Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Fantastic Mr. Negrito: How A Grammy Won’t Define Him and Why It’s The Best Time To Be An Artist

Photo by Bridgette Aikens

“Everyday I wake up and it’s like, it’s my birthday,” Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz told me as we sat down to speak inside a pub on 57th street in Manhattan earlier this month.

Dphrepaulezz, better known by the stage name, Fantastic Negrito, is a walking, talking inspirational machine. I spent almost two hours with him and in that time he had me in tears, stunned, and motivated but that is not even scratching the surface of one of the most interesting and talented human beings walking the Earth today.

The 48-year-old’s story doesn’t begin in the traditional sense like the rest of us. He was one of 15 kids to his parents, number 8 in fact, and had to fight for everything. He grew up in Massachusetts in a strict Muslim household; by the time he was a teenager, his family moved to Oakland where his life flipped over and around.

“I was in very W.A.S.Py New England and I went to the hood,” he said of his move. “It was great. It was like taking a bath in fresh water.”

While he says he respects both his New England and Oakland roots, the move to the West Coast was what would later define him. He would see the early days of hip-hop and punk in the streets as well as the crack epidemic.

“It was a motherfucker back then, I am surprised it didn’t kill me,” he said.

After being inspired to learn that one of his favorite artists, Prince, was self-taught, he picked up a guitar and began to teach himself. He also taught himself as many instruments as he could. By the early 90s, he moved to Los Angeles and linked up with a former manager of his hero and began recording under the name “Xavier.” By 1996, he released his debut, The X-Factor, which went nowhere and was later dropped by his label. 

He sold all of his gear and everything he had and moved back to Oakland and in 2000, his life changed forever.

He was involved in a near fatal car accident that left him in a coma for three weeks and extensive surgery had to be done to his right hand. He was left without any tendons in that limb and had to start over. There were also months of physical therapy needed in order for him to learn how to use his legs again.

All of his doctors told him he would never play guitar again.

“Things are what they are and we deal with it,” he said. “You can quit, you can give it all up but you are never over. It is never over.”

As he went through rehabilitation, relearning everything from walking, using his arms and getting around, he became a farmer in his city. He raised chickens, grew vegetables, and weed for money.  As he went through his simple life, he had a son, which sparked a creative energy in him that had not been unleashed in many years.

“I rediscovered Delta Blues,” he said. “It was better than any drug in the world. I was overdosing on Skip James, Robert Johnson, and it was so gangster and punk to me – one man, one guitar, his experience – how American is that?!”

From hearing his new heroes, Fantastic Negrito was conceived.  

“I tasted victory and tasted defeat,” he expressed. “I wanted to make music in the spirit of that music – rawness, realness.”

After many years away from playing, he picked up an old acoustic guitar that he did not sell before he left L.A. and despite what his doctors and all the experts said, he retaught himself guitar listening to his new heroes from the 1920s and began creating a new persona and sound that would not only define his next path of life but is the sound of a country divided and looking for healing.

Once he got comfortable, he began busking in train stations in Oakland and started making a bit of money.

“Some nights I would take home $1, some days I took home $700,” he claimed. “You go to a train station at 5 p.m., you find out real quick if you are good or not.”

After realizing that he could get some people to stop and listen to him during their rush hour as they left Oakland or San Francisco, he felt he was building a humble audience. He then went to New York City and busked some there, and eventually to other cities in the country with the same philosophy that if people could stop in their tracks and listen to him, even just for a moment, he knew he had something.

His “wherever there is people is where I want to be” philosophy began working.

Eventually, he retreated to a room in his house that he has dubbed the “90 percent room” because “90 percent of what I do in there sucks.”

When he emerged from the room in 2014, he self-released an EP, which got some attention in the music world and eventually he was invited to perform on NPR in 2015 where his new life would flip around. By the end of that year, he won the “Tiny Desk Concert” series and then it was time for him to present the country the record they didn’t think they needed but absolutely did. 

The Last Days of Oakland was released on June 3, 2016 and Fantastic Negrito proved he wasn’t just a fluke or a guy with an interesting backstory. He was the real deal. The album is about the change that has happened in his city through gentrification and the people who have called it home for generations.

The record brought on critical acclaim as well as a call from one of his heroes.

Chris Cornell came calling after he found the Oakland singer on YouTube and was blown away by his talents just before the album came out. The Soundgarden singer asked Negrito to open for him on his solo tours of Europe and America around the time of the record’s release.

Following Cornell’s “Higher Truth” tours, the former Audioslave frontman asked Negrito to open for Temple of the Dog on their very first U.S. tour later that fall, a stop which included New York’s MadisonSquare Garden.

“He was like a big brother to me,” Negrito remembers. “When I won the Grammy, he was more excited than I was… I called him ‘Christmas Cornell’ -- whenever he called, there was good news. He changed my career.”

On the morning of May 18, 2017, when Negrito woke up, he saw the news that his friend and mentor had committed suicide. He said they had emailed a few days before Cornell’s passing and said his friend “didn’t sound right.” Even though it was text over email, Negrito knew Cornell well enough to know something was off but never predicted what would happen next.

“He believed in me,” Negrito said. “He predicted all of this would happen [to me].”

 As Negrito, who is currently on tour with Sturgill Simpson, can add Grammy winner to the prefix of his name after winning the trophy for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” earlier this year, says he does not want to be defined by the award.

While he calls it “a great honor” and “amazing,” he says he does not want it to stifle who he is as an artist. “I don’t want it to define you or restrict you,” he added. “I love that it is a big deal for other people.”

“I want to make music that connects with people,” he says. “We have to put out the truth.”

He says his music is for all and “as artists we are the last line of defense. Politicians want to divide people. Musicians, we want to unite the people. There is no room for hate – fuck that.”

He says that “we are all a family in this country” and being a black musician in Trump’s America makes him want to push the envelope further and is “more compelled to make records.”

In November, Fantastic Negrito will return to the “90 percent room” to begin working on new music.

“It is the best time to be an artist and one of the most important [times],” he claimed.

This is the story of a man who had no A&R, no major label, and corporate machine backing who reinvented himself in his 40s after being told he is lucky to be alive. The story of Fantastic Negrito isn’t just the story of one man; it is the story of the American spirit and what we can all do when we really put our head to something.

“You’re story ain’t over, even when you think it is over, it ain’t,” he closed.