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10 Questions for Singer Fantastic Negrito | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Singer Fantastic Negrito

10 Questions for Singer Fantastic Negrito

Californian nu-bluesman on honouring Robert Johnson, disdaining genre and being offensive

Xavier Dphrepaulezz: 'I always call genres a place to hide'

Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, is a singer from Oakland, California. His music is steeped in the raw and urgent spirituality of the early blues, especially Robert Johnson. Yet he refuses to be pigeonholed as a blues performer, disdaining all talk of genre, and infusing his compositions with the grit and anger of punk, hip-hop and hard rock as well as the mournfulness of the blues, not to mention political protest that’s bang up-to-date.

His current musical persona is what he calls his third incarnation, after a teenage major-label signing turned sour, and he spent years out of music altogether.  

On his return to performance, he has built up a passionate and rapidly expanding following. He won the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Competition last year with a performance of “Lost in a Crowd” from his album Last Days of Oakland, which was released earlier this year. He has been touring all over the US and Europe, leaving audiences mesmerised and adoring. In his case, he really does embody that over-mentioned musical commodity, authenticity. He spoke to theartsdesk about what it means, and where it all comes from.

MATTHEW WRIGHT: Your single “Working Poor” says “I keep on knocking but I can’t get in.” Are you in yet? What are you getting into?

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: Historically there’s always been a small group of people that have owned everything, and the rest of them are knocking. You can back to Rome, Greece, Egypt, it’s all the same. It feels extreme because we’re going through it, but it’s the same. They tell us we can get in, if we borrow money from them and that sort of thing, and become enslaved. That’s what I mean. In the United States it’s become extreme. People are working harder than they’ve ever worked, and bringing home less than they’ve ever earned. The same city you grew up in you may not be able to afford to live in. It goes back to the title of the record, “The Last Days of Oakland”, or the the last days of many places. There’s an atmosphere of fear.

Fantastic Negrito singing at Rough Trade East“Rant Rushmore” lyrics sound like “Bitch Eat My Cancer”. What are you saying here? Is anyone offended by the Rushmore reference? Should they be?  

Sure. People are offended by a lot of things I do, and that means you’re doing something. I’m not talking about women in that song; if you listen to the lyrics it’s about the conversation we don’t want to have. It’s the thing people don’t want to talk about, the uncomfortable side of relationships, something that you can’t stand, something that bugs you. Working through those things and not judging people too hard. Whenever people are nasty or rude to me I think, they may be going through something heavy. People will get offended by anything. If you are creative, you’d never get anything done. But I try not to worry about that. I wanna have the conversations other people don’t.

Many of your songs begin with an eerie, spiritual humming, that takes us back to the heart of the blues. Where does this sound come from?

When I became the Fantastic Negrito incarnation, I was heavily influenced by the recordings of Robert Johnson, Skip James, Charlie Patton, and all these great Delta players. Robert Plant put me onto Blind Willie Johnson, because he could hear him in my music. I went back to listen to Blind Willie Johnson straight after that show. I grew up hearing some of my religious relatives humming, and it’s something that’s deeply rooted in the the black roots, African-American tradition.

You grew up musically in Oakland, California, which has often been considered a more equal, less racially divided community than the deep South, yet the album has an unmistakable vibe of apocalyptic protest. What do you mean by The Last Days of Oakland?

It’s not a matter of more equal. The South is more up front. There’s no real difference, but there is a beauty in the way people in the Bay Area try to get along. It’s the greatest tribe in the world. Everyone’s there and we’re all getting along. I called the album "The Last Days" because something is happening, in every big city. They’re becoming places we can’t afford any more. We're going to have the elite living in the cities. The African-American population are all leaving. Everything is going to change, something new is coming. We can make something collectively. It is up to artists. Artists gotta get on their bicycles now. The world needs us now more than ever.  

You started out as an R&B musician?  

I don’t know what I was, they didn’t either. That was the problem. I was all over the place. At the time, I was absorbing energy from hip-hop, and punk rock, and it was meeting on the street, and I was absorbing all of it. It was all one big melting pot. Beastie Boys, Black Flag, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I think it’s all still there. It’s gotta sound good. I don’t like genres. I always call genres a place to hide. If it’s great, it’s great.

You founded the collective Blackball Universe, after finding the major label scene completely stifling. What does the collective spirit do for your creativity? Are there tensions between a very personal vision and communal decision-making?

I founded it myself on my own, in my mad world, for my illegal nightclubs and all the different musical incarnations I came up with. When I came back to music after having a break for five years, I wanted to breathe life into it again. It’s kind of an art gallery, music licensing, fun collective. A couple of guys I grew up with said, "Let’s have a go at it." It’s good. It’s been four years since we got it going again. It’s better now it’s a collective, I’ve brought other people in, I’ve surrendered the power as much as I could, and now I’m outvoted on things. But that’s okay. We’re better when we’re living for other people.

