Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Alynda Mariposa Segarra, a.k.a. folk troubadour Hurray For the Riff Raff, wrote the raw, rousing motivational manifesto “Pa’lante” to further strengthen her ties to her Puerto Rican lineage and explore her identity as a Bronx-bred Latina through song. She recorded it in the spring of 2016, but in the three years since, “Pa’lante” — named for the command to move forward in Spanish — has transformed into an urgent, resonant call to action and cry of solidarity for the down-trodden in the age of Trump.
“It was this coming home moment for me and this realization of how important it is for us to learn our own history, and not just go by this mainstream concept that’s often made by white men,” she says of “Pa’lante.” “That’s originally why I wanted to write it: I wanted to communicate with my ancestors and to let them know that I’m trying to continue their work, and to just embrace who I am.”
That work entails looking to those who came before her — not only her family, but the Young Lords, the ‘70s activist group that championed the self-determination of Puerto Ricans, who adopted “Pa’lante” as their motto — and finding hope while facing xenophobia and racism from those in power.
With its call-back chorus and approachable melody, “Pa’lante” is inspired in its simplicity: Segarra’s sings her own words and stanzas from Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary while playing a somber tune on the piano. She manages to condense centuries of struggle and conflict borne of neocolonialism into a six-minute meditation. She incites and embraces the listener at the same time, a quality that makes “Pa’lante” “the key” of 2017 album The Navigator, according to producer Paul Butler (Andrew Bird, Michael Kiwanuka).
“She’s not angry when she’s singing,” says Butler. “It’s not anger; it’s this divine positivity that’s coming through, which I think is in the nature and meaning of ‘Pa’lante.’ She’s gathering strength from nothing. She’s just pulling it out of the ether, it feels. It’s inspiring.”
To all who had to hide, I say, ¡Pa’lante! To all who lost their pride, I say, ¡Pa’lante! To all who had to survive, I say, ¡Pa’lante! — Segarra’s final verse takes on a new urgency with every passing seismic event affecting the Latin-American community, from the president turning his back on Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, to the humanitarian crisis at the border to the protests that eventually led to the resignation of Ricardo Roselló. When Segarra traveled to the island on a trip to donate instruments and visit with rebuilding communities in December 2018, a group of school children sang “Pa’lante” back to her in what she calls “probably the coolest moment of my entire life.”
Though “Pa’lante” received waves of critical adoration and prime placement in prominent programs (such as HBO’s Sharp Objects), its power lies in Segarra, these children, and its inclusive properties as a modern folk anthem for whoever finds comfort in its phrases.
“It’s kind of a mantra for me,” she says of its calming, grounding quality. “There are times when this song is my guiding force, and when I’m singing it, I feel like I’m not myself — I feel like I’m someone stronger, like I’m being given the strength to go forward. That’s where I’m at with it now: it’s guiding me.”
“This song gives me the energy I need to stay calm, stay grounded and to continue on. We need to imagine a better future. Right now, there’s a lot of mystery and a lot of darkness.”