2019 Best of the East Bay: Spotlight on Fantastic Negrito
The genre-spanning musician earned his blues cred in Oakland before rising up and winning two Grammys.
Fantastic Negrito will perform at the Art and Soul Oakland festival on July 28.
Photo by Lyle Owerko
After Oakland's Fantastic Negrito (born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz) swaggered to the podium in February to accept his second Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, he called for a childhood friend to join him onstage. “We used to rob people together,” he told the starry crowd of music-industry heavyweights. Although his pal denied it, the moment was reflective of the long, strange journey the 51-year-old Negrito took to Grammy gold.
“I’m shocked that the Academy recognized me,” Negrito told Diablo a few weeks later. “They deserve a lot of credit, because I am way out of the box of what people think is contemporary blues.”
He earned plenty of acclaim for the funk-tastic, soul-infused Please Don’t Be Dead, the follow-up to his Grammy-winning 2016 record, The Last Days of Oakland. The Please Don’t Be Dead album cover is a grainy black-and-white photo of a bandaged Negrito lying in a hospital bed after spending three weeks in a coma following a car accident 20 years ago, but the title references his concern for his homeland.
“I had been traveling quite a bit outside the U.S. and people kept asking me, ‘What’s going on in America?’ I was like, America, please don’t be dead,” he explains. “I thought that picture looked just like America right now—disheveled, waking up from some crazy event.”
Negrito’s own history is filled with crazy events. Born in Massachusetts, he was raised in an orthodox Muslim household before his family moved to California when he was 12. “I grew up in a lot of foster homes during the crack era, and that’s just what you did: You made and sold crack,” he recalls of his troubled youth in Oakland. “There was gun violence and people dying around me. Music was a way out.”
Inspired by Prince (“He was self-taught, and I thought, That’s how you do it,” he says), Negrito first learned to play an instrument by sneaking into piano rooms at UC Berkeley. “I listened to people practicing scales and I would do the same thing,” he recalls.
He continued to sell drugs while working on his music, until a near-fatal encounter with a masked gunman prompted him to leave Oakland for Los Angeles. Negrito eventually signed a million-dollar contract with Interscope Records, a deal that resulted in a failed album and creative disillusionment. Then, the aforementioned car accident happened, leading to permanent damage in his guitar-playing hand. He came back to Oakland in 2008 and spent the next five years as a marijuana farmer. A poignant episode with his son in 2011 led him to begin exploring what he calls “black roots music,” and before long he was making music in his Oakland art gallery/recording studio, where he hopes to build a future record label.
“These were all teaching moments,” Negrito says of his past. “It’s great to be in a position to share your experiences, failures, and victories, and turn them into learning moments for other human beings. Now, I don’t try to write hit songs. I try to be a voice for people who don’t have one.”