War.

“That put a very human perspective on everything,” Segarra said. “Being around someone you love so much and watching them heal after going to war as a young man, it reminds you that no matter who somebody is they might have this past and this struggle you don’t know about.”

Growing up in New York, Segarra said she tended to identify with outsider perspectives, and even the band’s name — Hurray for the Riff Raff — was chosen to celebrate those displaced, overlooked and underserved populaces.

“I’ve always found myself at the intersection of a lot of different worlds,” said Segarra, who is Puerto Rican and identifies as queer. “And I always felt that could be something really powerful with having a band and even being a public personality in general — no matter how small. With the internet now a teenage kid can find anybody, and if there’s even just a little bit of my confusing identity that makes them feel less alone, I just think that’s awesome.”

Sarah Danzinger photo

Nelsonville Music Festival

Thursday-Sunday, May 28-31

Robbins Crossing, Nelsonville

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Main Stage

5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 30

Porch Stage

5:15 p.m. Sunday, May 31