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In an ever-desensitized world, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra is skilled at making violence human. “Pa’lante,” a ferocious highlight from her forthcoming record The Navigator, examines the spiritual death that occurs when ancestral histories and identities are abandoned in order to assimilate. The song’s title is a Spanish affirmation that means “onwards, forwards,” borrowed from the name of the newspaper published by the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican community activist group that agitated for change in the 1970s. Segarra also samples a recording of Pedro Pietri’s seminal 1969 poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” which illuminated the rigged game of naturalization to a generation. But her lament is entirely her own.
Groups like the Young Lords offer free translation services to immigrants dealing with English-language documents. In that spirit, Segarra refines and boils down these social contracts on “Pa’lante,” distilling their inherent cruelty and contradiction: “Colonized and hypnotized/Be something.” As underscored by a recent wave of deportations, the model of the ‘good’ immigrant is an illusion, and Segarra’s cracked, forlorn voice and funereal pace expose how exhausting it is to chase that false ideal. “Pa’lante” borrows the structure of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” beginning with mostly unadorned piano heft out of Lennon’s playbook; she then turns to a brisk clip, willing herself out of despair and into action. “Oh, any day now, I will come along,” she sings hopefully.
In the end, Segarra’s faith bears out, and by the finale, her cries of “pa’lante” grow empowered as she affirms her connection to personal, poetic, and historic forebears. The force of her rage and Paul Butler’s celestial production make her seem like she’s levitating: her blazing voice warms those left out in the cold, and decries the idea that survival is enough, that anyone should be grateful for being allowed to live on the margins. Segarra’s howl is a gigantic fuck-you to those who’d write off her pain, and one that electrifies the most hair-raising two minutes of music of this young year.