“Human beings are weird. Man, if reincarnation is real I wanna come back as a beaver or something.” Speaking over Zoom from his home in West Oakland, California, Fantastic Negrito is resplendent in a green jacket, golf trousers and gold African neck rings. A burst of black hair sprouts from the top of his shaven head, completing a look that’s part junk-shop maverick, part avant-garde wizard.
His words crackle with the energy, charm and eccentricity that fuel his new album Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, the Grammy winning follow-up to 2018 Grammy winner Please Don’t Be Dead. Two years previously he released The Last Days Of Oakland; It won a Grammy.
“I go fast,” he says with a grin. “I allow about two months, and that’s the time I’ve got to write, produce, arrange, mix and master an album. I was thinking about how these albums were made in the seventies. They were lean and tight, and they were precise. You’d get, like, nine songs, and each song really mattered, instead of having two amazing songs and fifteen others that were – how do the English say it? [adopts British accent] – rubbish!”
Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz in Massachusetts (but deeply informed by his mother’s family in rural Virginia), the singer/guitarist/writer is chatty and good humoured, with a likeably idiosyncratic streak. He’s also packed about nine lives’ worth of experiences into his 52 years, from the million-dollar record deal that came to nothing, to the car accident that put him in a coma for three weeks, leaving him with his right hand partially paralysed.
Oakland, his home town (the family moved there when he was 12), shares this dynamic history. In 1966 the Black Panther Party was founded there. In the 70s, America’s crack epidemic hit the city especially hard. In the 80s, skyrocketing rents drove out much of the African-American population. Political, social and consumerist tensions have left marks on this Bay Area trade centre.
When he was barely in his teens – enthralled by Oakland’s punk, hip-hop and street culture – Dphrepaulezz left home and became a local anomaly, dressing in bizarre outfits and sleeping in cars. It was a lifestyle he’d pick up later in life, when it seemed that the music world had spat him out for good.
“I became Fantastic Negrito on the streets, playing my guitar; a middle-aged guy, not a young guy. Everyone was like: ‘No way. You’ve gotta be a rapper or a pop singer or a pretty white girl…’” he says with a chuckle. “One of the beautiful trips about dressing up and being Fantastic Negrito is it’slike… being a superhero who doesn’t give a fuck. I answer to the people. So there’s quite a bit ofliberty in this thing.”
That liberty is rife on Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, a taut, rich explosion of funk, soul, rock guitars and hip-hop beats. Flavours of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone pepper these sounds, as do the sentiments – chief among them being today’s insidious mental health crisis. “I was like: ‘This is some form of serious mental illness happening in this country. Social media, technology, mass shooting, police brutality, racism, sexism… How do we deal with this every day?’”
Fantastic Negrito certainly isn’t short on words. So rather than clutter our hour with him with questions, we gave him a series of prompts. This is what he had to say…
“Groove is very important to me. All the rhythms and grooves we use today, they mostly came from Africa, let’s just be real about it. I call the music I do ‘black roots music’, which is rock’n’roll, funk, soul, blues, spiritual, gospel – all these amazing art forms that came from the African-American tradition – and putting them together and making… soup, at will.
There was once a song that said ‘Groove is in the heart’. And it is. And it’s in the soul, the spirit. It helps move people’s minds. On my records I always pick up the bass first. I have this old Paul McCartney bass, I’ll call it that. It was eighty dollars, I bought it online, it’s called a Rogue. I feel like I start a lot of my songs, and the production starts, from the bass, and I start with that groove. With [single] Chocolate Samurai it was a swing bass.”
“I’m not very good at it. It’s probably one of my greatest insecurities. I was never a natural singer. I was always surrounded by these amazing vocalists who always sang at will, and for me it was always a bit of a struggle. But it is ultimately my salvation, and it is the language of humanity. Especially the black community in churches. And you have the whole transatlantic slave trade. I mean, when it came to the people that came to America, there was more of a singing tradition.
"The people that came from Cuba and Brazil, there was a huge drumming and percussion tradition, that’s why they’re the great percussionists of the world. And the French in Louisiana? Anything goes! You wanna sing opera? Sure! The singing tradition is massive in AfricanAmericans. The very idea of ‘Do you sing well?’, in popular culture, is ‘Do you sing like an African-American?’”
Classic Rock: Your relationship with the instrument changed after your accident.
“Yes – the claw! [Brandishes his scarred right hand.] The guitar saved my life. The guitar brought me back, y’know. There was a moment… I had retired from music [in 2008], returned to Oakland and become a marijuana farmer. It was a moment in my life when I had sold all my equipment, bought growing equipment for cultivating marijuana, and I had one guitar underneath an orange settee love-seat in my newborn son’s room.
I traded that love-seat for an eighth of OG Kush [a strain of cannabis] from a worker at Goodwill, a second hand store. “The guitar sat there for years. I had my son, and that one fateful day when I couldn’t put him to sleep, out the corner of my eye I saw that guitar, and… All the stars aligned, and I just got up, walked over and played that G-major, and it changed my whole life, because of how my son reacted.”
