It’s been nearly a year since Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the artist better known as Fantastic Negrito, was detained at the entrance to the 2015 Outside Lands Music Festival over an intern’s illegal sale of an artist’s wristband. The story made local headlines, and Negrito was forced to cancel his set at the Golden Gate Park fest, a concert that would’ve served as a fitting pinnacle to a year in which he found great acclaim by beating out over 7,000 applicants to win NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk Concert Contest.
The Oakland-based musician has had a long rise to the spotlight, and one that’s been filled with its fair share of tragedy and hardship. It makes his positive outlook, even in the current climate of racial tensions, social unrest, and political uncertainty, all the more incredible.
Negrito was interviewed by numerous media outlets immediately following the Outside Lands drama and even hours removed from aggravating the pain in his surgically-repaired shoulder by being handcuffed behind his back (despite his pleas to be re-cuffed with his hands in front) and being held for three hours by local law enforcement, he spoke of the need to move on and not dwell in the past.
In an article published shortly after the incident, NBC Bay Area quoted Sgt. Michael Andraychak of the SFPD as saying “the police department has nothing to apologize for.” In this case, that may be true. Negrito’s intern fully admitted to his misdeed, and despite the stigma of the situation, Another Planet Entertainment (APE) did nothing inexcusable in cancelling the artist’s set upon learning someone in his party had attempted to illegally sell a wristband issued specifically to the musician.
Even so, APE tried to make amends with a free show at the Independent following Outside Lands, and in a conversation with me on behalf of Consequence of Sound the day the incident transpired, Negrito spoke of forgiveness. “I don’t even hold it against the intern,” he told me. “He’s a good kid.”
But now, speaking by phone the day after Philando Castile was killed by law enforcement in Minnesota, and two days after Alton Sterling suffered the same fate in Baton Rouge, the police have plenty to apologize for, and Negrito’s not interested in discussing wristbands.
“If you read the headlines that are going on right now, you see policeman are executing people. This is what’s happening right now.”
Negrito is unfortunately very familiar with the profound impact of gun violence, having lost both his brother and his cousin to gun-related deaths. Moving from Massachusetts to Oakland at age 12, he remembers growing up in a time where law enforcement had free reign and no accountability.
“I survived neighborhoods from before there were all these cameras, where the police got away with murdering people,” Negrito says. “It was normal to know people and families who’d been shot by the police.”
Beyond the loss of loved ones, there have been a myriad of other challenges in Negrito’s life: a failed recording contract with Interscope Records, a car accident that left him in a coma for three weeks and unsure if he’d ever be able to play the guitar again, and the gentrification of his home city of Oakland and throughout the Bay Area.
This last point is reflected in the title of Negrito’s long-awaited debut record, The Last Days of Oakland. Released on June 3, it’s an angry Delta Blues album that speaks hard truths and preaches peace. “
I remember when I came up with that title,” Negrito recalls. “My mom was like, ‘That’s so morbid. That’s so dark.’ I told her that when something is over, it’s over. It’s like when you’re in a bad relationship and you just keep on trying to make it happen, keep trying to put band-aids on it. When it’s over, it’s over. You let it die and you look towards what you’re going to do next.”
What Negrito did next was to take his new record on tour. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell asked Negrito to open for him on a European solo tour that concluded in May. Cornell was so impressed with the artist that he requested that Negrito again be his supporting act for the North American leg currently underway. As he stops in venues across the country, Negrito’s getting a first-hand look at the divisiveness and turmoil running rampant in America.
What he sees are people gripped by fear.
“Look at Donald Trump ascending. Man, that’s all based on fear. You ever think you’d live in the same country with people who would vote for someone so despicable, so full of hate? I don’t even know if he believes it. I think he’s an entertainer, just like me.”
While Trump was not on the bill earlier this year at Napa’s BottleRock festival, Negrito was, delivering a riveting set, highlighted by a fervent cover of “In the Pines,” a track which also appears on his new album. ANd although its origins are as a traditional American folk song, “In the Pines” (known in some quarters as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” or “Black Girl”) is best known for the renditions performed by blues legend Lead Belly and later as a highlight of Nirvana’s seminal “MTV Unplugged” set.
“It’s always resonated with me,” Negrito says of the song. “Everybody knows I’m a huge fan of early black roots music. It’s gold — an amazing product of our American society. It’s influenced so many people. I remember when I met Robert Plant in England. He came to one of my shows at this English pub. We just talked about this whole idea of black roots music and its influence.”
For Negrito’s cover of “In the Pines,” he made some drastic changes, dropping the key from E to F, adding in a bridge, and changing select portions of the lyrics. In one affecting passage, he sings “Black girl, black girl / Your man is gone / Now you travel the world alone / And you raised that child all by yourself / Then the policeman shot him down.” Sadly, these lyrics have never been more relevant.
“It was sacrilege what I did,” he says of his changes to the song, “but I really felt I had to do it to make it resonate. I thought of my mother burying my little brother. I thought of my aunt burying my cousin. Look at those people who died in Florida, mothers having to bury their children. That’s what I really wanted this song to be about and I feel like it had to be done.”
Hours after Negrito and I speak, another shooting occurs in Dallas. This time it’s the mothers of police officers that will bury their children. There is of course no difference for Negrito – loss is loss. “The actions of evil men will not deter me from the path of motherfuckin #LOVE,” he tweets with regards to the incident in Dallas, and it’s hard not to believe him. There is strength in his words, resiliency in his spirit. Perhaps what has driven Fantastic Negrito to continue to pursue his dreams in the face of unfathomable obstacles is his steadfast belief that music wasn’t made to distract us, but to unite us. It’s a belief he feels all artists must embrace. “Artists, when we have a platform, for everything that happens, man…we owe it to people,” he says. “We owe it to them. We’re not doing this to get rich; we’re doing it to connect and to build. This is medicine.”
Negrito seems poised to prescribe a much needed dose of musical healing when he finally makes his Outside Lands debut this year. While Negrito’s lost set from a year ago would’ve surely brought the fire that burns at each of his performances, his long wait to take the stage at Golden Gate Park is the unexpected pinnacle of a new year, one in which the ails of the world and the need for unity have never been more pressing.
When Negrito stands amongst his people, guitar in hand, he knows what message he’ll share.
“You’re my neighbor. I don’t know you, but man I care about what happens to you. I care what happens to you, because what happens to you is going to affect me. And brother let me tell you something: what happens to me is going to affect you.”