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The Political Folk Song Of The Year

Joshua Shoemaker / Courtesy of the artist

Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff.

Joshua Shoemaker / Courtesy of the artist

NPR Music | ANN POWERS

When Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff wrote the song "The Body Electric," she knew it would make its way into the world, and hoped its effects would be palpable. Horrified by the rapes that have made tragic news from India to America's college campuses, the singer-songwriter noticed that her own people — music makers and music lovers — would regularly sing along with choruses about killing women, comfortably accepting gender-based violence as part of the ballad tradition. No more, she said. "The Body Electric" was her intervention.

 

Hurray for the Riff Raff made the song the centerpiece of its ATO Records debut, Small Town Heroes. The group has performed it on national television and at radio stations around the world, and seen it win Best Song kudos on many year-end lists, including the No. 1 spot in American Songwriter magazine. Hurray for the Riff Raff also started the Body Electric Fund, which paid for the video premiere here while also benefiting community organizations dedicated to working against violence. Segarra still feels that the song has much more to do.

"It will hopefully continue to do its work by encouraging the listener to question the culture of violence we are living in," she wrote in a recent email, connecting "The Body Electric" to recent events in Missouri and New York.

"I am mostly familiar with how the song has taught me there is a true connection between gendered violence and racist violence. There is a weaponization of the body happening right now in America. Our bodies are being turned against us. Black and brown bodies are being portrayed as inherently dangerous. A Black person's size and stature are being used as reason for murder against them. This is ultimately a deranged fear of the power and capabilities of black people. It is the same evil idea that leads us to blame women for attacks by their abusers. Normalizing rape, domestic abuse and even murder of women of all races is an effort to take the humanity out of our female bodies. To objectify and to ridicule the female body is ultimately a symptom of fear of the power women hold."

Making the connections clearer, Segarra commissioned notable Nashville filmmaker Joshua Shoemaker to craft a video that is both gorgeous and deeply thought-provoking. Katey Red, a key player in the bounce music scene in Segarra's hometown of New Orleans, stars as a Botticelli Venus fighting back the effects of our culture's fall from grace. Showered in bullet casings, gathering them up as a way of making new life, Katey Red is the mother of hope amid brutality. Shoemaker's staging and slow-panning camera work recall the dream portraits of artist Bill Viola as well as landmark videos by Tarsem Singh for R.E.M. and Anton Corbijn for Nirvana.

"This video is a meditation on the acceptance of violence and discrimination against people of color, women and the LGBTQ community," Shoemaker wrote in an email. "We took these frustrations and paired them with classic imagery that would be recognized by most, allowing us to set a tone for the narrative. Replacing the Botticelli's Venus with a Katey Red, the transgender mother of 'sissy bounce,' is something that speaks clearly without having to be salacious or heavy-handed."

The video's beauty draws in the viewer; its subtler messages inspire a profound emotional reaction. Segarra sees it as a way of helping "The Body Electric" move outward, further, into the world. "I hope this song breathes power and humanity back into all people who feel targeted by violence and oppression," she wrote, "whether they exist in our old stories and songs or are marching in protest as we speak."