"I hear the blues in EDM. I hear it in dance music. I hear it in hip-hop. I hear it everywhere. So I think it’s one of the most powerful vehicles of expression in the history of human beings. It was a seed that was planted through tragedy, that blossomed [into] the most amazing, colourful, interesting contributions to the planet. Mississippi is the poorest state in the union. It should be the richest state, because of the contributions that it made."
“People ask me: ‘Do you consider yourself a bluesman? You don’t even have a twelve-bar blues song!’ Oh, I absolutely do. I feel like bluesmen were the first punk rockers. I mean, just being black and picking up a guitar in 1920, that was punk rock as hell! They were punk rockers! Nobody’s more punk rock than Robert Johnson. Listen to his lyrics! Nobody! I mean, these dudes were just such maverick rebels. I still listen to that music and get tears and chills.
"And when I hear Skip James, y’know what I hear? Protest songs! Man, they’re letting you know what’s going on. My mother’s people are all deep southern rural people from Virginia. I remember asking my grandmother about the blues, and she said: ‘Honey, white people thought we were sad. We weren’t sad!’ Blues is medicine. It was medicine for the spirit.”
“I don’t get too happy, and I don’t get too sad. I love being in the middle. I think happiness has to be… learned from gratitude. I get happiness like: ‘Look, I’m breathing!’ ‘Look, the sky, it’s cloudy, it’s blue! Hell, it’s the sky!’ Trees. Oh my god. I see, I feel, Itouch. You know, ‘I can sit up!’ I was in a coma for three weeks and had to learn all this stuff again, and so for me happiness, I had to redefine what it was. And guess what? It’s okay if you can’t reach it all the time.
"There may be some really great results from feeling shitty, like you can get really productive, really creative and really engaged from feeling shitty. I’ve felt shitty and wrote my ass out of it. Man, make a movie, make cupcakes, make some cookies, sew something, start a new movement, go tell somebody you feel that way, write a song… Anything. But these feelings are human. That’s what we’re made up of, all these different feelings.”
“It’s a great curse and a great tool. It’s like the invention of the television. Y’know, people were like: ‘Oh my god, the television! Sitting here just watching it!’ But you could also watch great documentaries that were very enlightening and educational. So it’s just a tool. If you abuse it it’s terrible. If you’re addicted to it it’s terrible. If you are using it as a vehicle to contribute something amazing, then it can be amazing.
"If it wasn’t for social media there’d be no Fantastic Negrito. No one was looking for me. People told me: no, you’re too old, your music’s non-genre-specific, nobody cares about a middle-aged guy playing a guitar, you don’t look the part, it’s not what we can market, goodbye… It can be a nasty propaganda machine, but it can be a beautiful thing.”
"I actually got these [gestures to trousers] in the UK. You have these places – Sports Unlimited or something? – and you get these golf pants, really inexpensive. I come back and upcycle them.
"I love fashion and clothing as a means of expression. I’m not into designers, I just make up my own shit. It’s so liberating. I grew up with thirteen brothers and sisters, very poor, and I was always ridiculed for being a dirty kid with holes in my pants and shoes. So the first chance I got to really express myself… look out, world! People used to ask me: ‘Man, what ship is you the captain of?’ and all kinds of crazy questions. But there’s something very tribal about all these colours, accessories. It’s something I thrive on.
"I cut all my hair off for the How Long video. It affects how I write. It affects how I feel. I live on a farm, so I’ve got my farm gear, and my performance gear, or when I write a song and really wanna feel like Fantastic Negrito… It’s like a costume. When I don’t feel like being Fantastic Negrito, I put on a baseball hat and sweats."
“Prince is my first teacher, man. I mean, he’s… Growing up in America, growing up in the ghetto areas, I was so different, I was dressing so outrageously. And then I saw another black artist doing that and I was like: ‘Ohhh shit! It’s okay to be yourself!’ I feel like he was my first teacher. Something that I’ll never be. He’s just so far away from me, but in spirit he’s a great teacher. And musically just on another planet.”
“You get everything here. Edgy, daring, courageous, revolutionary, hypocritical, artistry, originality, tragic. Those are the words I think of. I like my city. I try to take it as it comes, I don’t try to fight against it too much. It evolves for better or worse. Some things are better, some things are worse. There’s that spectrum. I think that goes along with everything, and the more that we can just try to be a good contributor, a good citizen, and then at the same time accept it for what it’s trying to evolve into, then you keep a pretty good relationship.
"I mean, if you have some preconceived notion like: ‘Hey, I remember twenty years ago there wasn’t a bar here!’ you know that’s [laughs]: ‘You weren’t like that before!’ Well, yeah… I think that’s okay, it has to evolve, it has to grow. The city was more black, now it’s a bit more white… It is what it is, and if you wanna be part of it you need to get in there and do your thing. I’ve been based here doing my albums here, I feel like I’ve contributed to the city and it has really supported me."
