His name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the cat with 9 lives or commonly know as Fantastic Negrito. The singer-songwriter expresses to the public his memories and the painful struggles he has had in life from the very beginning. But don’t let that get you down, the bluesman also tells you a story of hope and wisdom. He’ll take you down to the very roots of rhythm and blues.
On the second floor of the pub and grub Mustang Harrys, Christie McMenamin meets with Fantastic Negrito for a sit-down.
CM: This was something I was initially unaware of, but as I was reading about you, I saw that Bernie Sanders used your song and that you performed at a couple of his campaign stops?
FN: Yeah, I did. I performed at three of his campaigns. One in New Hampshire, which he won, one in Las Vegas, which he didn’t win, and one in California, which he should have won.
CM: He used the song, “Working Poor,” which is really cool because he’s so inspired by economic justice. So, how did you feel, being able to contribute your own voice, in a way?
FN: As an artist, I like the word “contribute.” I think it’s the most important word because as artists, we tend to be very self-centred and a bit narcissistic, which I think is also necessary.
CM: I do, too; self-awareness is really important, and to put yourself into your own work.
FN: Exactly. But I think when we start contributing, that’s when it really comes alive. To start looking at art as a contribution, rather than what you can get from it. And anytime I’m contributing, I feel really good.
CM: I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts of the human experience. Being able to give back and communicate.
FN: I think that’s why we’re here. I think when we look back at all the civilizations, the Greeks, the Persians, Africa, Rome—we’re always looking at what they contributed. In museums, we say ‘hey, what did they do?’ And I think all the artefacts are a contribution.
CM: Art always survives.
FN: Yes. That’s a good quote!
CM: Great! Feel free to credit me and give me your Grammy!
FN: See? Narcissism!
CM: Well, I’m a writer!
FN: I’m in business with a writer, my creative partner.
CM: He’s the one you started the collective with?
CM: Tell me more about that
FN: Well, I’d say the modern version of it is when I walked away from music for about 5 years and decided to do other things. I sold all of my equipment and I started to grow weed up in Oakland because you can really grow a lot of it. Some of the best weed in the world comes from Northern California. I really haven’t smoked since I was 14. I’m a huge advocate, but I don’t do it. I feel like I’m missing out, maybe. I get into these strange patterns.
FN: But back to the collective. We decided to pool our resources together. We thought it seemed like a good way. So we decided I’d grow the weed and I’d help him as a writer. So he tried to be a writer, I grew a lot of weed, we’d split all the money. We just gave up this idea of possession; it was more like empowering each other.
CM: That’s the way I always wish the world would work.
FN: Well, it was hard at times, but it’s worked so far. So he calls me up one day, and he says, ‘Hey, I wrote this show called Empire.’ And I go, ‘okay, we don’t know what that is.’ So it turned out to be pretty good for him, and then he turned it on me and said, ‘Hey, now it’s time for you to do something.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do anything. I have no interest in doing anything.’ I think he really talked me into being a musician again.
CM: Was there any reason why?
FN: I didn’t have anything to say. And I think that that’s frivolous and silly.
CM: It’s funny because that’s where I’m at with my creative writing right now. I feel like I have nothing to say.
FN: Stop. Stop and live a little bit.
CM: Yeah, experiences help a lot.
FN: Yeah, I went out and had all these wild experiences, and then I could really focus in on them and grow from them. So he was like, ‘Start something. Now you can keep the money from the business, I’m good now.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And one day I came up with this idea, Fantastic Negrito, it was about four years ago, and everyone hated it!
CM: Oh, no, really?!
FN: They were like, ‘That’s terrible!’ I remember I was in this office with these people, and they were helping; interns, because part of it was an art gallery. I was into the art gallery. And I go, ‘Hey! Fantastic Negrito. That’s who I am.’ And this kid was like, ‘Listen. White people. We don’t like saying the word ‘negrito.’ And then I was like, ‘That’s perfect, then!’
CM: That’s so funny! It makes people uncomfortable, but you’ve also got that social aspect there.
FN: And not only that, but I think art is uncomfortable! I think artists, it’s kind of our job to challenge people. So I thought that was inspiring to me, so I went with it. I was coming up with music and I finally found a direction. I was really listening to a lot of Black Roots early stuff, and the first song I wrote was Night Has Turned to Day. And then I thought, ‘well, where should I play it, a guy in my forties that wants to do this ambiguous, but kind of black roots blues music?’ Nobody was really into it.
