Fantastic Negrito Takes the Stage in Berkeley With Taj Mahal
by Lou Fancher
Music is a lifeline for Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/guitarist Fantastic Negrito.
Skirting destruction — affluence, poverty, the crack epidemic, dangerous living that left one of his brothers murdered, and once, his near-death in a devastating car accident — he is a miracle of resurrection via music. Returning repeatedly to recording and performing, the Oakland-based musician has a new album and shares the marquee Oct. 13 with renowned blues musician Taj Mahal in Arhoolie Foundation’s Bridging the Blues at Berkeley’s UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall.
“One thing I never do is think about genres of music,” he says in an interview. “I never thought: I’ll go onto the street and busk and do the blues or go into a studio and write and produce a blues album.” In fact, the self-taught musician rarely thinks of himself as a musician of any particular kind, although people often classify Negrito as a punk, hip hop, rock, or blues artist. Negrito’s sharp, succinct lyrics carry messages some people say mark him as political, a definition he resists. “Statement is different than politics. When I think of politics I think of people who have an entrenched purpose and are there to convince people of it. I’m an activist as a human being but not for an ideology. My tribe is the tribe with love in their hearts, there’s nothing political about it.”
Born Xavier Amin Dhprepaulezz and raised in a large family in Western Massachusetts, Negrito, now age 50, left home at age 12. He survived in foster homes and busked on the streets, improbably lifting himself from small-time crime to a million-dollar contract with Interscope, under which he crooned R&B smoothies as Xavier on an album that failed. His career tanked entirely after the car accident that mangled his playing hand.
Negrito reinvented himself as a chicken and marijuana farmer and, fortunately, became a father. Parenting a child reawakened visceral, unpredictable, but irresistible yearnings for the sacred experiences he found only through music. He retrained his right hand on the guitar, casting his stylistic lines forward onto the contemporary scene — “I’m still a punk rocker at heart,” he says — but also back in time to connect to black roots music that rose from the African diaspora and traveled on slave ships. Initially arriving in the Caribbean, Brazil, and other locations, black roots music eventually landed in the United States’s Deep South and became the sound track to popular culture in America. “Black roots music was in the DNA of the country, long before the blues,” he says. “I may go back to Muddy Waters to get a feeling for the blues, but I transcend genres.”
Whether a person hears blues, hip hop, electronic, soul, country or classical influences in his music, Negrito says, “I’m influenced by it all. Tchaikovsky, Prince, African drums, anything. I gravitate to it all. Sly Stone, Dead Kennedys, Credence Clearwater, E40, all of it.”
Negrito’s return to music caught national attention when he won NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk Contest in 2015. He began touring, performing with Chris Cornell, Solange, Temple of the Dog and other well-known artists and bands. In 2017, Negrito’s first full-length album, Last Days of Oakland, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album and established him as a viable solo artist. He’s particularly pleased the new album, Please Don’t Be Dead, is a departure from Last Days.
“So many people after the Oakland title said you gotta do another blues album. But Please Don’t Be Dead is about capturing the energy of punk with the discipline of James Brown. For example, “A Boy Named Andrew,” is sonically different for me, in terms of the scale and range of sound. It comes from thousands of years of tradition. I listened to music from Sudan and Nubian music [from Egypt] and still rooted it in groove that came from the [American] South.”
“Dark Windows,” written in tribute to singer/songwriter Cornell, who died by suicide in 2017, draws from the two friends’ backstage conversations. “I was writing something compelling, true, and timeless. That’s the music I’m always trying to write,” he says. Another track, “Bullshit Anthem,” has the lyrics, “Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit.” Negrito says it is the mantra of his life. “Life is a gift. An attitude of grace and gratitude is healthy for the mind and the soul. How can one not be optimistic to have movement, sight, loving, and light? I have the gift of being here to serve. Those things that are terrible, well, greatness comes from that.”
Blues music comes from tragedy but fosters optimism. Artists belong on the front line of defense against tyranny. Certainly, he asserts, history is appalling to people of color: “In history books, all I read about is slaves. But this is what we have; this music is the voice of people. Blues and gospel and the black roots music traditions — in the end we face each other. Music is a better way to win. It unifies people. There’s a power to it and with that comes responsibility. That gives me peace, to be on the front line.”
When asked, Negrito says Nina Simone would be his ideal collaborator. Sharing the bill with Taj Mahal, a fearless artist whose 40-plus-year career bears similarities to Negrito’s — he says is an honor. Both men are self-taught, Grammy-winning guitarists, their timeless blues music threaded with Caribbean, African, South Pacific, and other world influences. Presenting profiles of lifelong courage, they are men more interested in winning hearts and stirring souls than in receiving medals.