WALKING THE "LONG, LONG ROAD"

FROM BART PLATFORMS TO A GRAMMY
by Ian Jones

He is the son of a devout Muslim man from Somalia, who was born in 1905 and had 14 children. He is a former hustler, who sold crack and robbed houses for cash. He lost a brother to gun violence in his kitchen. He is a musician who can be best described as punk, R&B, soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll fused together. He is a Grammy Award winner. He is a former marijuana grower. He performs on television shows, giant music festivals and, to this day, the occasional street corner. 

 

It is impossible to label Fantastic Negrito, and that’s by design. There isn’t a box to put him in that won’t have his limbs sticking out. It’s not just his extravagant attire that makes him unique. It’s his experiences, his perspectives, his talents. It’s what makes him so Oakland. And that is what makes him so Bay Area.

 

A renaissance is happening here, a tussle between history and future. The injection of tech money and Silicon Valley types has brought a boon of resources to places like Oakland, which also has a rich history and culture that’s succumbing to the weight of influx.

But woven into the very fiber of his story is a picture of the collision between future and the past. His life, his music, is an illustration of how eras and cultures can coexist and even collaborate to produce lasting and spectacular work. 

 

That’s why this Massachusetts kid is such an important voice in Oakland, and, thus, the Bay Area. He doesn’t forget the past and its pains. He doesn’t toss out history to make room for what’s current. He marries them in such a way that his story is one of growth instead of regeneration. In that way, Fantastic Negrito embodies the solution for the gentrification he often sings about. His embracing of all that has happened and all he used to be, is the fuel for the soul of his music. Perhaps that’s how, in the middle of this wide-reaching and dramatic societal shift, the Bay Area can keep its soul. Just follow the fantastic music of its own Negrito.

Right now, in the office of his artist collective, Blackball Universe, he’s wearing scarlet red chinos offset by a plaid cummerbund and a bright white dress shirt. His braided mohawk stands at attention, and his beard is doing its own thing. His shoes are a paradox: they’re normal sneakers so they should blend in, but don’t because of the flash of the rest of his outfit.

 

He says his outrageous style was a survival mechanism for living in the ‘hood. “Nobody would fuck with me. Literally. I just stuck with it,” and, he adds candidly, ”I got girls easier that way.”

 

Let’s go back. Before he was Fantastic Negrito, the poignant musician, he was just Xavier Dphrepaulezz, resident knucklehead who flirted with the wrong side of the law.

 

He moved to Oakland with his family at 12 years old.

Right now, in the office of his artist collective, Blackball Universe, he’s wearing scarlet red chinos offset by a plaid cummerbund and a bright white dress shirt. His braided mohawk stands at attention, and his beard is doing its own thing. His shoes are a paradox: they’re normal sneakers so they should blend in, but don’t because of the flash of the rest of his outfit.

He says his outrageous style was a survival mechanism for living in the ‘hood. “Nobody would fuck with me. Literally. I just stuck with it,” and, he adds candidly, ”I got girls easier that way.”

 

Let’s go back. Before he was Fantastic Negrito, the poignant musician, he was just Xavier Dphrepaulezz, resident knucklehead who flirted with the wrong side of the law.

 

He moved to Oakland with his family at 12 years old.

 

He grew up with 13 siblings. With that many kids under one roof, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Perhaps that’s how he got so good at commanding a room. Today he’s soft-spoken and pretty down-to-earth, but is far from a wallflower. Growing up, he had to fight for everything.

 

Dphrepaulezz ran away from home shortly after arriving in the Bay. His father, educated at Oxford, was so strict. He never saw his dad again, as he died two years later. Dphrepaulezz spent his formative years in foster care and in the streets.

 

He was 13 when he got his hands on Prince’s third album, “Dirty Mind.” The hardcore alternative vibe of the album captivated him. It was Prince, a self-taught musician, who prompted Dphrepaulezz to teach himself how to play instruments.

 

The early ‘80s was quite the time to be a teenager in the Bay Area. The crack epidemic was brewing in Oakland. Hip-hop had arrived from the East Coast, and the punk scene was live. 

 

And Xavier, no angel as a teen, was all in.

