Monday, March 13, 2017

To All Who Had to Hide: The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff

In the wake of Donald Trump's election victory last November, there was much talk about 'identity politics' and the possibility that the left, by placing too much focus on the concerns of minority groups, drove a significant number of moderate white voters to the right.

I don't wish to debate the validity or otherwise of this theory right now (although I largely agree with Hadley Freeman's assertion that it's kind of shitty to suggest that gay rights, racial equality, and other issues that don't primarily affect straight white men are 'niche' concerns) - I only mention it because this line of thinking has spawned a toxic 'THIS IS WHY TRUMP WON!' atmosphere that effectively tells certain people to keep certain parts of their identities hidden so as not to piss anyone else off. Discussions about racial profiling, abortion rights, LGBTQ+ issues, et cetera are seen as counterproductive because they don't involve everyone, and some people have suggested that we on the left will only bring Trump voters back onside if we stop banging on about this stuff and focus on the issues that 'normal' people (i.e. straight white men) are worried about too.

This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, the discussions that are supposedly alienating the average voter are discussions that urgently need to be held. The rights of gay and transgender people are constantly under threat; many women in Ireland, the US and elsewhere currently have no way of safely terminating unwanted pregnancies; and racially-motivated abuse has been on the up in both the United States and the United Kingdom of late. None of these issues will be solved if people keep quiet about them.

Secondly, it's a problem because people are being made to feel like they should suppress and stop taking pride in any element of their identity that deviates from Western society's mainstream. This pressure to downplay the very things that make you who you are is the force against which Hurray for the Riff Raff's new album The Navigator pushes back; frontwoman Alynda Segarra is of Puerto Rican extraction, and her latest opus is both a celebration of her heritage and an impassioned show of resistance in the face of creeping gentrification and white nationalism.

The Navigator's first few tracks sound restless and frustrated. Our narrator is a "lonely girl" who is "ready for the world", but she's stuck on the fourteenth floor of some high-rise in the Bronx and she feels smothered, marginalised, and entirely out of place. These tracks sound pointed and purposeful, but there's an underlying sense that Segarra is spinning her wheels, waiting - itching - for something to come and ignite her life.

Said salvation arrives in the form of track five, Nothing's Gonna Change That Girl. This song - the album's big turning point - starts out as a tender acoustic number embellished only by a distant fantasia of fluttering strings, but each time Segarra sings the title ("ah, but nothing's gonna change that girl..."), she is joined by a crackling electric guitar figure that lights up the sky and champs at the bit like a motorbike engine spluttering thrillingly to life. After two minutes and thirty-one seconds, everything suddenly shifts - the motorbike zooms away into the distance and Segarra finds herself in the middle of an exotic, swaying mambo that's a world away from the bricks and back-alleys of the Bronx. As you listen, you feel like you're on an aeroplane that has just left the ground and will now carry you to some new land full of possibilities and exhilarating new experiences.

This transition is immediately followed by The Navigator itself, and it's here that the album really finds its sense of purpose. Spy-movie strings sprawl across the sonic landscape and Segarra asks "where will all my people go?" as an electric guitar corkscrews to and fro behind her, emphasising her words with a sharp zigzag underline.

Of course, as many other reviewers have already pointed out, The Navigator's real centrepiece is actually its penultimate track: the stunning Pa'lante, named after a Puerto Rican exclamation that means 'forward!' Here, Segarra sits down at her piano, eliminates all excess from the mix, and offers a simple plea to her fellow women, her fellow Puerto Ricans, her fellow human beings: "be something".

This first part of the song is striking enough, but after a brief interlude and an excerpt from a Pedro Pietri poem, Segarra stops, takes a deep breath, and - as the song's close-up production opens out before her like a great yawning chasm - sings:

"To Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel: pa'lante!
To all who came before, we say: pa'lante!
To my mother and my father, I say: pa'lante!
To Julia and Sylvia: pa'lante!
To all who had to hide, I say: pa'lante!
To all who lost their pride, I say: pa'lante!
To all who had to survive, I say: pa'lante!
To my brothers and my sisters, I say: pa'lante!

The last Riff Raff album, 2014's Small Town Heroes, was something of a bloodless coup, peacefully seizing decades-old blues and country music tropes and galvanising them with a modern, feminist viewpoint. Those songs were not uniformly jolly by any stretch of the imagination, but even the darkest moments were relatively gentle, and politics rarely entered the fray; thematically speaking, Small Town Heroes was more interested in positivity, female empowerment, basic compassion, and the importance of knowing that you are a citizen of the world as much as you are a citizen of a specific town or city.

The Navigator, by contrast, is a brawling bruiser of an LP. We're living in the Trump era now - not a small, friendly town, but a big, scary city - and there's a fight to be fought. People's very identities are under attack, and in response, this album wears its identity like a superhero's cape, offering itself up as a symbol of strength and endurance for all who feel minimised and marginalised by the present state of affairs. The Navigator is about knowing who you are and where you're from and who came before you, and knowing that this knowledge in itself can give you the extra strength needed to resist those who want to erase you.

The Navigator is out now and can be purchased from Hurray for the Riff Raff's Bandcamp page.

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