FN: So I just decided that I’d go play on the streets. I thought I had some good songs and thought, ‘if you really want to test them out, why don’t you play them for people who don’t want to hear them?’
CM: I would be intimidated!
FN: That’s what was the beauty of it. Again, the uncomfortableness. The challenge. So I just went out there and played. I wanted people trying to get home from work. So I’d go to the San Francisco train station. San Francisco is tough, and in Oakland, I’d play around the donut shop and some bars, and see how much money people would give me. That was a way of knowing if I was connecting. I wanted people to stop. I wanted to stop people. And so it worked out. And a year later, Tiny Desk.
CM: Did you ever think that was going to be a thing that you’d win?
FN: No, I thought the opposite when I heard about it. I thought, ‘NPR? That ain’t me.’ Because my lyrics, you know—I go there. I’m not into the labels or trying not to offend people. This is not me. I come from a punk background, in a way, mixed with early hip-hop. That’s the music that I gravitate towards. I like music that’s edgy and is different and makes you think. I didn’t want to do it. So being in a collective, they have all the power, and they voted against me. So I did a really quick one take [dash?]. If you go to the video, it’s just in this elevator, it’s kind of moving.
CM: Well, maybe that was the best way!
FN: Well, I think it was authentic.
CM: And you [listeners of music/consumers of art] respond to that.
FN: Yeah. And I just think like you said, I just didn’t think I’d win. And see, I didn’t know Bob Boilen. When I met Bob Boilen, then I got it. He’s the guy at NPR, and he knows music. And he’s looking for different stuff.
CM: Yeah, and that’s what I want to hear, as well. Music now seems very formulaic, at least, the stuff that’s popular.
FN: Yeah, you just got to look for stuff. I mean, you look at the guy I’m touring with, Sturgill Simpson, he’s just really interesting and different. He’s kind of what to country what I am to blues. It’s like, ‘Is that really country?’ It’s kind of throwback-ish and it’s great. So that’s the collective. Out of fear.
CM: Well, you know what? My problem is the minute I feel fear, I run away. And I’m getting to a point in my life where I’m realizing it’s counterproductive.
FN: I like fear.
CM: Really? That paralyzes me!
FN: It challenges me. I grew up in a big family.
CM: I saw! 14 siblings!
CM: There’s no way I’d ever have that many kids.
FN: Well, I think we’re out of touch in some ways because we’re so modern. I mean, look, I don’t have the baby, so…
CM: Yeah, but you can still give your opinions and feelings
FN: Yeah, I mean, you can adopt kids. I think it’s great to take care of people, and I think when we live for other people, we’re free.
CM: I agree, I’m actually doing social work. Unfortunately, the pay is very low, but it’s that same thing where I want to help people.
FN: Yeah, I mean, that’s interesting, I think about my mom—but that’s a whole other conversation we can talk about, so I won’t get into it.
CM: Well, the thing about you is that you are very interesting. I don’t have to ask you generic questions. Like, I was hoping for more open-ended things, for you to kind of just go, and you’ve been doing that.
FN: Yeah, I don’t like scripts. I like to just talk. This is great.
CM: Me, too. But, okay, well, as I consult the script, how about this? If you were to pick, out of all your experiences, one lesson you’ve come away with, what would that be? And you’ve been talking a little bit about that with contributing.
FN: Yeah, when you said that, a couple things came to my mind. One thing is that you can’t-do it alone. Wow. I mean, that was maybe my biggest lesson in the last ten years of my life, just before I went back to being a musician, is that you can’t-do it alone, and it really isn’t so much about me all the time. I’m kind of a recovering narcissist, that’s why.
CM: I love that phrase!
FN: Yeah, and ‘recovering,’ because once you realize that, you can walk towards that light. Then you’re free. And when you can live for other people, as I like to state, then life has a purpose. It’s weird, our culture teaches us individualism, me—go out and do your thing.
CM: That’s why we have so many issues.
FN: Yeah, I think that’s why we all have issues, but it’s so beautiful and so much more rewarding when you live for other people.
CM: Yes. Empathy, compassion, and also realizing that you are privileged. I often think to myself when I’m complaining about mundane things, you have to look at how much you have and how much other people don’t, and how, then, do you take that privilege and use that to help other people?
FN: It’s important if you want to feel something. I like feeling things.
CM: Me, too—but not pain.
FN: Well, that’ll help you as an artist, but not a sustained pain. I like pulling from the painful experiences. You can’t have one without the other. It’s something to look forward to—you just don’t want to live in it. That’s bad. I always say I don’t get too happy, I don’t get too sad.