“We were all selling drugs, man,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “We all carried pistols. There was a crack epidemic. Mostly, I was small-time. I was the kind of kid who sold fake weed, shit like that. Sometimes I would use tea.”

 

He dabbled in robbery, too. He’d befriend unpopular kids, so he could go their house. He would lift the house key and the family’s schedule so he could make a duplicate. When the coast was clear, he’d return and steal some valuables.

 

Why? Pursuit of the American Dream. Having money.

 

He once did a bid in juvenile hall for fighting. Music, however, was a constant in his life. At 18 years old, he dressed up in some nice clothes and posed as a student at UC Berkeley. That’s how he got access to the piano rooms, so he could practice. Eventually, he decided to pursue music, giving up the burglary and crack dealing. Once, it turned against him. He and some friends were buying guns from a gang. The transaction turned into a heist. The gang kept the guns and took their money.

 

The next day, Dphrepaulezz hitchhiked a ride to L.A. 

 

Imagine the desperation. The hope that made it all make sense. The pain, fear and frustration that kicked in as he got closer to the city of dreams. How the memory of mopping up the blood of his brother off the kitchen floor urged him to power through it. It would break a lot of people, and it has.

 

When I remark on his calm, spiritual affect, something you wouldn’t expect for someone who has seen so much, he says, matter-of-factly, “It took a lot of suffering to get here.” Nobody warned him of the twists his life would take. Nobody told him to brace himself.

In Los Angeles, his hustle was as an independent songwriter, handing out demos of his work to anyone with fingers. His tape ended up in the hands of Joe Ruffalo, who at the time was Prince’s manager. Ruffalo immediately snatched Dphrepaulezz up. He got him an apartment, put some money in his pocket and set up auditions.

 

Jimmy Lovine of Interscope Records loved his music and outbid everyone.

 

Dphrepaulezz signed a million-dollar recording contract with Interscope in 1995 under his first name. He put out his first studio album in April 1996 called “The X Factor.” But it flopped. Only two months earlier, Interscope had released 2Pac’s much-anticipated album, “All Eyez on Me.” He couldn’t compete with that.

 

Dphrepaulezz felt overwhelmed by the pressure to cram into the box, but resisted. To this day, he’s reticent to label his music with one genre.

The concern with what would sell clashed with his desire to make good music: to earn money or sell his soul? The creative differences killed his chances with Interscope.

Then he nearly died.

 

On Thanksgiving 1999, a near-fatal car accident put him in a coma for three weeks and crushed his playing hand. He’s said he doesn’t remember the impact, just the pretty girl in the car with him. He picked her up in the Hollywood Hills. They were on their way to get food.

 

The accident got him out of the Interscope deal. The square peg no longer had to fit into a round hole. That was a relief. The intense physical therapy, the care he needed to recover, the vulnerability of being on the mend - all of it humbled him. It was the antidote for his narcissism and arrogance.

 

In 2000, freed from his contract, he created Blackball Universe. It started as a record label and grew into a multimedia creative collective. He created incarnations: Chocolate Butterfly, Me and This Japanese Guy, Blood Sugar X. These were bands, personalities, for which he would create music and get it licensed to films and television shows. His credits include movies like “Madea Goes to Jail,” “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” and “Leprechaun: Back 2 The Hood,” and TV shows like “Burn Notice,” “Las Vegas” and “The Surreal Life.” He was also a club promoter, throwing monthly illegal shows at his loft. He once got arrested when his rooftop party featured a hot tub full of nude dancers.

The money he earned from his ventures went into the collective, which included writer Malcolm Spellman. Dphrepaulezz and Spellman didn’t get along at first, but they later forged a bond in creativity. Dphrepaulezz shared his earnings with Spellman, so Spellman could focus on screen writing. 

Their creative partnership is one reason why Dphrepaulezz can’t forget about his roots or the culture that shaped him, even though some of its elements were dangerous. Two former drug dealers leaning on each other, having broken out of their illicit cocoons to manifest their expansive talent. It takes perspective to know the gems are there even when only dirt is visible. After failing to become a big-time artist, Spellman was the one who was going to make it big time. That’s how Dphrepaulezz saw it, anyway. This is why he values investment over displacement.

