Fantastic Negrito and the Long, Strange, Bay Area Decade

As the 2010s wind to a close, the homegrown bluesman reflects on the decade that changed everything.

Fantastic Negrito’s Xavier Dphrepaulezz has one simple question: Have you lost your mind yet?

“At the end of these 10 years, that’s what I want to ask people,” he says. “‘Hey, have you lost your mind yet?’ Because I want to know what the limit is on that shit. When does it break finally? When do we say enough? When have we had enough?” 

Dphrepaulezz’s story has been well-documented in the pages of this paper and elsewhere, but here’s the short version: Raised in Oakland within a conservative Muslim family, Dphrepaulezz spent his teenager years as a hustler before flying south to Los Angeles, intent on making it in music after inking a deal with Interscope. His career failed to materialize, Interscope dropped him, and to add injury to insult, a debilitating car wreck put him in a coma for three weeks. 

Upon returning to Oakland, he started growing cannabis and had a son, an event monumental enough to inspire him to return to music — gritty blues-rock this time, traceable to Lead Belly and reminiscent of Jack White at his meanest and leanest. After busking BART stations across the region and winning NPR’s 2015 Tiny Desk Concert contest, he dropped debut album The Last Days of Oakland independently and with no expectations. It nabbed a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, as did its follow-up, 2018’s Please Don’t Be Dead.

His in-progress third record, however, grapples with his initial question, so much so he plans to title it Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? With the decade winding to a close and a New Year’s Eve show scheduled at The Chapel, SF Weekly set out to ask the Oakland bluesman about the decade that redefined his life.

Things started off tense: In July of 2010, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 slaying of Oscar Grant, setting off both peaceful protests and looting throughout Oakland. 

“That was a big moment,” Dphrepaulezz says. “First of all, I’m Oscar Grant. But I survived being a young African-American growing up in Oakland. I was in the streets too back then, just to be fair. It’s very tragic.”

Now that he’s a father, Dphrepaulezz insists on his son being able to navigate encounters with law enforcement, and fears that those skills are not taught to young black men with the same fervor. 

“The males in my community really made sure that I had tools to deal with scared, grown-ass, white police officers,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re doing the same thing with all these brothers that are being killed. I don’t know if we’re making sure that they have the tools.”

But the Oscar Grant court case was only the beginning. In October of 2011, Occupy Oakland erupted in a downtown plaza; that November, Oakland General Strike demonstrators shut down the Port of Oakland. Dphrepaulezz attended the initial protests, iPhone in hand, documenting the event and talking to people. But a true sense of working class solidarity felt lost on him.

 “I remember feeling like, ‘Man, I don’t know if this is sustainable.’ That’s the first thing I thought. I felt like it was a moment, but what comes after it?” he says. “As you get older, those are the things that come to mind. You see these great ideas, but where is it going?”

Dphrepaulezz is quick to clarify that Occupy Oakland wasn’t a waste, but points out that it ultimately failed its mission.

As the decade of protest marched on, Dphrepaulezz grew skeptical of Black Lives Matter, which galvanized activists across the Bay starting in 2014: “I sometimes wonder how much African-Americans identify with that movement. I see Black Lives Matter signs in white neighborhoods. I don’t see them in black neighborhoods.”

It’s left him wondering at the state of protest at large. “This new generation of protesting, is it just something to do? People did it in the ’60s and ’70s and died and were imprisoned,” he says. “I don’t know if I recognize these new ones as something that people are willing to go all the way with. It seems fleeting.”

In retrospect, chief among the stories that cut deep was the Ghost Ship warehouse fire the night of Dec. 2, 2016. Dphrepaulezz knew three of the 36 victims. 

Dphrepaulezz keeps a studio in a West Oakland warehouse near the California Hotel, and he emphasizes the need to install sprinklers and take safety measures. If artists don’t do it themselves, it won’t get done, something the aftermath made clear. “I can’t believe it, still. The people who lost their lives had gone to celebrate what we do in this community of people. We have to make sure we’re taking care of our business here,” he says.

Despite everything, Dphrepaulezz remains, by his own account, an eternal optimist. The Bay Area’s way out of its woes is through the community, the same one he says uplifts him daily, and through a radical sense of kindness and possibility. It starts with talking to your neighbor, and it goes all the way to fixing wealth inequality and outlawing the billionaire class — an increasingly popular political stance with close-to-home relevance in light of WealthX’s 2018 report that San Francisco has one billionaire for every 11,600 residents. 

“If you’re a billionaire, you don’t like your community,” Dphrepaulezz says. “Put that shit in legislation right now. Outlaw that shit. After a certain amount of time your money has to kick back and do great things.”

Going forward Dphrepaulezz wants more creative collectives, more positivity, more hustling to make things happen, and far less emphasis on fame, wealth, and popularity. Add to that list less corporate hegemony and less shrugging acceptance that this is just how things are now, whether ‘it’ is the reality that only wealthy people can buy homes in Oakland or that needing multiple jobs to get by is normal. He insists that the Fantastic Negrito story — from BART stations to the Grammys without selling his community out along the way — can play out on a global scale, or at least a Bay-wide one.

“Old dude played a guitar and made it happen. It can be done. My story is it can be done,” he says. “Let’s start thinking about incredible things that can happen. And guess what? They’ll happen. I just proved that in five years.”

Fantastic Negrito plays Monday, Dec. 30, and Tuesday, Dec. 31, at The Chapel, 777 Valencia St. Tickets are $40-$75 and available at thechapelsf.com. 

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