Sunday, March 26, 2017
Streetwise Radio Exclusive: Fantastic Negrito
Acclaimed Roots Music Artist and Oakland Resident Wins First Grammy Award
By Shelah Moody and Carmelita Harris
“There’s good in the old Oakland, there’s good in the new Oakland. Let’s make a sandwich. Let’s make a new baby. Just to survive? Yeah. The seeds were planted long ago. Let’s watch the tree grow.”—Fantastic Negrito.
Fantastic Negrito is bringing the glory back to Oakland, CA.
On Feb. 12, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, the 49-year old singer/songwriter/.guitarist won his first Grammy, in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category, for his 13-song masterpiece, “Last Days of Oakland.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzuIF-QSqNE.
After R&B star Mya announced his name, Fantastic Negrito made the hero’s walk from his seat to the stage at the 59th Annual Grammy’s Premiere Ceremony. First, he thanked his entire team, including guitarist Masa Kohama and bassist Cornelius C. Mims, as well as the City of Oakland for helping him get to this point.
“We didn’t have a record company, we did this right from our living room with a lot of heart and a lot of soul,” said Fantastic Negrito, in his Grammy speech. “We’re so glad that it resonated with people, and I’m very grateful.”
Born Jan. 20, 1968, Fantastic Negrito was given an equally grand name, Xavier Amin Dphlepaulezz. His story is indeed a living blues, told through albums such as “The X Factor (Interscope, 1996) (as Xavier) Fantastic Negrito (Black Ball Universe, 2014). “The Last Days of Oakland” (Blackball Universe, 2016) is a journey from Oakland’s proud history as a hub for the working class, black militants and black artists and it’s turbulent present vis a vis gentrification, poverty and police brutality.
On a bright spring day in Oakland, Fantastic Negrito hosted an art show for Kenyan artist Omiiroo at his loft in the city’s fashionable Jack London district. After greeting all of his guests, the humble and regal musician sipped a cup of tea and sat down with Streetwise Radio for a few words. First, I asked Fantastic Negrito for his reflections on the recent passing of bluesman James Cotton, but, he’d just received news that another music icon, Chuck Berry, had died at 90.
“He was a king, a legend, a genius, a very under-appreciated lyricist and an influential guitar player who so many people borrowed from,” said Fantastic Negrito. “A showman. The architect, really, of rock and roll. The beginning. Black roots, straight up.”
Streetwise Radio: Have you ever performed any of Chuck Berry’s music?
Fantastic Negrito: I’m not good enough to play Chuck Berry. I don’t even fake it. Who was not influenced by that “Johnny B. Goode” lick? It’s as American as apple pie, amongst other things. It’s iconic. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, every lick that Chuck Berry played, he lifted off Chuck Berry; he will tell you that himself. I don’t think that we can ever say enough about people like Chuck Berry or Little Richard, not just because of their artistry, but because of the obstacles that they had to face. I love Chuck Berry dearly and everything about him influenced me; the way he dressed, the way he performed; his authenticity. He’s one of our heroes and our community should really know who Chuck Berry. I don’t know if we’ve done a good enough job of uplifting our heroes, musically speaking.
Streetwise Radio: So, what was Grammy day, Feb. 12, 2017, like for you?
Fantastic Negrito: It was a very exciting day for me and a very exciting day for the city of Oakland and the Bay Area. I felt proud to represent my city and it was a great honor to be chosen by the Recording Academy.
SR: What happens to an artist the moment you walk off stage with your own Grammy Award?
FN: Generally, you go backstage and you have to some press and take a few pictures. But I had to get on a plane and go to France, so I didn’t really get to enjoy the festivities and the after parties. I literally picked up the Grammy did a couple interviews and then it was off to a tour; five cities in France and two cities in the U.K.
SR: I first saw you play at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco when you led a group called Death from Sex in the late nineties. Was that considered alternative music or black rock?
FN: I don’t like genres and labels. I think they are ridiculous. I think that either you have material that is compelling and that reaches people or you don’t. I think genres are often a good place to hide; and I don’t wanna hide from anything. I don’t think about genres when I’m writing. I don’t think about Grammys and awards. I just want to make the connection with humanity. I think that’s what the language of music is all about. I call what I (do) black roots music for everyone. It’s really what we’re all playing. The music came from people who came here on a slave ship; our ancestors, their suffering and their strength perseveres and it meant something. (The music) really touched the lives of the world. In every aspect of music, you hear it.
SR: On that note, what inspired your Grammy winning album, “Last Days of Oakland?”
FN: Artists…I mean, what are we doing if we are not looking around and observing and singing about it and creating material that’s a reflection of the times that we live in?
SR: “Rant Rushmore” is a compelling song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49dZVqdTJdw
FN: Yeah, I like “Rant Rushmore.” It’s a love song. It’s a song about the discomfort of love; perhaps the darker side of love, perhaps the things that we don’t want to talk about but are probably the pillars of love, which are the uncomfortable parts of love.
SR: What other songs on “The Last Days of Oakland” are the closest to you?
FN: I like “Scary Woman,” that’s a good song. I like “Lost in the Crowd;” that’s special to me, like “About a Bird.” I like “Working Poor.” I’m biased. I think it’s a pretty good record.
SR: So, tell us about the space that we’re sitting in now.
FN: This is Black Ball Universe. It’s a collective-art, music, film. I started it about five years ago because we needed something good. In order to do that, it took many minds coming together to create and to come up with something that’s powerful on all those levels. Currently, we’re in the office of Black Ball Universe. It’s not the studio, but it’s my work space.
SR: What inspires you to keep the art movement going?
FN: I come from a big family; I’m the middle of 14. I don’t know any other way. You just get it done. What more inspiration do we need than our existence and our surroundings and our humanity? I believe that anything can be done. That’s the way I live. I only know the way of perseverance.
SR: Were you born and raised in Oakland?
FN: I was raised in Oakland, but I was born back east, in New England. My people came from the south like a lot of our people. They’re from Virginia. My dad’s side is Caribbean, from the Bahamas and African, from Somalia. That’s what I was told but I never confirmed it.
SR: You are setting a tone fashion wise with the Fantastic Negrito sense of style. Where does it come from?
FN: I do design. I do pick out stuff that I like to wear. I think that my style comes from a deep sense of dignity. I get stuff from second hand stores. Wherever I travel, I go to second hand stores. These pants I have on now were 10 bucks. The jacket was 15. My whole outfit probably cost $50. I don’t believe in making designers rich. Style is important. People judge you based on your appearance. We all know that it’s extremely important in America. If I wear a certain pair of shoes, they can determine what I’m gonna write or how I’m gonna perform. There’s a dignity that comes from my dad, I’m sure. He was a fine role model for fashion. Dignity was big for my dad; he was born in 1905 and had his own demons.
SR: What advice would you give to young artists who aspire to be where you are?
FN: For the youth, I say, keep high standards; that’s number one. Also, it will be over really quick; that means your youth, so take a deep breath, relax. What you don’t know is that what you are going through in your youth is such a tiny part of your life as a human being. I know it’s heavy, but keep high standards and walk towards the light. Associate yourself with people who are doing things. You are about as good as your friends are. Take a look around; we are all about as good as the company we keep. I care about writing good songs; I don’t really care about awards. I care about connecting with people and that’s what’s important. A Grammy is great, and I like the fact that other people are excited about it.
Follow Fantastic Negrito on his website: www.fantasticnegrito.com
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fantasticnegrito/
Check Out Video Fantastic Negrito - In the Pines (Oakland)