Fantastic Negrito: Bullshit to Good Shit

With a Grammy nomination for last year's Please Don't Be Dead, Oakland's favorite busker-turned-star has some words about freedom and America.

(Alberto Bravo)

Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, otherwise known as Fantastic Negrito, has found the secret to longevity: not giving a fuck.

“It’s a surefire way to live longer,” he says. “I’m not trying to maintain some status, or some image.”

His is an image that’s changed dramatically over the years, starting with a shift from his conservative Muslim upbringing to his adolescence as an Oakland street kid. A move to Los Angeles and a glossy stint of high-profile, big label-fueled music fame ended abruptly when he nearly died in a car crash; he woke up physically unable and emotionally unwilling to play music. He moved back to Oakland, kept chickens and grew marijuana, and had a son, whose birth led him to rediscover the necessity of music in his life. He began performing as a street musician in Oakland, emerging, phoenix-like, as Fantastic Negrito, gaining major attention as the winner of NPR’s 2015 Tiny Desk Contest, followed by his debut album, The Last Days of Oakland (2016), which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album and international acclaim.

World tours, sold-out shows, and a sophomore release followed. Please Don’t Be Dead (2018) is a groove-heavy powerhouse, pivoting on the sounds of turbo-charged, blues-driven rock with no small amount of soul gospel. A stylistic departure from Last Days, it maintains the same pulse-racing power. It’s also secured a 2019 Grammy nomination in the same category.

Negrito may not give a fuck about performing to others’ expectations, but he’s suffused with feeling about the state of the world and on the essential role of the artist — when, in his words, “a whole lot of bullshit is happening.”

“Take that poison, turn it into medicine. We’re taking bullshit, turning it into good shit,” he says, quoting from Please Don’t Be Dead’s banger of a closer, “Bullshit Anthem.” Yet despite the seeming excess of bullshit today, Negrito is one to see the positive.

“I’m always optimistic,” he says. “When I woke up from my coma 20 years ago, I was optimistic. Now’s the time for artists to get busy — and it works. People are known to unite under the banner of a goddamn guitar riff.”

Unite they will during his upcoming international tour, kicking off with a hometown show at The New Parish on Thursday, Jan. 31, a love-filled family affair which he promises will be akin to church without the preacher. Here, he sounds off on rocking like it’s 1968, standing up to tyranny and showing love through it all.

You’ve mentioned the freedom of “not giving a fuck” when recording Please Don’t Be Dead. Why is that so important when creating an album?
Your time in the studio is probably the most honest time throughout the process of putting together a record. Everything else is posturing and positioning ourselves. I’m not a hip-hop artist and I’m not a pretty young white girl; I’m a middle aged guy who was playing the streets a few years ago. I don’t really have the expectations of some super-famous pop star. It means that I can chase greatness, versus chasing hit songs. It’s something that I thought I would never regain that after playing on major labels.

You were still able to hold onto that, despite the success of The Last Days Of Oakland?
Well, Last Days of Oakland is nothing like Please Don’t Be Dead. And I remember people being like, “Oh my God, what are you doing?” But I’m not trying to win Grammys. I’m trying to chase greatness! And that’s where the power comes from: smashing the expectation, not making the record everyone thinks I should make. I was listening to The White Album by The Beatles, Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix, and I’m thinking, “Wow, these guys were just doing what they want.” They’re all over the place. And that’s where I want to be — all over the place, making albums like it’s 1968.

Stylistically, the album has that feeling. But the message, “Please don’t be dead,” feels powerfully consistent. What’s the main reference point?
It’s really about the idea of what America says it is and has always represented. I’ve been touring outside of the country, and people are freaking out. They’re coming up to me and saying, “What is going on in America?!” It makes you think.

And that’s what this album is saying: America, I know we are full of shit here most of the time, but please don’t be dead here. It’s like a diet. Ninety percent of the time you’re going to fail, but the good thing is you’re trying to be on the diet. Liberty, justice, equity … please don’t be dead. Let’s keep saying it!

You’ve also said that it’s a reference to the reality of being a Black man in America.
I think the most stressful thing in the world is being a Black man in America. You travel outside of this country, and oh man, the white lady in the elevator isn’t afraid of me. The police don’t view you as some six-foot freaking monster. Other people aren’t aware of it, and it’s not really something you can explain.

Is that some of the bullshit that you’re trying to turn into good shit, per “Bullshit Anthem”?
Really, every song on the album addresses the bullshit factor. Considering this weird, neo-fascist uprising going on everywhere, there’s a lot to write about. I think when faced with tyranny, there’s no better place to be. Whether you’re an artist, a writer, a scholar, a baker, you belong on the front line. I felt really compelled to be loud.

What do you think is driving this particular strain of tyrannical bullshit?
I have a song on the record, “Bad Guy Necessity.” The line is, “Everybody needs a bad guy.” You tell people that bad guy’s coming and they will give up everything. Everything. They’ll give up all of their rights. They’re suddenly willing to embrace all kinds of dubious, unspeakable evils. Humans are very predictable; this is nothing new.

And yet, you remain optimistic about our ability to get through it.
My view is that there’s a lot of work for artists. We’re the last line of defense, before tyranny. People are like, “Fuck it, we’re here to rock.” That’s the power and gift of humanity. I believe we’re going to make this shit happen.

I see it when I play in Europe. “Take that bullshit, make some good shit,” they’re just singing that line along with me. They get it.

So it’s is more than an album theme. It’s a mantra.
It’s the theme of life! The bullshit is coming no matter what, from your parents or your sister or your brother, from everywhere. What are you going to do when confronted with hatred, bigotry? Do you freeze, do you stop? I know that I’m going to drive around and the policemen are going to treat me differently. Am I going to cry? Am I going to rage? No: I’m going to make it good. We’ve got to help each other.  And we’ve got to help the ones who don’t see it, too.

It’s beautifully straightforward.
I love the simplicity of it. The most important thing to me is just as simple: we need to listen to each other and show some love for each other. That’s it. I’m a simple dude.

Fantastic Negrito, Jan 31, 9 p.m., at The New Parish, 1743 San Pablo Ave., $28-$33; thenewparish.com

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