Please Don't Be Dead, America
Oakland, California singer-songwriter Fantastic Negrito goes deep, reminding us of what's behind the protests. Recorded in 2018 at KXCI-FM 91.3; released May 7, 2020.
I feel like I’ve been quietly writing about all this for years. The Last Days of Oakland. Please don’t be dead, America. Please Don’t Be Dead. And now, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet. I mean, it’s interesting. I’m happy to be in that realm, I’m happy to be in that lane. I’m happy to be in that zone as an artist. It’s one of the great things about being a middle-aged artist who decided to go play on the street. Let’s face it, guys; I’m not some incredible, powerful young rapper with a billion followers. And if you haven’t noticed, I’m not some pretty white girl singing pop music. So I feel like, man, ain’t nobody really looking for me. And so I just make the records that I want to make with no pressure. And it’s good to be able to tell the truth.
-- Fantastic Negrito in Riff magazine
Two-time Grammy-winner Fantastic Negrito is a testament to blowing off outdated ideas of success, whether artistic or commercial, and doing it your way.
Born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz (pronounced “dee-FREP-ah-lez") to an orthodox Muslim family in Massachusetts, he moved to Oakland, California as a teenager with his parents and eight siblings. As a kid in foster care, Fantastic acted out as a petty criminal, relying on charm rather than force.
A hustler-gone-good, Fantastic Negrito moved from Oakland to Los Angeles in the 1990s, where Interscope Records president Jimmy Iovine signed him to a multi-million-dollar deal after discovering him trying to start a band called Dead From Sex.
By his own account, early success went to his head. Making only one album for Interscope, he blew through the money he'd been fronted. In 1999, Xavier, as he was called then, as a single-name would-be pop star, was nearly killed in a car wreck. In a coma for three weeks, he suffered major injuries, including to his guitar-playing right hand, which he's dubbed "The Claw."
As he recovered from the accident, he seemed to lose his way, hustling work, including managing an illegal after hours club in L.A. before returning to Oakland in 2008. By then, Oakland was in a renaissance; not gentrified and lily-white like San Francisco, but a truly diverse city with a vibrant political culture.
It was a place to heal. For a while, Xavier stopped playing music and grew vegetables, raised chickens, and co-founded a collective called Blackball Universe made up of African Americans who vowed to help each other in business ventures. Logically enough, a profitable medical marijuana business was followed by the dodgier proposition of an art gallery.
There was a stint as a blue-haired frontman for Blood Sugar X, a Cali-funk-punk collective ("in the tradition of Bad Brains and Fishbone," as he told a Guardian reporter.) After his first son was born, he recorded again and busked in the streets of Oakland, this time focusing on blues and roots music.
As Riff magazine described the origin of this incarnation: "That’s when Fantastic Negrito was born, on the streets of Oakland; one donation at a time.
"His new sound blended the blues and soul with traditional African American roots and rock. His songs tackled race, class and socioeconomic issues plaguing Oakland specifically, and the world as he sees it."
It all makes sense: the early, dizzying success; the humbling fall, time in the wilderness (even if it was Oakland, there was a farm involved) and then the apotheosis: an artist coming into his own, on his own terms.
In 2015, Fantastic Negrito, along with his hipster backup band, won NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk Concert contest, out of thousands of applicants nationwide. The winning song "Lost in a Crowd" with its DIY video was recorded in a freight elevator.
A critically praised debut EP followed. When another collective member, Malcolm Spellman, became a writer and producer on Fox TV's Empire, he gave Fantastic Negrito a cameo. He performed "Lost in a Crowd" only he wasn't anymore.
In 2017, Fantastic Negrito won the Grammy for best blues album for "The Last Days of Oakland."
In 2019, he won again, for "Please Don't Be Dead" in the contemporary blues category.
The new album, "Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?" contains the song "Chocolate Samurai" that Fantastic Negrito performed on the Stephen Colbert show. The crowd-sourced video shouldn't be missed; danceable to the max, completely of the moment, and very fucking funny.
In an interview with Riff magazine, he talked about fragmentation on the Left, why Donald Trump succeeded, how it feels to be feared as a black man, and cutting white people slack.
"And then on the other side, we’ve gotta stop calling you racist all the time. I almost want to give white people a hug sometimes, they’re so traumatized when I’m talking to them. They’re like, 'I really want my coffee black—I mean…' We’re nervous.
"Living in Oakland, by the time I reached 50 my nerves are shot because white people are afraid of me. Of Black people. And we don’t want to talk about that. I’d love to see a town hall meeting where we just got it out. 'Hey, when I see you guys, I’m fucking terrified.' That’d be great. And it’d be great for Black people to say how they feel, and Asian people to say how they feel."
At Journal of the Plague Year, we love this guy. Here's yet another reason you should, too.
"I know I’ve said this everywhere, but I’m a recovering narcissist. So I’m constantly reevaluating myself and I’m looking at, 'What did I do? Maybe it was me. Maybe I fucked up at that meeting. Oh my God, why did I say that?' I think that’s what you can do. It’s a hard thing to do, but to realize, 'Man, that’s my ego, I’ve gotta stop that shit.'"
At the top, KXCI video produced and hosted by Hannah Levin and engineered by Duncan Hudson. Filmed + edited by Julius Schlosburg.