Across history people have been drawn to the city – for work mainly but also for the possibilities to be found socially and creatively. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But walk down a side street, go off the grid and you will find people who the city has left behind. The darker side of the metropolis is explored by Alynda Segarra in Hurray For The Riff Raff’s stunning concept album The Navigator.
The album is set in a nameless city and we see the place through the eyes of Segarra’s fictional alter-ego Navita Milagros Negron. Creating a setting and character is not just a performance trick – she wants us to know this album is more than just an autobiographical work. Her vision is inclusive, looking outwards to the problems faced by others and imagining a future vision of hell that is equal parts prophecy and warning. This could happen to anyone. This could happen anywhere. Sadly, it already is.
The doo-wop style opening song Entrance invites us to board a train for the city. Angels are singing heavenly scores and there is promise in the journey. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks in the city to appear – dark apartments, high rise hell, drugs, predatory men. Yet the music is joyful, reflecting the fact that living is the city might be hard but it’s where we want to be. Hungry Ghost is the soundtrack to a night of dancing, hunger, lust. All the possibilities of running wild through the streets at night are encapsulated in the repeated refrain: I’m ready for the world. Things are tough but there’s beauty here, love even and all the possibilities of a life still to be lived.
As the first half of the record hurtles on an atmosphere of unease starts to creep in. The journey becomes uncertain, the train suddenly has no destination. Then we awake in the future on nightmarish Rican Beach. Man might have been creative and innovative in the past but that is long gone. A community has been destroyed. This is more than gentrification – this is an attack on humanity. Up in the high rises of Fourteen Floors there is misery and disbelief that the journey has been in vain. A new life in the city has led to despair, perhaps this place was never home. Settle is the sound of a nomad, thinking about their next destination but you wonder if that’s only because the city she calls home is now unrecognisable.
So what to do about this living hell? Give in? Move on? Accept the fact that you will never belong in a place that wants to evict you? Instead Segarra evokes the spirit of protest, her Puerto Rican heritage, the pain of everyone who ever felt lost and tells us to get up on our feet and make a stand. Pa’lante isn’t just a blisteringly beautiful song, it’s the soundtrack to a revolution.
This album is important, vital work. The music, like the ideal city, blends the old and the new, a myriad of influences, people, colours and sounds. The songs together depict a city that is bruised and battered but not entirely hopeless. We still have time to change. We don’t have to be doomed to repeat the cycle of misery. The marginalised and dispossessed can rise up. Listen when she sings Pa’lante and understand that this is a call to arms. Onwards, forwards, together.