Sunday, January 15, 2023

Fantastic Negrito Shakes Up Contemporary Blues Scene With His Singular Sound And Adventurous Spirit

Photo by Lyle Owerko
Oakland bluesman Fantastic Negrito is one of the most exciting and innovative artists on the contemporary blues scene. The singer-songwriter/musician’s uniquely powerful brand of blues and soul-stirring live performances have earned him a devoted international following. He has landed a slew of prestigious music awards, including three consecutive Grammy wins for Best Contemporary Blues Album–The Last Days of Oakland (2016), Please Don’t Be Dead (2018) and Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? (2020).

Negrito’s sound is a satisfying gumbo of blues, soul, funk, rock, gospel and folk. His music possesses a rawness and brutal honesty that evokes the work of seminal blues legends such as Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Skip James and Howlin’ Wolf. And in the spirit of those blues titans, the themes in Negrito’s songs are often drawn from his own personal struggles, hardships and life lessons. His songs are deeply personal and confessional. He also takes on pressing social issues on his tracks.

With each new release, Negrito further pushes the boundaries of contemporary blues. This bold approach is apparent on his most recent effort White Jesus Black Problems, released on June 3, 2022. The “visual” concept album is the artist's most daring and ambitious work to date. Its theme focuses on a forbidden interracial romance that took place some 270 years ago. It’s based on the true story of Negrito's seventh-generation white Scottish grandmother (Elizabeth Betty Galimore), an indentured servant who was living in a common-law marriage with the artist’s seventh-generation grandfather (who he calls “Grandfather Courage”), an African-American slave. Their marital bond was in open defiance of the racist, separatist laws of 1750s colonial Virginia. Negrito honors their bravery and the powerful love that they shared for one another with this album.

Musically, White Jesus Black Problems is a wildly imaginative mélange of different styles, encompassing rock, funk, blues, gospel, country and even a bit of Motown. Listening to this album, you can’t help but be reminded of the adventurous sonic excursions of convention-flouting genre-bending artists like Prince, Sly Stone and Frank Zappa at their most inventive.

The album was met enthusiastically by fans and received high marks from critics. The song “Oh Betty” from the collection garnered Negrito a Grammy nomination for “Best American Roots Performance.” He wrote the song in honor of Elizabeth Betty Galimore.

Negrito’s journey to success was filled with setbacks, hard knocks, brief triumphs, a near-death experience and a musical rebirth. He was born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz on January 20, 1968 in Western Massachusetts; he was the eighth of 15 children. His Somali-Caribbean immigrant father was a strict and deeply religious Muslim. When Negrito was 12, his family relocated to Oakland, California. The young teen quickly got caught up in Oakland’s rough street life and began hustling and dealing drugs. At 18, Negrito experienced an epiphany when he heard Prince’s groundbreaking album Dirty Mind for the first time. The album inspired him to become a musician, which he also saw as a way to escape the streets.

Negrito had a rather unorthodox way of learning how to play. Posing as a student at UC Berkeley, he’d sneak into the music rooms and copy the music students as they practiced their scales. Negrito was a quick study and by the time he was 20, he had taught himself how to play numerous instruments, including guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica.

He began writing songs and performing around the Bay Area. Negrito decided it was time to get out of Oakland’s violent street life when an armed robber held a 9mm pistol to his head at a drug house. He hitchhiked to Los Angeles the very next day with a demo in his hand in hopes of landing a record deal. Once in L.A., the aspiring young artist began peddling his demo around town and eventually got a management deal with Prince’s former management company; this led to him signing a million-dollar record deal with Interscope Records. 

In 1996, he released his first album, The X Factor, under the mononym Xavier. The funk/neo-soul album was poorly received and failed to jumpstart his music career. The album’s poor showing shook the artist’s confidence, and he suffered a long creative block as a result.

Then on one fateful evening in 2000, a drunk driver ran a red light and slammed into Negrito’s car; the crash left him in a coma for three weeks with both of his arms and legs broken. It also mangled his strumming hand, which severely affected his ability to play the guitar. When he emerged from the coma, he was forced to undergo months of painful physical therapy to regain the use of his legs, as his muscles had atrophied while he was bedridden. He eventually regained the movement of his strumming hand, but it was never the same as it was prior to the accident.

Negrito has said in interviews that the crash “released” him, as he was already in a creative slump and thoroughly disillusioned with his record label at that point. When Interscope terminated his contract, Negrito returned to the hustling game. In 2008, he sold all of his music equipment, except one guitar, and moved back to Oakland where he sold marijuana and ran a series of underground nightclubs. 

The birth of his son in 2009 rekindled his passion for music. He would play his son the Beatles song “Across the Universe” on guitar to get him to sleep; this ignited the spark in him to return to music. However, his approach to making music was drastically different from what it had been before. Negrito was no longer trying to follow current music trends; he instead played what truly inspired and moved him. This approach freed him up to explore different musical ideas and styles, which led him back to the source of modern American music—the blues. And with this new sonic direction, the musician rechristened himself Fantastic Negrito. It was a musical and spiritual rebirth for the artist. He began doing shows around the Bay Area with his new stripped-down blues-based sound, which he has described as “black roots music for everyone.” The joy of performing and creating music had returned, and he soon gained a sizable following in the area.

Negrito’s music career really took off when he won National Public Radio’s inaugural Tiny Desk Concert Contest in 2015. His DIY video for his original song “Lost in a Crowd” beat out 7,000 other video entries. As a result, his fan base expanded exponentially, and he even gained some high-profile admirers, including late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Cornell invited Negrito to open for him on the European leg of his “Higher Truth” tour in 2016; and Sanders tapped him to perform at some of his 2016 presidential campaign events.

On June 3, 2016, Negrito released his album The Last Days of Oakland on his own indie label Blackball Universe. The album resonated with both blues fans and music critics due to its stunning originality and raw poetic power. It was truly a revelation and brought a fresh new energy to the modern blues scene. Seductive slide guitars; haunting, gospel-laced vocals; hot piano and stellar songwriting make this album a truly exhilarating listening experience. The collection earned Negrito a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards. It was his first of three consecutive Grammy wins in that category.

Now in 2023, Negrito’s star is shining brighter than ever. He continues to thrill appreciative fans around the world with his potent “black roots” sound and emotionally charged live performances. The artist recently announced his new album Grandfather Courage, which is an acoustic reimagining of White Jesus Black Problems. It’s set for release on February 3 on his own label Storefront Records.

Also, Negrito is set to kick off a European tour next month with dates lined up in the UK, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Visit his official website for more details.

Fantastic Negrito delivers a soul-wrenching acoustic performance of his songs "Rant Rushmore," "Lost In a Crowd" and "About a "Bird" in 2016 for Acoustic Guitar Magazine.

Official music video for the song "Trudoo" from the album White Jesus Black Problems

Fantastic Negrito's haunting rendition of folk classic "In The Pines" from The Last Days of Oakland

 Live performance of "Dark Windows" from album Please Don't Be Dead at Paste Studios in 2018

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