Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra, a 'recovering lone wolf,' in conversation
Sometimes a collaboration begins before the parties meet. Ideas travel and dance together through the universe, through books and music, and voices stream into headphones. People then fall in love with those ideas and make something new from them.
That's what happened with Hurray for the Riff Raff's LIFE ON EARTH, an album inspired by many texts, but one above all: Emergent Strategies: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown. This guide to "radical self-help, society-help and planet-help" offered Alynda Segarra a set of organizing principles as they wrote the album's tender testimonies about resistance and recovery. Bringing Segarra together with brown — a musician herself as well as a novelist, poet, activist and all-around visionary — seemed like the best way to understand the messages at the core of LIFE ON EARTH.
The minute both entered the video chat, originally posted on NPR Music's YouTube channel for the Listening Party series, the decision to put them in conversation made total sense. Brown explained that her homey backdrop was part of her new set-up in Durham, N.C., where she'd recently relocated to join her partner, a teacher there. "No way!" Segarra exclaimed. "I made LIFE ON EARTH there!" Soon these far-flung soulmates were planning further get-togethers and imagining possible collaborations.
First, though, they talked about LIFE ON EARTH – and brown came prepared, with thorough analyses of each song and accounts of how her favorites are helping her through 2022, already a rough year for progressive thinkers and actors. The conversation overflowed with mutual admiration, deep disclosures and insistent hope. As moderator, I was able to lay back and simply enjoy these two creative forces truly see and hear each other, and offer wisdom to anyone willing to engage.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ann Powers, NPR Music: adrienne, before we listened to the record, you said you could hear the relationship between this music and your work. Tell us about that.
adrienne maree brown: The texture and the weight of the music feels right for this time, and it feels right for the questions that Emergent Strategy is asking, which is: How do we turn inward and reconnect to everything? I was really moved by how much uncertainty there is throughout the album. That's what this moment is all about — we're trying to get in [the] right relationship with change. We're trying to create and be in a world that we don't actually know how to be in. The song "Precious Cargo" really landed with me. It's an immigration story of: What does it mean to try to be on a long journey to someplace that doesn't welcome you? I feel like for so many of us right now — whether you're Black, whether you're an immigrant, even just a human who wants to be alive on this planet and to share it with so many people who are like, "We don't welcome you here," as if they have permission to do that — there's so many aspects of the album that resonated with me.
Alynda Segarra: What Emergent Strategy taught me is this emphasis on relationship. I think the pandemic and lockdown, it taught me a lot about how important diving deep into relationship is for all of us right now. I feel like I'm a recovering lone wolf. It's very easy as a traveling musician to become very isolated, even before the pandemic. Diving into Emergent Strategy not only opened my eyes to the different beings that are living all around us that have so much wisdom, but also to me facing that I need people. We all do.
adrienne maree brown: The solitary thing [for] artists is also true for me. Emergent Strategy is me trying to figure out: How do I [do] "community"? Because I like to sit by myself and be quiet and write. I'm always like, "How many hours do I have by myself to write alone today?" That's the measure of a good day. But I know community is the answer to all survival.
Alynda Segarra: That's a really important role of any artist or creator, to be honest about how we don't have it all figured out. I've been thinking a lot about my particular relationship with making art and how I feel like it's very important for me to face mystery. And to try to do it as bravely as I can, and to admit that bravery does not mean no tears. It actually means getting wrecked sometimes. I think that's why this album feels a bit like my first album, because with my last work I was really trying to save us.
adrienne maree brown: That's the vibe of this whole time, right? Seeing that the world is in so many kinds of crisis and wanting to save. I always want to save both at the very intimate level and at the mass level. I'm like: My friends are in crisis, I must save them, I must rescue them. You feel the overextension. This is a distinctly human problem, because we can reason. Our ego makes us think we're supposed to be saving others rather than fully living into community. I think the lesson of the pandemic has been: You literally cannot save another person. You can help each other, and you can witness each other, and you can show up for each other.
Alynda Segarra: It's been a little bit easier for me, in my experience, to be a child to the ancestors and to accept help from them. But when it comes to the relationship with the living, it gets scarier. So much of what I've learned, making this album and reading your work, is about how it's actually a very big leap to jump into that unknown and trust that you deserve to be loved and that community will be there. It's a terrifying place when you're a lone wolf, when you're like, "I'm going to just struggle through this world on my own."
adrienne maree brown: Something I've been riffing on lately is the fact that the ancestors don't need anything from me. They're not wanting. They don't have that attachment to the outcome of my choices. But there's not this grasping the way we grasp at each other in life. When I revisit Emergent Strategy, that's one of the biggest lessons: stop being so attached to someone staying how they are and who they are, because the greatest gift of life will be that they'll change and I'll change. And if I'm in the dance and I'm listening to the rhythm I will know the right changes to make, otherwise I'll stumble. I've got a lot of stumbling, which is how I learn.