CM: It’s good to keep a balance. And you seem to have a lot of wisdom on how to live life.
FN: Well I would hope by now, definitely! It’s funny, the song I just made a video to used words on a cross that says ‘stress, anxiety, fear lead to shallow graves for losers.’
CM: It’s true! You really have to push yourself!
FN: Yeah, we lose when we don’t participate in life. And like I said: you can’t do it alone. It’s impossible. And the idea that we’re sold that bill of goods—it’s false. It’s not real. I think it turns you into a consumer and you kind of buy the hype.
CM: That’s the problem with capitalism. But that’s another conversation.
FN: Yeah, that is the problem with capitalism. I think there’s got to be, again, a balance for all of this. There are aspects of it that are cool, and there are aspects of other systems that are cool.
CM: So, you’ve travelled a lot?
FN: It’s a lesson. One thing you learn is that people are basically the same. They’re trying to get home to their loved ones, they’re trying to survive, they’re trying to make it in life. People are great. Governments are terrible. But people are wonderful. And I think people really look to the United States to be a leader, and they’re kind of freaked out right now.
CM: We’re all—well, hopefully we’re all—freaked out!
FN: I like history, and all this stuff has happened. I’m actually writing a song for the new album, Seen It All Happen Before; I’ve seen it all happen before. So don’t get too freaked.
CM: Yeah, we do always seem to have a backwards period in history.
FN: Seven years ago, fascism was on the rise. It’s back.
CM: What I realized is that many people must have felt that way and never said anything.
FN: It’s funny, the song that I added to the album, The Shadows, talks about that; coming out of the shadows, basically. Especially in America, it’s like, ‘oh, shit.’ But I mean, I’ve always known. I think for black people, we always feel it. We can’t explain to white people. I mean, you can never know what that feels like. I don’t live and dwell on that, but it’s part of living in America.
FN: My Dad taught me that it just is. But that doesn’t stop you. And so I’ve always achieved and went for everything, but trust me, it’s fucking there. It’s traumatic after a while. People are afraid of you.
FN: My experiences with this police—and again, my Dad prepared me for this—is that they’re terrified of you. To the police, black people are like scary monsters. I have a son, and you have to educate. And I teach him this is how it is. Don’t be bitter, don’t be angry—
CM: How are you not bitter or angry? I’d be bitter and angry!
FN: I wouldn’t be because it’s not productive. I want to do things that are productive. Because I’m educated about it, I know what to do, I know what not to do. You have to have the tools to deal with the society we live in.
[On touring with Chris Cornell]
CM: I can’t believe he’s gone.
FN: I did three tours with him.
CM: Did you ever foresee, or expect that?
FN: Well, you never foresee that. He was loving, incredible, giving person, and I owe him a lot of what’s going on with me now. Chris Cornell put in front of a lot of people.
CM: What’s great is that your sounds are so different.
FN: That’s the genius of Chris Cornell. I was like, ‘Soundgarden? I mean, that shit’s cool, but it’s not me.’ But Chris knew. And man, I did really well on those tours. And a lot of my Grammy exposure, people knew me from Chris Cornell.
CM: It always seems, and this is probably a psychological thing, but it always seems we lose the good ones. But maybe we just focus on the good ones.
FN: It’s weird because Chris and I were on tour when Bowie and Prince went. I remember talking about Kurt Cobain. Chris was his friend. So it was unexpected. But hey. His music lives on.
FN: I feel all these things are just part of life. Life is fucked up, it’s painful, it’s beautiful, it’s crazy—and that’s the great thing about being an artist. You can pick from that.
CM: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
FN: The video for Pushed Back is out. Pushed Back was important to me because again, all these things are happening and I thought the most catastrophic threat to humanity is not AIDS or cancer, it’s ignorance. And I felt really inspired to write the song, because the musicians—artists—we look at a group of people, blacks, whites, gays, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and we go, ‘let’s rock this bitch.’ But I think our current state of leadership and politicians look at the same room and go, how can I use this for my own benefit? So I think now it’s just so important for an artist—there’s a lot of material. And I think we’re the last line of defense. And I became very inspired to write that. And I felt like I was contributing.
CM: And it’s a larger societal conversation that, you know, needs to be had, and if music is a way for people to open up—
FN: Oh, it is, Totally. I mean, you’re playing all over the world, I played Norway and Sweden, Cyprus—and the common theme is people are connecting.