When he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest in 2015, Xavier Dphrepaulezz was no stranger to making music. In fact, the then 46-year-old had been doing it his whole life, and nearly given it up. As he croons in his winning entry “Lost in a Crowd,” filmed with one straight angle on him and his band in a freight elevator: “Life it goes fast/Youth is gone/Feeling so lost/Grieve, move on/Stuck in the shadows of a life/That you tried to leave behind.”
But fast-forward to today, and Dphrepaulezz, better known by his stage name Fantastic Negrito, has risen from relative obscurity to Grammy-winning fame – recording and releasing the full-length Last Days of Oakland, campaigning with Bernie Sanders, and wrapping multiple international tours both with his own band and alongside the late Chris Cornell (of Audioslave and Soundgarden) along the way.
Fantastic Negrito’s music is raw and unapologetically American. Inspired equal parts by Robert Johnson and Robert Plant, Dphrepaulezz calls his sound black roots music. With world-weary edged vocals, jazzy piano riffs and 70s swagger blended with traditional soul, he explores the timely and timeless themes of the working poor, trying to make an honest living, struggling with loneliness, addiction and “scary women.”
So what drives a blues artist in the year 2017? Despite a long, rocky road in the business and near-debilitating pre-performance stage fright, Dphrepaulezz says that when it comes down to it, music is why he’s here.
“This is what I do,” he says. “This is what I’m supposed to do. Everyone on this planet has their mission, their contribution. I think we all have our calling, and this is my calling. It’s my contribution as a human being, and it’s never tiring because it’s a mission of love. It’s a mission of giving. And I think people are at their best when they’re giving. I know artists are.”
Indeed, the realization of Dphrepaulezz into Fantastic Negrito seems fated. The artist grew up in a strict, religious household before moving in and out of foster care and eventually coming of age on the streets of Oakland, California, just as hip-hop hit the scene.
“I don’t think there has been anything that has shifted the landscape as big as hip-hop,” he says. “It was like the alien that landed…kind of like jazz. Like a true, pure, original art form. BOOM.”
Dphrepaulezz recalled how racially divided our country was when he was growing up.
“Then I remember white people started listening,” he says. “I’m old enough to remember when MTV would not play black artists. Think about that sh-t. I lived through that. I remember it being like the day before it was green, and the next day it was red. It completely shifted our existence and our understanding of music, and it brought out all kinds of things. It was influential as hell, and it still is.”
With these sociopolitical and musical shifts as a backdrop, Dphrepaulezz’s own life took many turns – from stints of growing and selling weed, licensing music for TV and film, and working the hustle that ultimately got him signed by Jimmy Iovine, to experiencing the ugly side of the major label industry and a near-fatal car accident that landed him in a coma and giving up on music.
The birth of Fantastic Negrito came not long after the birth of Dphrepaulezz’s own son, for whom he once again picked up a guitar. His child was calmed by songs that Dphrepaulezz remembered playing in the early days, and it inspired him to start writing again. TV revived the artist’s calling in its current bluesy reincarnation – Dphrepaulezz’s big break came from the opening theme to Amazon’s hit series Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman. Shortly thereafter, his sound echoed from Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk, part of NPR’s All Songs Considered.
After touring with Cornell and winning the 2017 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and setting back out on tour, Fantastic Negrito isn’t ready to slow down. The artist returned to the States to find his mission even more relevant, and recorded two new songs that address the “disingenuous misleading of people” and bigotry that he sees as infections in our society.
“If we’re a society, if we’re a country, if we’re a family, if something makes us uncomfortable, then god damn it, let’s talk about it,” he says. “If you’re in a relationship, if it’s something that’s f–ked up, you don’t ignore it. You talk about it. And you get an understanding.”
Negrito hopes the new songs, “Push Back” and “The Shadows,” will make listeners confront those uncomfortable issues.
“Change that is significant and is going to force people to grow, it should be uncomfortable. Artists should challenge people and keep challenging people because that is our job. And when people get uncomfortable with what I’m doing, I’m kind of glad.”
Fantastic Negrito and his band will play Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday, September 15 with Sturgill Simpson. Tickets are $40-$59.50. Learn more about Fantastic Negrito at www.fantasticnegrito.com.
Merriweather Post Pavilion: 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Columbia, MD; 410-715-5550; www.merriweathermusic.com