Was it a photograph? A sculpture? A novel? Or maybe a song? Of late, I’ve been thinking about the artists across mediums, who have, with intentionality, attempted to raise awareness and call us to action across a spectrum of issues.

We need those writers, poets and playwrights, choreographers and dancers, painters and sculptors, photographers and filmmakers, songwriters and musicians who can move us in ways that allow us to feel a deeper connection to others, ourselves, nature, and Mother Earth.

This month’s featured artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurray for the Riff Raff performing in Denver, Colorado

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Bluebird Theater, Denver 2022. Photo credit: Susan Heske

In February 2022, the album Life on Earth by Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra was released on Nonesuch Records to much critical acclaim, including glowing reviews by NPR Music, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, The Guardian, Paste Magazine, and Stereogum.

Hurray for the Riff Raff (HFTRR) isn’t new to the indie music scene, having released eight albums starting in 2007. Segarra grew up in the Bronx and moved to New Orleans in 2007 at age 17, and not surprisingly, both places have figured prominently in their music.

Topics covered in their music

Hurray for the Riff Raff does not shy away from social justice issues at the expense of popularity, nor do they shy away from sharing with listeners their own personal struggles and emotions.

In 2017, Ann Powers, music critic for NPR, said of the song The Body Electric (2014), which debuted on HFTRR’s album Small Town Heroes, “that it was the political song of the year.” The song takes on the issue of violence against women.

Pa’lante, a song off of The Navigator (2017), is a song dedicated to the immigrant experience in America, who, in Segarra’s words, “had to hide, lost their pride, and to all who came before.” The inspiration and foundation for The Navigator was Segarra’s time in Puerto Rico, their ancestral homelands, and the Bronx, their childhood hometown.

The 2022 album Life on Earth, much of it written and recorded during the Covid pandemic, is, according to Segarra, “nature punk.”

11 tracks explore not just surviving but thriving as we try to survive.

  • The song, Precious Cargo, is heart-breaking in its poignancy about immigrants swept into ICE detention centers.
  • According to New York Times music critic Lindsay Zoladz, the song, Rhododendron, reveals Segarra’s “knack for writing songs that celebrate both the natural world and articulate the dangers of ignoring its glory.”

A Mojo Magazine review of the album offered this to its readers, “Life on Earth is a remarkably delicate, tender record full of gentle empathy, of lines that ring with the truth of shared experience. Hurray for the Riff Raff might not be able to save the world, but Life on Earth is a compassionate, humane record at a time when it can only be a gift.”

A personal note

A fan of HFTRR since 2007, Life on Earth hit a responsive chord that continues to reverberate within me.  Music critic Jenn Pelly, writing in Pitchfork (2022), draws attention to an open letter Segarra wrote in 2015 to the folk music community – “I’m asking you to, as bell hooks says, FALL IN LOVE WITH JUSTICE.

“Topical music,” says Pelly, “can make us feel with unforgettable intensity what we already essentially know about the time in which we live, reorganizing our priorities, clarifying the questions we ask of the world and ourselves.”

Now, as I approach my 70th orbit around the sun, perhaps it is not surprising that these words from the title song, Life on Earth, have special meaning to me:

Oh, I might not meet you there

To feel the breeze and breathe the air

But it’s in me, infinitely

Monachs in flight, the dawns early light

Life on Earth is long

Stay tuned. Lonnie Holley’s album, Oh Me Oh My, released on March 10, 2023, by the Jagjaguwar label, is coming up next in the art and activism rotation.

Holley, 73, a self-taught visual artist and musician born into extreme poverty in Jim Crow era Alabama, has focused much of his artistic practices on his own experiences and trauma as a Black man born in 1950 in the Deep South.

In a review for Uncut Magazine, Sharon O’Connell offers this about Oh Me Oh My: “His latest album triumphs on levels beyond its inimitable Holley-ness. On one hand, it reads like another act of spontaneous divination, revisiting past traumas with plain understanding, yet also hopeful and celebrating the wonder of life.” 

This article was written by Susan Heske, a photographer, music lover, and volunteer with 350 Colorado.

About Susan: Susan Heske moved to Boulder, CO in October 2021. She previously worked as Senior Director of Communications for Student Services at The New School in New York City. She has been involved with social justice issues for many years.