Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, has spent a career documenting his extraordinary life. His new album, White Jesus Black Problems, tells the newly discovered story of his seven-times great-grandparents, an African slave and a Scottish servant who fell in love in Virginia, risked the brutality of the era to be together, and raised a family of free children.
“It makes me feel very positive, very upbeat,” he says, “and I really want to tell their story.”
The first music I remember hearing
Pumpkin, Banana, Peas & Corn by Frankie ‘Zhivago’ Young and the Village Rams. He was this artist my dad listened to. It’s so goofy. Also Louis Armstrong, classical music. An Egyptian singer called Umm Kulthum. A lot of stuff that sounded like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, that very eclectic, wild jazz. Harry Belafonte. My dad was a control freak. He’d control the music, control the narrative, control how you dress, so I didn’t really get popular music at all. I found that out later.
The first music I discovered for myself
Our family lost our home, it burned down. We were in rural New England, Massachusetts. We lived on this farm for a while, and I’m down in this recreational room and I’m just looking around. I’m a kid, eleven maybe. I find these records, I put one on, and it was like: “Oh my god, this music!” I look at the label and it’s Led Zeppelin II. You imagine a kid who has been sheltered and has heard all this very specific music. I remember looking around, I felt like I was committing a crime. It was earth-shattering. I wasn’t a musician, but that take on the blues was so out-there.
The first song I performed live
I started playing music late. I was in a pretty rough neighbourhood that had a lot of drug deaths and people, literally kids my age, were getting killed. So I decided that I wanted to play music. I used to sneak into the university and pretend I was a student, and I’d practice on all their musical equipment. That’s how I learned. I was writing a lot of my own stuff. I do remember I played some R&B: Lean On Me, Ain’t No Sunshine, the classics.
I gotta give it to Robert Johnson. Just for context of writing songs. How important are these songs? Who will they influence? Will we still be listening to these songs from the 1920s? Robert Johnson’s the winner in my book.
The guitar hero
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, because you just don’t see her coming. This church lady is bringing the fire. She’s an architect. And everything that people are going to learn – Chuck Berry, everybody – is based on Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her amazing contribution to popular music. I like the people that built it. What she was doing at that time, and with that confidence and grace and power.
My favourite singer is probably Prince, because of the range. He could rock, he could funk, he could ballad, he could do it all. I think he stole everything he knew from Sly Stone. Then we’ve got to throw Freddie Mercury in. I can’t choose one!
The greatest album of all time
The Robert Johnson Collection. It’s nothing but a guy with a guitar, but there is so much in it. There’s so much depth, so much knowledge. Here’s a guy a generation removed from slavery, telling his story. It’s very powerful to me. He’s a gangster rapper. He’s a rock’n’roller. He’s living on the edge. He’s punk. He’s the first of the twenty-seven club. He’s everything that we see now.
The album that gets me through hard times
The best live album
This is easy: Donny Hathaway Live. You want to get together with your partner and get some sparks? Donny Hathaway Live. It’s just beautiful, man. He just seems so much better than the rest of us. Classic soul, it’s unbelievable. Make a hot cup of tea, put on the candles, take a bath, call up your buddy and listen to Donny Hathaway Live. He sings Jealous Guy better than John Lennon. I know that’s sacrilege. He sings What’s Going On – I’m sorry, people – better than Marvin Gaye. There it is, I said it.
The best record I've made
White Jesus Black Problems. It’s the most free album I’ve ever done. I went in and I didn’t care. And I was telling someone else’s story, it’s not really my story. They took all the punches, all the consequences.
The best cover version
When The Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin. I have to give it to Led Zeppelin. These guys did their homework. They got that feeling of the song lyrically, like: “Oh, man, something really bad is gonna happen.” It’s beautiful.
My Saturday night party song
It would have to be Zombie by Fela Kuti. Amazing.
The song I want played at my funeral
Happy Birthday. Because it’s an act of gratitude. I was very happy to have been born and to have taken this journey with all of you, and thank you. Happy birthday. Now I’m out.