The new extended video set in part in Puerto Rico is a reason to listen again to last year's "The Navigator."
Alynda Lee Segarra’s work as Hurray for the Riff Raff has carried an air of significance. Even My Dearest Darkest Neighbor feels ambitious despite being a covers album because she doesn’t waste time on trifling writers. Small Town Heroes worked serious alchemy as the album used historically meaningful forms like country and folk to speak for the lives of people living on the margins of the Bywater. Gender and class issues play out with unassuming ease on it, and perhaps because The Navigator didn’t share its effortlessness when Hurray released it last year, so I found the album out of balance. Segarra’s desire to use her platform to address the same issues with her Puerto Rican identity added to the mix made the album seem burdened by a desire to be meaningful at the time.
Yesterday, Segarra released the video for “Pa’lante” from The Navigator, and it made me revisit the album and hear other contexts. Something in the song brought to mind Garland Jeffreys, Elliot Murphy, and the New York City songwriters who were casually dubbed New Dylans in the mid-1970s. They shied from the term, but the earnest, self-conscious artfulness in their songwriting made the label stick and weigh them down too. The Navigator is an NYC album in its concerns and its sound, which like Jeffreys and Murphy pulled together the breadth of music heard in the city. “Living in the City,” the album’s second song, is very much in their mode, complete with literature-conscious lyrics that also speak the way New Yorkers speak.
The video breaks the song in three, stretching out a six minute song to a nine-minute video that tells the story of Puerto Ricans in New York finding their lives and maybe each other at home after Hurricane Maria. Segarra sings “Be something” as if they’re the last two words that will come out of her mouth and she has to make them count, and the video mimics that directness. The song’s raw beauty is similarly reflected in the video when the setting shifts to Puerto Rico, where director Kristian Mercado Figueroa gives us images of great beauty juxtaposed with destruction. “Pa’lante” isn’t disaster porn, though. The hurricane’s aftermath is shown as the country and relationships are being repaired and rebuilt.
Now, I wonder if part of my reservations about the album came in part from the way “Hungry Ghost,” the first release from the album, framed my reception of it. The title still seems like a forced image for a forced song. Otherwise, I hear an album that does almost everything I want from an artist. I wish Segarra had a clearer sense of humor, but I love that she uses her platform fearlessly. There’s no hint in her songs or extracurricular activities that she’s playing a long game, building equity for another day when she can more safely use her platform for good purposes. Segarra is saying what she can while she can, exploring identities and publicly supporting organizations she believes in. The video ends with a call to support the Prima Fund, which works to foster an independent music community in Puerto Rico.
It may also be that someone who makes speaks explicitly as a Puerto Rican woman and a member of the LGBTQ community is a voice that resonates now more than it did a year ago. Then, the Trump Presidency was largely a threat, but one that might bumble itself into irrelevance. After a year of Trump repeatedly demonstrating his willingness to punch down and Jeff Sessions proving himself extremely competent when it comes to attacking immigrants fleeing poverty and violence, I think I needed to hear Segarra’s passionate embrace of these people and their lives.