 

He did this for about eight years, then gave it all up in 2008. He sold his equipment and left Los Angeles, moving back to Oakland. He got married. Had a son. Became a marijuana farmer. The music dream was behind him. Or so he thought.

 

“One day, I had come back from farming duties. My son was in his crib and not really talking yet. He was really unhappy. His mama left me. I wasn’t really used to that duty.” 

 

That’s when it hit him: “Oh shit, I’m alone.”

 

One night, he just wanted his son to stop crying. The anguish of his child was a metaphor for the unease he suddenly felt. He wanted peace back. For his son. For his life.

 

“I hadn’t played in five years,” he said. “I had this one guitar, leaning against that settee — the love seat. And I look at it and I think, ‘Well, let’s try that!’ I played a G-major and the world changed. The room changed.”

Dphrepaulezz mimed his son’s facial expression, changing from sour to happy. They had a moment. A father and a son. The past and the future.

 

“What he taught me that day,” he said, “was that music is the language of humanity.” 

 

This was 2012. The music itch didn’t come all the way back right away, but the slow process had started. “I did the thing any dude in the hood would try: I started learning Beatles songs,” he said, laughing. 

 

He went back further. He grew up hearing the blues but hadn’t paid much attention to it. He was too young to understand the reality present in the lyrics of Lead Belly, the energy and defiance of Muddy Waters’ sound, the somber truth of Skip James. All he knew was it didn’t have the bass or the thump he loved in hip-hop. It didn’t faze him that renowned bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who’d played with the likes of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, was a close relative. 

 

But it sounded so different with the ears he had now. The hot shot kid who thought he knew it all was now a complicated man who had learned so much.

By 2013, he was making music again, but not with his full spirit. He opened an art gallery and played the piano to test his music. Spellman, one of the voices that helped strip away his arrogance and self-centeredness, nudged him to try music again.

 

The new incarnation was born: Fantastic Negrito.

 

This time, he didn’t run to LA. He stayed home. He wrote songs that mattered to him and poured his heart out to strangers while simultaneously shaking a fist at the establishment.

 

He recognized that he had his work cut out for him if he was going to make it. “Oh shit, you got Creedence Clearwater Revival,” he said, his eyes widening with terror. “Oh shit, you got Sly Stone. Oh shit, (Carlos) Santana. Oh my God! Tower of Power. We got all these amazing groups — so the standard is high!”

He decided to start small and perform on the streets and on BART platforms. “Let them decide,” he said of his first attempts in front of his Bay Area audience. “If I’m good enough for them, I’m good enough for the world.”

 

He knew that he’d experience a lot of indifference. “You’re getting off BART, you’re new to San Francisco, ‘Oh, you don’t give a fuck?’” He was up to the challenge. “Let’s see if music still works. Let’s see the language of humanity.”

 

The gamble paid off: Heads began turning. Once, he drew a crowd while playing a street corner. A musician who was driving by parked, pulled out his guitar and played alongside Fantastic Negrito. It was D’Wayne Wiggins, an Oakland native from the R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!

 

In 2014, he released a self-titled EP on Blackball Universe. His life changed forever when National Public Radio chose him out of 7,000 submissions for its Tiny Desk Concert Contest. 

 

Bob Boilen, the director of NPR’s flagship “All Things Considered,” had started a spin-off show and podcast called “All Songs Considered,” featuring up-and-coming and unknown acts. In December of 2014, Boilen decided to open it up and give all musicians a shot at making the show.

 

The requirement was to film a video in front of a desk and post to YouTube by January 19, 2015. A day earlier, “Lost in a Crowd” was posted by Fantastic Negrito’s manager, Field. They put the desk and a microphone stand in front of a freight elevator at the grimy Blackball Universe offices in Jack London Square. Backed by a guitar, a stand-up bass and a cardboard box doubling as makeshift drums, the band crammed into a tiny freight elevator, as Fantastic Negrito sang his heart out.

 

That performance of “Lost in a Crowd,” a song channeling the blues greats but with a modern touch, caught NPR’s attention.

The video and song begin with primal humming, something that immediately grabs your attention. It’s a different sound from today’s manufactured pop. There’s no autotune, no thumping bass in the video. Just soul.