Take the NPR Tiny Desk Concert (watch Negrito's winning performance below). I decided not to do that, but I was outvoted, and that was one of the main things that got me known in the United States. We’ve got to give up some power, and live for other people. If you’re greedy, you should share, and you’ll get more. There’s definitely a tension between individuality and the collective, but that’s what makes it work.

You didn’t grow up with the blues, but you turned to it as part of your “third life”, or birth of Negrito. You’ve said it sounded sad and old. How have you remade the music so it means something to modern audiences?

When I was a kid, it sounded sad, it didn’t have drums, and I was into hip-hop. I respected it - my stepdad was Thelonious Monk’s bass player. I just didn’t want anything to do with it. You know what it was? I hadn’t lived. Once I had failed massively, then it made sense, and I realised it was what I wanted to do. Then I could be honest. It’s very honest music. I could feel that shit. Every time I listen to Robert Johnson I hear something different. Unbelievable. What a gift.

It was a very organic process. I’d written these songs, and I felt I was channelling into something great. I didn’t want to play in the clubs, I wanted to play to people who didn’t want to hear what I was signing. At 5pm, when everyone was trying to go home, I’d play then. I tell songwriters now, “Man, you think your song is good. Go play for people who don’t want to hear it.” I’ve had shit thrown at me, but then I’ve had $100 tips, so I’ve tasted both ends of the spectrum.

The blues is everywhere whether you want it to be or not. The influence is everywhere, even in EDM. Black roots music is the fibre of America. Hip-hop is just another phase of the blues. I call what I do black roots music. It makes more sense to me. I think some blues purists hate me. I could do the rules-based blues but it’s boring. I guess that’s where the punk comes in. It comes back to what I said about genre. That’s not where great art is. I really believe that.  

It sounds as though your children were a crucial part of your musical rebirth. How did that happen?

Just my son. I had quit music, and for five years I had another life running a marijuana farm, having nude body-painting parties. It was mostly young people, but then we had this 90-year-old Frenchwoman talking about the Nazi occupation. It was so eclectic. I thought I’d just be this guy. Then one day, my son, who was only one, wasn’t speaking yet, and wasn’t in a good mood. I’d sold all my equipment and just had one guitar left that I kept underneath the settee in his room. I picked it up, and I played a G-major chord. He freaked out. He’d never heard the vibration before. and I freaked out too. His reaction was so pure. It reminded me that music is the language of humanity. Why did I run away from it?  

My brother was killed when he was 14. I had to clean his blood off my mother’s floor

It took me a couple of years to get back to it. But I’m grateful to him, because I never woulda come back. Children teach you. He taught me that day. When I saw him open up a present and play with the box, I thought it was a lesson, his joy and honesty. He’ll tell me when a song sucks. I feel that’s where in art we should have really high standards. Kids are really honest and they don’t have an agenda - unless there’s ice cream involved. My dream is to run an art school that teaches about black roots music, because people from our community don’t know we have these geniuses. It would probably stop all the self-hatred and violence if they knew we came from something great and weren’t just slaves. They should learn about Robert Johnson. Something great came out of our history.

Your right hand was badly damaged in a car crash. What did you turn to to rebuild? What got you through?

I’m the eighth of 14 kids, I left home at the age of 12 and never came back. I was always a fighter, and I always believed in something bigger than me. My brother was killed when he was 14. I had to clean his blood off my mother’s floor. I’ve lost so many friends to gun violence. It was traumatic. Whatever comes in life you’ve gotta keep it moving. Everything that comes in life is a gift, and everything is a lesson. I can’t quit. I reach inside. I don’t know why I think of it that way but I do. I call it the claw. I play the guitar like shit but I mean it. I can only play a few things but I play the shit out of those things. That helps me but what I’m doing now is more simple. It’s just another day, and who am I? Gratitude keeps me going.

In your time in the UK, what has been the British response to your background and story? Do Brits get the blues?   

English may know more about the blues than we do. I instantly connected in the UK. The English know their music.The English get it. They even understand my approach. Robert Plant dropped all these names on me about the blues. Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James. Blues is a huge part of UK. White British artists took blues and fed it back to us on a plate. I’ll feed it back to you. I was definitely influenced by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. But for my third incarnation I turned back to the early blues. If Negrito had been based on Led Zep it would sound completely different.

You grew up in a Muslim community, until you ran away at the age of 12. How is it to be a Muslim in America now? What role does music have in addressing that situation?

It wasn’t really a community, it was just my dad. I love people. I don’t care about religion, don’t like to think of groups, it’s boring. We all have the potential to be amazing or terrible. It depends how we’re raised. I have Muslims in my family, Jews, Christians. I have a nephew named Jihad, and a nephew named Christian. That’s my family. It’s the role of artists to tell truth. Then we’re powerful. If I can have any role in that, use me.  

  • Fantastic Negrito performs at Bush Hall on 15 September and on 17 September at King Tuts, Glasgow, as part of a European tour


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