A protest power ballad

This stirring number by New Orleans folk-blues band Hurray for the Riff Raff looks both ahead and to the past


Alynda Segarra, lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Alynda Segarra, lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff.

The best political songwriting usually comes from a personal place, something that’s as true of Woody Guthrie as Rage Against the Machine. While the quantum and quality of explicitly political music on the radio may not be what it once was, there’s still Run The Jewels and Swet Shop Boys and Anohni to sing or shout uncomfortable truths at the establishment. Add to this New Orleans outfit Hurray for the Riff Raff, whose Pa’lante (from their new album The Navigator) is a searing civil rights anthem.

The weary ferocity of Alynda Segarra’s voice on Pa’lante, coming at you right out of the gate, accompanied only by piano, is startling. “Oh I just wanna go to work/and get back home/and be something,” she sings. “I just wanna fall and lie/and do my time...” A minute later, she moves beyond the personal. “Colonized, and hypnotized, be something/Sterilized, dehumanized, be something,” she exhorts.

Pa’lante becomes more explicitly political when we hear lines from Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary, a poem first read publicly in support of the Young Lords, a group fighting for Latino rights in the 1960s and 1970s. “Dead Puerto Ricans/ Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans/Who never took a coffee break/ from the ten commandments/to kill, kill, kill,” a voice intones. Segarra, who grew up in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican descent, picks up the thread, paying tribute to the characters in Pietro’s poem; gay rights activist Sylvia Rivera and Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos; her parents and other strugglers and fighters. She caps each shout-out with a cry of “pa’lante”; a contraction of “para adelante” or “move forward”.

Musically, Pa’lante is a power ballad of sorts, as well as the best Beatles facsimile in recent memory. If the piano in the beginning sounds like the start of Let It Be, the jaunty midsection, down to the Ringo Starr-like drumming, is undeniably like A Day In The Life. And Segarra’s ragged cries are no less moving than John Lennon screaming at his demons at the end of Mother. You could understand nothing of what she’s saying and still feel the crushing emotion behind it.

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