“I’m a recovering addict,” yells Fantastic Negrito to the 1 o’clock crowd at the Meadows on Sunday. “I’m in recovery… I’m a recovering narcissist.”
Sitting in the press tent after his set, I ask Fantastic (real name Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz) about this statement. He says, “I’m a recovering narcissist, it’s the truth. It’s a disease. I worked on my shit. It’s very dangerous, narcissism.”
A Grammy-winning artist and NPR favorite from Oakland, California, he certainly has a lot to be proud of. Clad in a bright orange suit accessorized with a patterned scarf, it’s true: he stands out in a crowd. But he doesn’t particularly strike me as doing so purposefully. Intelligent, aware, and inspiring, Fantastic and I spoke about today’s issues and his hope for the future.
ALLI (HIGHLARK): You’ve been busy on the road, and just got to the Meadows today. First, are there any performances you’re looking forward to, or ones you’re sorry you missed?
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I would’ve liked to check out Big Boi. And Weezer. They seem like two good ones to check out.
ALLI: From what I’ve heard from other festival-goers, Weezer is a big one, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: Yeah, Red Hot Chili Peppers, they’re from my state.
ALLI: Speaking of roots–Queens is a really historic site for music, especially hip-hop. Coming here from California, how do you feel about the city, the history, and your involvement?
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: It’s hallowed ground. Queens alone in New York… it’s the birthplace of hip-hop so whenever you’re coming into Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, it’s hallowed ground. It’s ground zero for hip-hop, which went on to change the world. It’s a great honor.
I call what I do “black roots”: music for everyone. That’s the origin. This music all happened because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Great art comes from great struggle. The most amazing and beautiful creative movements come from very dark places, no matter where you are. So yeah, it’s a special place, Queens.
ALLI: Like you say, “Take the bullshit and turn it into good shit.”
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: That’s a lot of what black roots, hip-hop, soul, punk, all the people that I look up to, do. Charley Patton, Skip James, Robert Johnson, these are Delta Mississippi blues rappers. They’re the first rappers–you want to hear some lyrics, listen to Robert Johnson. It’s a continuum and it’s infected the whole world. The English heard it and turned around and made Led Zeppelin, made something amazing. Or Jack White, he loves Son House, of course. So he took it–a white boy from Detroit–made it something else. That’s the beauty of it, is it’s all of our music, but the roots are from where they’re from.
ALLI: Are there any issues you’ve come across that you try to address through your music?
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I think this is the time of artists. We’re really needed at this moment in time. We’re the last line of defense before tyranny.
Artists, we look at a diverse crowd–black, white, straight, gay, Jew, Muslim, Christian, whatever–We want to unite them, rock them, make them feel good. Politicians look at the same crowd and they divide them among the lines of their differences.
So I started the movement of Fantastic Negrito four years ago, playing on the streets. I felt the importance of being a contributor. Art and artists connect with people; we’re contributing. And when you want to take, when you want to be a star, I don’t think it’s as effective.
But when I made the album The Last Days of Oakland, I said to myself, “I’m gonna go out here, I’m gonna play this music for people who don’t want to hear it.” I wanted to look at those people that are going home, overworked… The system here in America has become a shame, that people have to work so hard just to pay their rent, work two or three jobs.
So I wrote that whole album on the streets. I recorded that album, not in a recording studio, in this little funky room. And, without a record label, went all the way to the Grammys with it.
The importance is contribution from everyone. That’s what a community is. Community’s not some word where it’s like “hey, let’s all feel good.” No. It’s about contributing. And that means a lot to me as an artist.
I’m optimistic. It’s going down baby, it’s going down! We’re artists, this is our time! Like I said we’re the front line, it’s going down.
ALLI: So what else are you looking forward to in the future?
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I’m looking forward to releasing the video for my new song, “Push Back,” with TIDAL. We shot it in the streets of Oakland. You know, I didn’t open my Grammy until I got to the same street that I played on the first Friday in Oakland where everyone used to record me. I went there and I opened my Grammy and shared it with the crowd. And that night I went to the train station, I put the Grammy down at my feet, and I played just like I used to. Because that’s what it’s about, man. I look forward to it, every time I get the opportunity, picking up the mic and connect the people.
I’ll be starting on another record in November, and right now I’m touring with Sturgill Simpson. Which is very interesting because the crowd isn’t really expecting me so it’s great to get out there and smash those barriers and just connect with people. Music is the universal language of humanity. If you play for people who don’t care, it’s the best. It’s a treat. You want them to tell the truth, that’s the truth. Your friends will tell you how good you sound but those people, man. They tell the truth. I love that shit. I live for it. It’s all that I want. Like today these people didn’t know who I am, well now you know. I have baptized thee, Fantastic Negrito. It’s like church without the religion.
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Photos © Brittany “NO FOMO”. All Rights Reserved.