When she was 17 years old, Alynda Segarra ran away from her home in the Bronx, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains — because that’s what her role model Woody Guthrie did — before settling on New Orleans as her adopted city.
To make money she played on the streets, which also helped her push past teenage anxieties about performing in public. The rhythm of the washboard gave way to the guitar, the banjo and eventually to the band Hurray for the Riff Raff — which mixes folk, bluegrass, rock and Latin influences into powerful stories about life on the road and in forgotten corners of America.
“Hurray for the Riff Raff is me saying to everybody who feels like an outsider that they are welcome at our shows, that we need to celebrate each other,” Segarra told the NewsHour before a recent concert in Washington, D.C. “And that the people who have gotten me through my life are the weirdos and the poets, the rebellious women and the activists. Those are the people — they were considered the riff raff by people in power and they’re the ones that make history.”
After years touring and recording in New Orleans and Nashville, Segarra returned to her native New York. Her new album, The Navigator, reflects an artist who’s gone home to embrace her Puerto Rican heritage.
“I think when you’re younger it’s really good to emulate your heroes,” she said.“But now I feel like … Alynda.”
Segarra, now 30, is grateful she’s been able to make a life for herself as a musician, but says she knows things could have turned out differently.
“My path of running away — I look back on it now and I’m like, I could have been killed. It’s incredible that I’m here,” she said. “It’s based on luck, sadly, for people who would like to emulate the path.”
And she says she had to redefine what success would mean to her, accepting that she would have to play in coffee shops and for other small audiences for years — and, even playing bigger venues, that she might never be rich.
“A lot of the journey was me realizing that,” she said. “ “Saying … I’m going to do it because I believe in art and I believe in what I’m doing.”