As we say in Oakland, it was on and crackin’ at the city’s First Fridays street fair earlier this month. The main reason? Fantastic Negrito, a.k.a. Xavier Dphrepaulezz, performed from his new album, The Last Days of Oakland for his hometown. The musician calls his sound “Black roots.” It’s a deep, soulful blend of funk, rock, punk, blues, and lyrics about real life. And that night, Fantastic Negrito and his band delivered. During the show, the audience rocked out to his eclectic blend of music, making the festival feel like a perfect melding of “Old Oakland” and “New Oakland.”
The sista in the African-print skirt standing across from brothas in biker clubs, and the Latino man in a wheelchair sporting his Raiders hat reminded me of Old Oakland. The relaxed weed smokers of all races and ages were definitely Old Oakland. But New Oakland is whiter and pricier, and has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. Rising costs are driving African-Americans out. Many newcomers are hipsters, San Franciscans who moved here because they couldn’t afford the city and its growing number of tech industry employees. Ironically, Uber’s future building was a few blocks from the stage, and during the concert, I thought of the mom-and-pop businesses around us and hoped they survive.
Fantastic Negrito’s album seemed like the perfect soundtrack to the changing times. The Last Days of Oakland covers gentrification, classism, and racism. Fantastic Negrito said he was inspired to tackle these issues after touring big cities and noticing a shift in the racial demographics. His own story is moving. He lost a major record deal in the ‘90s; survived a near fatal car accident that left him in a coma for weeks and his playing hand permanently damaged; and he even quit music until his infant son’s giddy reaction to him playing a guitar inspired him to try again. Many Black music lovers were recently introduced to him through Empire, but Fantastic Negrito gained mainstream (read: white) exposure last year after beating out 7,000 entries in NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest.
Recent, EBONY.com caught up with Fantastic Negrito somewhere between Old and New Oakland to chat about his life, music, and rapidly changing hometown.
EBONY.com: Where did the name Fantastic Negrito come from?
Fantastic Negrito: Anytime someone asks me what that name means, I’m going to say [blues legend] Robert Johnson—which is the king, Skip James, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson. In our own community we don’t know who these people are. These are the architects of pop culture.
EBONY.com: So many Black artists are put in one box—either rap, soul, R&B or gospel. You’re out of the box as a Black artist.
Fantastic Negrito: I always have been. All of these different genres that you mention, came from the Black experience. But we’re not educating our youth and we’re not passing along this amazing art. Ain’t nobody more punk rock than Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, even Little Richard. We’re not one-dimensional. We’re multidimensional. Slaves and the descendants of slaves created world pop culture. Let’s keep it real and be very respectful about that.
EBONY.com: What’s Old and New Oakland to you?
Fantastic Negrito: I look at myself, Fantastic Negrito, as a bridge. I’m from the Old Oakland. So many great things happened in that Old Oakland. But, so many tragic things happened too. Usually when tragedy is present, a great art movement is right behind it. People are expressing what’s going on within that time–whether the crack explosion, the war on the Black community, the oppression, the violence.
I’m now an artist in the New Oakland, but from the Old Oakland. I have to remind people in the New Oakland that somebody made it cool. And then [I] have to remind people in the Old Oakland, that’s great what we created, but it is over. These people are here and they ain’t going nowhere. Uber isn’t packing up and going because you don’t like it. So we have to recognize we have new people here, and let’s try to find some common ground. It goes both ways.
EBONY.com: Your version of “In the Pines” is about Black women. Why?
Fantastic Negrito: “In the Pines” is a very old song dating back to slavery. Lead Belly made it popular. I was very inspired by the fact that black women bury their children at an alarming rate. For any mother to bury their child is so unnatural. I thought of my mother who buried my brother when he was 14. I lost him to gun violence. My first cousin, who I was very close to, died at 16 in the Bay Area. I lost him to gun violence. And the other death was my best friend in junior high. He was murdered at a barbershop. I always thought about those mothers and their pain.
EBONY.com: Shifting to a lighter subject, how was being on Empire for you?
Fantastic Negrito: It was great. Jussie [Smollet] is a beautiful young man. I had lines and he tried to give me acting lessons.
EBONY.com: Did appearing on Empire give you more exposure to the Black community?
Fantastic Negrito: It really did because now I have dudes coming up to me like, “Yo man that’s really good. I don’t even buy CD’s but I’m buying your sh-t.” That touches me because I feel like my music is Black as f–k. My sh-t is Black. I love when it’s reaching my brothas and sistas because they need to hear it.
Fantastic Negrito’s album, The Last Days of Oakland is available now.