Imagine waking up from a coma and finding your hands mangled and your muscles atrophied from lack of use. Now imagine having this happen when your occupation is making music and performing. This is the story of Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who has fittingly named his musical persona, the “Fantastic Negrito.” The name is full of bravado and reflects the overcoming and embracing of a tumultuous life.
Before becoming Fantastic, Dphrepaulezz grew up in 1980s Oakland. The Bay Area contrasted his early childhood in Massachusetts, where he was raised in a traditional Muslim household with his 14 siblings by his father, a Somali-Caribbean immigrant.
This combination allowed for a huge breadth of musical diversity in his life, from his father’s traditional African music, to Arab chants, to the plethora of emerging acts coming out of Oakland at the time (think MC Hammer, Souls of Mischief and Tony! Toni! Tone!).
This era, however, was also witness to the nationwide crack cocaine epidemic and in the ensuing crime waves, Xavier was not spared from the violence. In fact, he was almost consumed by it. He started selling drugs and carrying guns. He would rob houses. He had left home and was jumping between foster families. He was headed down a rabbit hole.
His saving grace came when he was 18 and began learning to play music. He was deeply inspired by Prince and upon hearing that the musician had been self-taught, he aspired to do the same. He faked being a student at the University of Berkeley and tried to imitate other musicians as they practiced.
Xavier learned quickly, and it helped that he already knew how to hustle. He learned to play everything he could get his hands on. He was recording music while still being involved in dangerous business. After several years and his first near-death encounter, he sold everything he had and moved to Los Angeles.
The next decade is best summarized in Dphrepaulezz’s own bio: “It didn’t take long for Negrito to find himself entrenched in the ‘Hollywood’ lifestyle: ‘clubs and bitches and bullshit politics that have nothing to do with great music.’” Negrito signed with a big-time manager and soon after that, a million dollar deal at Interscope “…and soon after that, creative death.”
At that time, he was releasing music under his own name, Xavier, and his debut album with Interscope was titled “The X-Factor.” The title is cringeworthy and the music is equally dismissible.
Needless to say, his debut was not well received. This shook his confidence and momentum. He started focusing on what he could do to make himself marketable (this was likely encouraged by the predatory habits that were characteristic of music labels sat the time). This is what Negrito meant by “creative death.”
That metaphorical death, however, was almost made real, when in 1999 Dphrepaulezz was hit by a drunk driver. “[he] fishtailed and rolled over four lanes of traffic.” He woke up three weeks later with a beard and mangled limbs. He rehabbed for several years.
Interscope had dropped him, so he took back to the hustle. He started an illegal nightclub. He licensed music to TV and other media. He sung marginally under many other aliases. (They were no less cheesy of course: Chocolate Butterfly, Blood Sugar X.)
He had a child in 2008, dropped all these side gigs and moved back to Oakland. Miraculously, in trying to play guitar for his son, he rejuvenated his muse. This time he had purpose outside of chasing fame. He had matured, and this allowed him to make sense of the world and the life he had lead. He set upon making music again and taking it to the streets of Oakland, where he would hone his sound.
All of this turbulent context set the stage for his new persona, Fantastic Negrito, and it is present in every melody, every guitar riff, every howl. His music is visceral and relevant. It tackles the complexities — specifically, the shortcomings — of modern urban life, especially in America.
He critiques commerce and delves into racial and class tensions and vocalizes these issues over a fresh blend of Delta Blues, funk, boogie, gospel and all the influences that marked the Oakland of Xavier’s childhood.
His debut album, “The Last Days of Oakland,” will hook you immediately. It places Oakland as a proxy for gentrification in any large city and it communicates personal sorrow and desperation as felt by somebody who’s been through it all. Take “Lost in the Crowd,” the song that originally brought him to public view via NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert (acquaint yourself if you haven’t already), as a track that is indicative of the rest of his music.
Negrito opens, yelling, “Lost in a crowd, you feel your thoughts out loud, lost in the wilderness of the sound. Get through the day, don’t drown. Life, it goes fast, youth is gone. Feeling so lost, c’mon, grieve, move on.” Those lines echo an integral part of living in America: it’s fast pace. We’ve all felt that before, and the song carries the energy of excitement and dismay all at the same time.
Another song, “In the Pines,” with a chant and a chorus that have been looping in my head for the past few weeks, is a recontextualization of the slave-era song of the same name, originally made famous by the Lead Belly.
Negrito’s version, however, is aimed at police brutality and a continual loss of black lives. The specificity of this cover is obviated in the line: “You raised that child all by yourself, then the policeman shot him down.” It is a dark subject, pitted against a lively melody. And this is essence of the whole album and Negrito’s discography at large.
In June he released a new album, “Please Don’t Be Dead,” with just as much vigor and angst as his first. It reflects critically upon the last two years of politics and conflict and feels fittingly more aggressive. It can very direct as well, as evident in “Transgender Biscuits,” where Negrito shouts, “I got fired because I’m a woman. I got fired because I’m black. I got fired because I’m a white man. I got fired because I’m fat. I got fired because I’m an asshole,” and so on.
This is highlighting that every identity that lives in America feels attacked. By putting shouting all these demarcations as a reason for losing a job, he is also unifying all struggles as facets of more integral problems. Insights such as this are not easy to come by. They require distance and a scrutinizing eye.
As a result of his troubled life, Xavier has gained a deep understanding of the worst aspects of himself and of American life. His cogency is exemplified in an excerpt from a concert he performed in North Carolina for LEAF festival last October: “I’m a recovering narcissist. Yes, it’s a great disease in our country and I can really relate to Donald Trump because I see my former self. Blaming people, it’s all about me, it’s all about me fighting with every — that used to be me. So I can really relate to brother Trump, [I’d] like to sit down and talk with him. I understand, ‘cause he’s not in recovery yet.” That kind of realness only comes after you’ve almost lost your life.
Fantastic Nergrito’s music is timely and insightful and it comes from a place of deep, visceral understanding. He’s an example of an artist who came to be motivated by personal tribulations, as opposed to superficial claims to fame. He had to grow out of that phase and had to nearly be killed to understand it.
The music is an impossible concoction of energy and dread and you need to be listening to it. In many ways, Dphrepaulezz’s life mirrors much of the behavior we’re seeing in America. He’s seen where it leads and “When you listen to Negrito, you’re invited to hear the story of life after destruction. For anyone who ever felt like it was over yet hoped it wasn’t, this is your music.”