From street hustler to pseudo student, illegal nightclub impresario to black roots troubadour – Fantastic Negrito is the ultimate performance artist.
Since leaving home at 12, it could be said his whole life has been a performance of defiance, reinvention and now perhaps redemption.
Fantastic Negrito is the latest in a long line of personae, nom de plumes, pen names and AKA’s for Oakland, California musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz (pron X-avier Dee-frep-ah-lez).
He’s had more knock-downs than a punch-drunk heavyweight, but the man who had to steal to eat after a troubled youth in foster care, just keeps on rising from the canvas.
After a lengthy break from music, following a near-fatal car crash that mangled his strumming hand, the artist formerly known as Blood Sugar X and Chocolate Butterly is riding high on the success of The Last Days of Oakland, released through his artists’ collective Blackball Universe.
Speaking during a break from rehearsals for his European tour, Xavier tells Matt Catchpole about finding music through Prince, the state of the union and his unlikely friendship with Bernie Sanders.
How did you first get interested in music?
As a teenager, I was into a lot of trouble and I thought I should find something better to do rather than run the streets. I came from a family of 14 kids, so I was naturally an exhibitionist and once – way back there was contest, like a dance contest – and I think we did a Prince routine, or something, it went down great and I liked the feeling of being up there. So I caught the fever then and I thought: Wow! I need to learn to play an instrument. So then I looked up how Prince did it, ‘cos he was quite popular back then, and that began my journey of learning how to play and being self-taught.
Did Prince remain an inspiration?
He was a big influence, no doubt. Especially early on. Not like musical style, but I just loved his courage early on his career.
Is it true you gatecrashed music school by pretending to be a student?
UC Berkeley is right in the town that I was in. I would sneak into the music rooms and pretend that I was a student and see what other students were doing and I discovered that they were practising scales. So I would just figure out scales, sitting in those lonely practice rooms.
Did anyone ever challenge you?
No actually they didn’t, I had sideburns, I was about 17 and I think I kind’ve looked the part.
You’ve moved from the funk of your earlier career to a more Blues-based sound – is that something you plan to stick with, or will there be further reinventions down the road?
Well, you know, I don’t even think about genres or styles, I just cut it, trying to think about good songs. When I was writing The Last Days of Oakland. It was all about whether I had songs. When I started, the whole Fantastic Negrito trip, three years ago I thought, this is about songs, I’m going to go out into the streets and I’m going to play my songs – especially in places where people don’t want to hear them, like train stations – people getting off work, you know, they don’t give a shit, they’re just trying to get home. This project was about connecting with people – kind of in my middle of age I need to do that, it’s kind of therapeutic. So I don’t even know if The Last Days of Oakland is really a Blues record. I call it Black Roots – that’s easier for me, because it’s such a beautiful garden, you know, Black Roots. It could be Delta Blues, it could be soul music, it could be rock’n’roll, it could be stuff the UK did and gave back to us, it could be anything! So I don’t even like the word genre. I like artists, I think artists surpass genres.
Are Xavier and Fantastic Negrito one and the same, or do you change when you go on stage as Negrito?
Fantastic Negrito is the artist and maybe Xavier is the human being. My Mom won’t call me Fantastic Negrito so that keeps me very well grounded.
Why did you call the album The Last Days of Oakland?
Shit, after that title, you better mean something right? I was travelling quite a bit and I thought in the United States we are really at a crossing point here, things have changed. I thought of the cities – I was in New Orleans and the black population’s gone, artists’ populations were dwindling. I thought, man, even if you were from these cities, you may grow up not being able to afford to live there anymore. It came a lot from just observation. And I don’t know if it’s really as morbid as some people think. This is just what happens – we go through phases – and we change. The Oakland that I grew up in is gone.
You’ve talked about your earlier life as a small time thief and drug dealer – did you ever feel any kind of guilt about the people you stole from?
No. I was surviving. I was about 12-years-old, you know, it was my method of surviving. I think I stole quite a bit just to eat.
If you could speak to your teenage self now what would you tell him?
Oh my God! I would say: Man, this period and all these things that you’re going through, they’re gonna pass. They’re all just moments and they’re gonna pass – 17 will pass, 21 will pass, 30, it all passes – it’s just a moment. But also save that vinyl! it’s going to be worth something! And invest in Apple!
You had a serious car crash in 2000 which mangled your strumming hand – did you have to teach yourself a new style of playing?