There's so much literal movement in these songs — the characters are crossing borders, they are wandering on the street; often they feel lost and found at the same time. adrienne, this made me think of your novella, which is about grieving. I wondered about that theme running throughout the record: coping with literal loss of people, loss of freedom, but then finding a kind of — "peace" is the wrong word. What's the right word, Alynda?
Alynda Segarra: [I] really like playing around with bravery or courage lately — trying to face new chapters, and trying to lean towards some kind of joy and pleasure, but really facing uncertainty with an embodied courage. A major thing that I struggled with through making this record was to not dissociate as much as I'm used to dissociating. I learned so much about being in my body from living here in New Orleans, a place that is a very big hot spot for climate change. Hurricane season comes every year; the last one that came, Hurricane Ida, was so powerful, and I've learned a lot about that feeling in my body of fear, a feeling like, "I need to run" — feeling like an animal. It led me to all the times in my life when I felt like that when there wasn't a hurricane coming.
Because there's always a hurricane coming of some kind.
Alynda Segarra: Exactly. Or I was perpetually stuck in the hurricane, and I didn't realize that I was. In a way, there being an actual storm coming felt a little bit like, "Well, I'm not crazy. This is really happening." But when the times would calm down and I was still there, I was faced with this realization that this is not sustainable; I cannot keep living like this, and I cannot keep making art and be connected, and make community and have a strong relationship, when I am so detached from my body and so stuck in fear.
You're talking about feeling like an animal. adrienne, this makes me think about biomimicry. I was wondering about the natural world in these songs, and I am curious, adrienne, what you heard of that aspect of your work, thinking about us as all connected and having to look to the natural world. Is "natural world" even a good term to use?
adrienne maree brown: I've definitely seen a move to stop saying "natural" as something outside of ourselves. This is the world, and we are in it, and we all have a nature — a call, something that is unlocking and driving us in the same way that the birds are pulled south. There's something that we're pulled towards, which I think is love and connection. And when we don't have that, that's when our lives get distorted into the saga. There's something that I think shifts in a major way when you recognize that your life is not more valuable than anything else that is on this planet. And when that shifts, you really feel this surrender. There's a symbiosis available to me, if I can listen for it. From the moment "Wolves" comes on, I can feel it working on a cellular structure.
Alynda Segarra: A little over half of these songs I had before I recorded with [producer] Brad [Cook] and some of them I had a totally different structure for, because I've been trying to make this record since before the pandemic. Talk about this idea of planting seeds and being patient, and believing that if I nurture them and water them that the right time will come for them to blossom. A lot of them did. I knew I wanted to get somewhere, but I think I'm a little bit more inclined to write lyrics and sing melody — and without Brad, I just couldn't get to that sonic place. Somebody who is also an energetic inspiration for this record is Bad Bunny.
I love it.
Alynda Segarra: Watching him perform, I feel like there's a regenerative energy. I feel like there's joy. He is present and he's creating more energy as he puts it out, and it's circular and beautiful.
adrienne maree brown: I suspect that for every human being, there is something that they can do that is regenerative like that for them. If I spend a day working on my novel, it fills me up. So many different kinds of work I've done, I would pour out, and even if it was awesome, I would feel that pouring out didn't pour back. And I wonder what it would look like on this planet if ... that's what you were going to school for. So much of the misery that we're in is because people aren't allowed to find what they're supposed to do. Capitalism is always putting us on this path towards what we need to do to survive. The liberation comes when capitalism falls. So many people are supposed to be radical gardeners, right? But they're sitting in an office somewhere barely able to keep plants alive on their desk. It breaks my heart. I think one of the leaps we make as artists is we're like, maybe no one's going to like this, but it makes me feel alive, so I've got to do it.
Alynda Segarra: I went through my own experience of questioning whether my art did enough, and that was a major place I came to after The Navigator. After four years of constantly reacting, going on stage, feeling like I'm on stage, but I'm on stage because I want to fight fascism. That's what I'm really trying to do. I came out of that just cracked. If I was a string of Christmas lights, they were burnt out. At the same time, feeling like maybe this art just isn't doing enough. It led me to work like going to visit folks in detention here in rural Louisiana. But at the same time, I was meeting communities who were coming together and everyone could do a little part. Everyone could do something, and all of it made it possible. That taught me so much about little parts of a whole.
adrienne maree brown: I feel like part of what it is to be a writer and artist at this time is to be a doula of that next world. The most important lesson of the doula is you don't know more than the person who's birthing. You don't know more than them about what their body can do. But you might be able to help them listen for that, you know? That's the collective embodiment work. I think what you're going to experience with everyone hearing this album is often what I experience with work where I'm like: Is this enough? When I finished Emergent Strategy, I had a feeling of: That is complete; that is what it was supposed to be. It's rare when you're creating to feel it like that. Then the feedback from the world was like, "Thank you, because this is what I needed." I felt that, listening to this album — this is what I need right now.
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