Cock magazine?” A look of panic flashes over Fantastic Negrito’s face just as the photographer sets up his first shot. After being told, more clearly this time, that he’s being photographed for Huck, the musician lets out a sigh of relief. “I got scared for a second,” he jokes.
To be fair, a left-turn into nude portraits would be unexpected for Fantastic Negrito… but not entirely of character either. He has lived more lives than most.
Born into a strict family in Massachusetts, Xavier Dphrepaulezz fled home at age 12, bouncing between foster homes and surviving through a life of petty crime.
Then music provided salvation. Inspired by Prince, one of his teenage idols, he taught himself to play instruments by infiltrating music classes at California’s University of Berkeley, before being signed by Prince’s manager at age 25.
Performing under the name Xavier, he was shaped into a nondescript R&B crooner, with a commercially unsuccessful debut album and an appearance on the soundtrack for Showgirls.
Then, in 1999, a near-fatal car accident left him without the use of his hands. His record deal collapsed not long after, leading to a spell running illegal nightclubs until fatherhood straightened him out and encouraged him to pick up his guitar once more.
Adopting the moniker Fantastic Negrito four years ago, at age 45, Xavier’s music fuses blues, neo-soul and psychedelic rock, his lyrics speaking to an America facing tumultuous times.
His last record, Grammy-winning The Last Days of Oakland, was an anti-capitalist roar that made a fan out of Bernie Sanders, while his new album, Please Don’t Be Dead, offers an urgent plea to the country he calls home.
Today the 49-year-old is something of a spiritual philosopher. Sitting in a Camden bar dressed in a red silk shirt, cummerbund and flared trousers, Xavier’s magnetism draws nearby drinkers closer just so they can fully take him in as he talks reinvention, fatherhood and his vision for the future.
Why Please Don’t Be Dead?
If you look at where we’re going, there’s this battling between two sides: the ultra right-wing, nationalist fascism versus people who are more open. That seems to be the fight. I feel like there’s a worldwide nationalist movement and I think the only real opposition is artists. Because the politicians on either side, they don’t give a shit, the way I look at it.
I think being an artist or a writer or something creative is so important. I feel like these things can tilt the world into a more loving path.
Is that realistic?
I think sometimes we have this huge romantic vision of this movement that’s gonna come and we’re all gonna join it and have matching jackets and it’s gonna be this amazing phenomenon. But I think we achieve that by doing our part. You gotta wake up in the morning and have your shit together, because you have control over you. We’ve gotta get back to the basic fundamentals of courtesy, of listening and smiling.
And if you have the podium, then you’ve got to speak up. If you’ve got a pen, you’ve got to write. If you’ve got a song, you’ve got to sing. You can bake? Then bake it. It makes the world better. Maybe it’s corny to people, but I believe in that shit. We can do it. I’m an optimist.
What’s interesting is that so much of wanting to be a musician getting on that stage is very self-driven…
…Which is dangerous.
And what is so interesting about your career is that you seem to have had so many reincarnations over the years…
It’s crazy. I feel like I’ve lived three lives.
That early version of you, especially when you had that first deal, that must have been purely driven by your own wants and needs, right?
Of course. But that was a different guy, a guy who said, ‘The world is mine, fuck you. I’ll take everything. I’ll take the credit, I want everything. Gimme, gimme, gimme.’
I feel like I’m a recovering narcissist. When I was younger, I wanted to be a star. I wanted to have the women, the cars, the drugs… or sell them. I think that’s part of youth in a way. I did that until it ran its course. The boy became a man, hopefully.
In Buddhism they always say wanting leads to suffering – and man, that’s so true. I’ve learned not to want so much, to give more, and I like it way better.
I’m happy. But who knows what’ll happen? I’m a middle-aged guy just breaking as an artist. The gatekeepers were like, ‘Absolutely not, fuck no.’ They still say it. ‘Your music’s not bluesy enough; it’s a little bit too rockish; that’s not funky enough. Stay in your box.’
But the people don’t say that. They’re like, ‘Bring it on, brother.’ The people want to feel some shit. Those gatekeepers in the towers are a fucking huge problem. It’s this ‘rule by fear’ shit. I want to be part of the people that see those boxes and smash ‘em.
One of the great things about [winning at] the Grammys is that it was me and Chance the Rapper that year, and neither of us needed record labels. It felt great. Not that record labels are all evil, but I think the arts and music need to be about more than commodification. It has to be something else. It has to be something more that we can feel as people, as human beings.
I love to make that connection. It’s better than sex, it’s better than money, it’s better than anything. It’s why I wake up every day. This is what it’s all about.
I was reading an interview where you referred to yourself at one point in time as being an exhibitionist.
Totally! I mean, I’m still that. Look at me! [Laughs]
But in a bad sense at that point, presumably…
I’m the eighth of 14 kids. I ran away at 12. Bro, can you imagine that? Like, your mom probably adores you, but I didn’t get all that shit. I ran off, so I got my love from the streets. And you know, it didn’t kill me, thank God. But it still never goes away. It’s still who I am, but now I manage it in a good way.