I never was a great guitarist anyway, But I think as my hand became more mangled and deformed I became a better musician and creator overall. I wrote a lot of The Last Days of Oakland on guitar. When you have an injury like this there’s only a few things you can do. And one is just play the shit out of it! I’m going hard on the plate bro. I’m doing it all the way!
Has it affected your songwriting?
Well of course, because you have less to work with – you can’t be that fancy. I only got a few tricks with this beat up hand. But as long as you’ve got a heart and a soul – that’s really where everything comes from anyway.
Explain the concept behind your artists’ collective Blackball Universe – do you think black artists still have to work harder to make it in the US?
Blackball Universe is for outcasts, it’s not exclusively for black people. We have all kinds of people. I just call it Blackball Universe because it’s like, if you’ve been blackballed – come to me! It has nothing to do with race. But I do think in America if you’re black, shit, you’ve got to do everything harder. That’s the first thing that my (strict Muslim) Dad taught me. That’s just the way it is. I never cried about it, I just worked hard, Things are the way they are and you’ve got to get up and do it. But thank God I had the family to teach me that. Not everybody has that, so I don’t look down on people who are struggling.
The US seems to be in a heightened state of racial tension just now – what with police shootings of black men and retaliatory attacks in Texas and Baton Rouge. Do you think there’s a risk of a race war in America?
Nah, I don’t think there’s really a risk of race war. You know, we have some serious things to talk about – we are very far apart on the idea of race – we need some empathy and a lot of love. But I can’t imagine a race war. It woulda happened already. My feeling is that ideologically there’s a race war, right now, sure. I think it’s with people who don’t have open minds on both sides. But I’m not an absolutist – if that’s a word – I just think that if you wanna get some, you gotta give some. If you wanna get along with people, man, you better listen to them. And that’s on BOTH sides.
How did you get involved with Bernie Sanders?
I think he liked my message and I liked his and it was a good fit. I don’t feel that political at all. I just like the real thing, I like the truth and he’s very kind and generous and loving. It was a good message. I don’t think politicians can save anybody, but a good message is better than a bad message. I never thought any politician could save me though.
Do you think he was right to clear the field for Hillary Clinton – what do you make of her?
I don’t think much of her at all, but the other side is the worst that America has to offer in Donald Trump – he’s the worst. So what’re you gonna do? This is the system isn’t it.
How would you feel about the prospect of living in America under president Trump?
Ugh! It sounds disgusting, but we’ll get through it, man. We survived Ronald Reagan. I tend to look at it as a whole. We survived (Bill) Clinton, we survived Bush. All these people have been bought and paid for. We’re an empire. The UK knows about that – you were an empire once right? Empires do what they do and politicians do as they do and Trump is just the worst. Obama was an idea that hey, this could be the best, in terms of just being a good person, but he was never going to do anything differently. I think Bernie Sanders is the best though, but he’s still not going to anything. People have the power. Politicians cannot save you. They can make you feel better, but it’s up to us. It’s like marbles in a jar, you know, all of them matter. But music is my platform and instruments are my weapon and The Last Days of Oakland is my challenge and my contribution to this world we’re living in with its racial tensions and its religious tensions and marital tensions (bursts out laughing). And all the fucking tensions! I just think as an artist, you know, you’ve gotta contribute something and that’s my contribution. I wanna be part of this great human tribe that we have. We’re not perfect, we make a lot mistakes, but we’re a resilient bunch. I mean Hitler bombed the shit out of you guys, right?
You’ve been described as the Patron Saint of Second Chances – is that a fitting title for you?
Probably of third chances! (chuckles) I do think that there’s a lot of truth to that, I mean I may be the poster child for like, hey you get knocked down, get yourself up, get knocked down again, you get back up, you get knocked down again, hey what you gonna do, you get back up. You keep getting up!
How the rehearsals going are you feeling good about the tour?
I’m feeling great, I like my chances. I love the UK, I love Europe, wonderful audiences. I think the UK is just a really intelligent audience – the States are too, but just a different level. You guys take the music much more seriously. I think we take it for granted because it’s just here, but you guys really study it and you know it better than us sometimes.
- Fantastic Negrito’s European tour kicks off in The Netherlands on September 2 and features dates at London’s Bush Hall on September 15 and Glasgow’s King Tuts on September 17. He plays Whelans, Dublin on September 18.
- For more information visit fantasticnegrito.com.