 

The camera work is shaky and the lighting is far from professional, it doesn’t matter. He and the band shine. It’s no surprise he won.

 

His Tiny Desk Concert, a performance of the same song plus two others, went live on YouTube in March 2015 and is currently over 1.6 million views. The Fantastic Negrito EP shot to No. 7 on Billboard for Blues music in February 2015. By August, his EP was the No. 7 iTunes blues album.

 

In January 2016, he was announced in the lineup of the BottleRock Napa Valley festival in Napa. In April, he was announced as part of Outside Lands in San Francisco. Then came the big coup.

 

Spellman landed a gig as a writer on Fox’s hit show “Empire.” Using that connection, Fantastic Negrito appeared on Episode 15 of season two, performing “Lost in a Crowd” with one of the show’s stars. The appearance did wonders for his coming album, “The Last Days of Oakland.” 

 

When it aired, Fantastic Negrito was already on tour with the lead vocalist for Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, in Europe.

 

“I was terrified,” he told KQED. “The idea of standing up there with a guitar facing 3,000 seated, hardcore Chris Cornell fans filled me with anxiety. I really didn’t think his audience would be into what I was doing. A month later, he asked me to open the American-Canadian tour. I was shocked and honored. We finished that tour and again said our goodbyes. Then he asked me to open up the Temple of the Dog shows with my band. No artist has supported me more than Chris Cornell. His heart was as big as his legendary vocals.” 

 

The two ended up playing about 70 shows in a year and a half’s time, and a friendship emerged.

 

“The Last Days of Oakland” album debuted at No. 4 on Billboard. Rayanne Pinna described the album for the East Bay Express as “an urgent, political record that grapples with the many changes Oakland has seen in recent years.” He celebrated the launch of his first full length album by performing for free on the street during Oakland’s First Friday.

 

The album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in February 2017, and it felt like Negrito had finally reached the top of the mountain. Three months later, Cornell died from suicide.

 

Another loss. More pain.

 

“He believed in me more than I believed in myself.”

Despite his success, Fantastic Negrito came to view his Grammy with a bit of disdain. He had already chased stardom, already been involved in the realm of commercialism, and he remembered what was lost. His sudden ascent felt a little too much like the suffocation he experienced before. All of it was too confining. It’s not worth losing the purity, the raw honesty in the craft. He has to cling to that. This challenge is similar to the struggle he often addresses in his music, the paradigm shift happening in the Bay Area and, specifically, his beloved Oakland.

He has always had an assertive sound, but his latest album, “Please Don’t Be Dead” is even more insistent than the relatively laid-back “The Last Days of Oakland.” From its strong, guitar-riff driven opener “Plastic Hamburgers,” in which he laments drug addiction, to the funky “Bullshit Anthem,” where he urges the listener to “take that bullshit, and turn it into good shit,” the album is a fun ride. He does cover some heavy topics: death, breakups and wrongful termination, but it’s not a somber album.

 

He, like many, fears something valuable is being lost in this financial boom of the Bay Area and the migration to Oakland, the heart of the Bay. It is producing something shinier, something prettier. But at what cost? 

 

“The way people have been moved out, that’s tragic,” he said. “And we have our work cut out. Because what makes us great is diversity. All people. From all walks of life, all colors, all religions, all sexual persuasions. All of it. That’s what makes the Bay Area original. That’s what makes the Bay Area the greatest tribe ever, in my opinion. Free speech. Equity. Hell, we produced the Hell’s Angels AND the Black Panthers — how about that! We’re some edgy motherfuckers!”

Housing crisis and financial disparity are undergirding this radical shift in the Bay. The displacement of communities, the erasing of culture. It risks yanking out vital components that make the Bay Area special. He warns “the new Oakland” to realize why the city is great:

 

“Oh, you ‘hella love’ Oakland? You do? Well, why the fuck you ‘hella love’ it? You think that some people maybe sacrificed their blood, sweat and tears, to make this shit incredible? You better know who I’m talking about, if you want it to remain great. Because this great title can be taken from you.”

 

There has to be a way to embrace the past while forging the future. There has to be a way to upgrade without needing to uproot. 

 

Fantastic Negrito knows the way. We just have to listen.

© 2018 Naked Magazine. A student publication of Las Positas College

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