"I used to watch all those games before I had kids. When I was a kid they got me. I couldn’t believe it. It was traumatic, the Oakland Raiders! Talk about a team that really personified the city: silver and black, skull and crossbones. That really was the city of Oakland.
"Now I don’t get so attached. These teams, we’ve kinda handed over all the power in the world to billionaires and corporations. We live with what you get served. Unless you really wanna take control back. Then… just stop going to the games! People have all the power, I believe. I think one day we’ll take the power back, I do. But we just love billionaires."
“It’s the greatest lie ever sold. There is no race. It doesn’t exist. This idea of race is very conveniently sold by people that want to dominate you, separate you and basically control your life. It’s the most full-of-shit thing. People pimp it, people make money off of it. It’s tragic. People have been a victim of it, people are obsessed with it…
"It’s a shame. I don’t believe in it. I could get a heart transplant from you, no problem, y’know? We’d have beautiful kids, they’d be fine, it wouldn’t be like: ‘Argh! I’m a mutant!’ It’s ridiculous. But it’s very, very convenient. Especially in America, because we’re really about race. Poor white people, from the slave states, never got jobs picking cotton. Think about that shit. When a factory moves into your neighbourhood, why are people happy the factory’s there? There’s going to be jobs. They’re gonna share some of that wealth now, aren’t they?
"Well, this is the greatest lie about race, and why white supremacy is really bad for white people, more than anybody. Because when those big companies, plantations, moved in, the first thing they should have done was say: ‘We’re gonna hire all you poor white people, we’re gonna give you great jobs, you’re gonna be able to share in the wealth and be property owners and you can live the American dream.’ But that didn’t happen.
"What happened was those rich, powerful people said: ‘God dammit, how can we have it all… I got it – we’ll use race! We’re gonna grow cotton, tobacco, sugar, but we’re gonna get these subhuman people to work the field, because they’re not really human, they’re animals. We can sell them, we can rape their women…’ all of that. ‘The greatest thing we can offer you [poor white people], money? No. Healthcare benefits? No. You’re white, doesn’t that feel good? You’re not one of these subhuman animals working in these fields. Go with it!’
"If those people just stopped for one minute, they’d be like: ‘Wait a minute… We want the jobs, we want a share in this wealth.’ I’m out there with this idea. But just think about it. “In America now [with the Black Lives Matter movement], this is the ‘moment’ for it [awareness of racism]. In America we’re kinda like that. It’s like: ‘Now, we’re gonna wear our hair like this!’ But I think if we don’t do something that’s tangible and sustainable, next year it’s gonna be the same thing.
"I think what needs to happen, in all these movements, is that we really have tools that people can use when all the media dies down. Are we preparing our children to live in this society? My father used to say, back in the seventies: ‘Black power means owning your own businesses.’”
“I own a shotgun. It surprises people. There’s a rural country boy side of me that I learned in the south, all those summers with my southern relatives who I love. And as a person who owns a shotgun, I really believe in gun reform, gun control, and I don’t think you have to outlaw guns. I own a shotgun just being someone that’s like: ‘If everything shut down…’
"I know how to fish too, and I grow my food. I’d wanna be self-sustained in the wilderness. I’m not walking down the street with a gun. It’s just like the internet, it’s a tool. If you’re a complete asshole, lunatic, a racist or a crazy person, then it’s a very bad thing. If you needed it for survival, you may have to survive one day.
"We have a serious, serious, serious gun problem in America. My fourteen-year-old brother was shot down, my sixteen-year-old cousin shot down, my best friend growing up shot down when he was about twenty-two. It shouldn’t be that easy to get a gun. We need to stop being cowards and bowing down to the NRA [National Rifle Association] all the time. They’re just interested in selling guns. They don’t care. They don’t care that my brother lost his life.”
“I bring kids on my farm and I teach them about agriculture, and I got nephews and I’m like: ‘Let’s plant stuff.’ And it’s changed their life. They’re on the farm, they’re learning about soil. African Americans have been traumatised by soil. The smartest thing that we can do is get our ass back in the soil, because the soil will feed you. You’ve gotta face your trauma in order to get to the next level.
"So that’s one of the things I’m trying to do. You wanna de-fund the police? I get it, me too. But we can do it by making sure we have skills, and our children have skills, so that we’re not even dealing with the police.
“Gardening is therapeutic. It can save your life. We don’t need prescription pills, we need gardening, urban farming. If you wanna know what’s in your food, grow what’s in your food. There’s nothing more revolutionary than taking the money out of manufacturers and just growing stuff. In a dresser drawer if you have to. I do that. If I see a dresser drawer on the street, or a bookcase, I put it in my car, drill holes in it and put it out there in the garden and grow some swiss chard, spinach, zucchini, squash, lettuce, kale. I get off on it.
"I have elderly friends, I drive over with a dozen eggs and veggies that are good for you and they taste like vegetables. The stuff in the store doesn’t. It’s great. Our parents are getting older, it’s a life saver – you get out there, you get your exercise… spiritual breakfast.”