On my album, [I sing] ‘Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit.’ That’s the theme of my life. Take the bullshit, reinvent it into something great. It’s kind of like my clothing. I call it upcycling. I buy some shit, some pants, put a cummerbund on them. I upcycle.
So much of your work revolves around the idea of America having moved into something that is corrupt…
It’s always been corrupt. Just now it’s moved into an… what’s that movie called?
Idiocracy! I saw that movie 10 years ago, and I was like [pfft], but now I’m like, ‘Are we here?’ I mean it’s popular to avoid facts. And we have leaderships that just exacerbate that shit every fucking day. They just blame, blame, blame.
Blaming is not leadership. Leadership is getting people, along all these different lines, and turning them into something fucking awesome. Like a basketball team, or a football team. You have all these different characters and you get them to work towards one thing, to make everyone better. But we’re not doing that.
Right now people are just ruling us based on our differences, scaring us and freaking us out. Those Mexicans, the wall. Those Muslims, don’t let them in. Every Muslim is bad? There’s two million fucking Muslims in the world. If they really wanted to cause some shit, we’d be in trouble. They’re just like every other group – there are some fucking assholes.
But that’s the way the world is. People who try and capitalise on that are dangerous. People have done it throughout the years, but it doesn’t work. Bigotry and all that shit, it’s going to fail every time.
Do you think your adolescence, your experiences living on the street, has helped you see things for how they really are?
Oh yeah. Growing up on the streets, I slept in cars, I ate out of garbage cans, I did whatever I could. That struggle, being destitute and even being a criminal, it all helped me. So now I can see that if somebody’s doing bad, that’s okay. Maybe they didn’t have the help that you had. If someone has a nasty attitude, maybe they got a call and their mother had cancer. You just don’t know what’s going on with people.
I think every day we get another chance. Fucked up yesterday? So what! Get up, press reset. I don’t say it’s easy. But we can do it. We do have the choice.
I would love to talk a bit about musical inspirations, especially because you’re having this incredible breakthrough quite late in your career compared to most music artists…
I think my story is pretty unprecedented… and I think that’s what freaks people out. It freaks the establishment out: that a middle-aged guy – not some hip person that you could all relate to – just picked up his guitar and went out onto the street. It’s like, ‘Fuck the rules, the rules are stupid.’ The gatekeepers suck. Let’s just let the public decide. Imagine if we just said, ‘Enough, man.’ A lot of people would be in trouble. So when the establishment sees someone like me, it scares the shit out of them.
I understand that you grew up in a strict household…
My dad was a Muslim. It’s weird, I didn’t know that there was something called extremism. When I think back, my dad was strict but not so much with religion. But he was an old guy. My dad was born in 1905. My mother was 33 years younger. As a Muslim, he had Jewish people come over – I didn’t really know there was all this conflict. Because he kind of had a smile for everybody. There were black people, white people, Asians, everyone. He never spoke a word of this shit.
I think my dad wasn’t even African, now that I think of it. I got older and I tried to chase his roots and I find, ‘Oh fuck, you made a lot of shit up.’ I think my last name may be made up. I think my dad was just a really interesting guy, a rebel. Like, he always had this kind of accent… and now me and my brother go, ‘Was he just making up this accent all the time?’ It’s weird.
He sounds like somebody who reinvented his life a lot…
It was a form of reinvention, it was a form of fighting back against the system. It’s funny, I’m having a breakthrough with you right now [Laughs]. Because maybe that’s where it came from. When you said maybe my dad was reinventing, maybe for the first time in my life, I think I just heard someone say that out loud to me. I think that must be where I got it from. Because I’m always reinventing. Get knocked down? Let’s do it again!
I feel like my hand’s coming up through the grave one more time – ‘Get me that guitar!’ So I think I probably got it from my dad. But I’ve never thought about it. He was fearless. I mean, who does that? Who has fucking 14 kids in the United States? Who comes up with these names and these stories?
Do you think you knew him?
Did I know my dad? I don’t think personally, but I grew to understand him. I grew to forgive him. I think that’s important for a boy. Tell your father, ‘I get you, finally.’ I’m so open with my son. I hug him, I talk to him, I tell him how much I love him. Parenthood teaches us to think about other people, to accept differences. And we can do that [elsewhere] in life.
If a Trump supporter follows me on Twitter, I’m not gonna shut it out. You have to get on their level, this person that’s different from you, and talk to them; give them a hug. I go, ‘It’s all right, I don’t fucking hate you. You believe one way, I believe another, but you know what? We’ve got to live together.’
I toured with [country singer] Sturgill Simpson and his audience were like, ‘Who’s this coloured fella?’ But we got ’em through the music. That makes me think we can change the fuckin’ world.
Please Don’t Be Dead is out on Cooking Vinyl.