Fantastic Negrito Writes With Truth, Says His Story Is the American Dream

When Bay Area songwriter and performer, Fantastic Negrito (born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz), writes new music, he thinks of his children. He thinks, “What would they think of me?” So, in his work, which has taken him around the world and earned millions of streams and as many moments of applause, Negrito aims to infuse knowledge. He wants his kids to hear his music at whatever age it finds them and think their father was fearless, that he said what needed to be said, popular or not. So far, however, Negrito is popular and that attention has come after some almost incompressible life experiences. Many of which he sings about on his forthcoming album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, out August 14th.

Videos by American Songwriter

“I like the truth,” Negrito says. “It’s liberating. I don’t like to live in fear. There’s enough fear out there, enough sloganism. Social media tells us to feel this way or that. Those are all the things I despise.”

Perhaps above all else, Negrito carries himself with a certain philosophy: not to give a fuck. But that’s assuredly not to say that he doesn’t care deeply about what he does. It’s not to say that he doesn’t pour himself into his songwriting or when he sings or performs or when he thinks about his family. Rather, what it means is that he gives himself the freedom to do so. It’s an earned dismissal and, in many ways, it began with a near-fatal car accident, which damaged his hand, and caused him to spend three weeks in a coma just after signing a contract with the famed label, Interscope.

“My story is the American story, it’s the American Dream,” Negrito says. “It’s about someone who had everything, had a million-dollar contract deal, signed to Interscope and who suddenly lost everything. But that surely informed and helped really take me to the place where I needed to go as an artist. I feel like great music comes from great struggle.”

In 2015, Fantastic Negrito won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. He was chosen from some 7,000 applicants in part, he says, because he submitted the song, “Lost In A Crowd.” The song is very personal, Negrito explains, as it frames him as merely one of many. No one famous, rich, fit for traditional glossy magazines. But by being honest about that, his talent and spirit shone through. Chosen as the contest winner, the event changed his life and validated the musical path he’d taken.

“I’d quit music for, like, five years,” Negrito says. “Then one night I played to my infant son who couldn’t even speak yet and he reacted with such joy and emotion that it made me start being Fantastic Negrito and going out into the street again.”

For years, Negrito busked. It’s where he found out for sure that he was a skilled songwriter. For concentrated periods throughout his life, he worked his songs on the sidewalks and street corners. Then recognition came. Prior to the Tiny Desk win and the subsequent two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album (2016, 2019), Negrito lived in foster care growing up and moved to different homes in drastically different spots around the country. But at 17, he played his first talent show and won. Given the applause, he thought he should give music a concerted try.

Later, in California, Negrito started to slyly sneak into the University of California Berkley music department and absorb the lessons and sessions through the walls. He would pretend he was a music student and he got better through literal sonic osmosis (“Thank you, U.C. Berkley!” he says. “They should name a practice room after me”). He’d gotten the idea from one of his musical heroes, Prince, who would steel away and learn music, posing as a student.

“That’s what the hustle is all about,” Negrito says. “Prince was a big hero of mine back then and to all little Black kids who wanted to be different.”

More than any specific instrument (although he’s a stellar guitar player, to be sure), Negrito is a talented songwriter. That particular art is rooted in an ability to communicate. And while Negrito is a master communicator – as evidenced by his latest LP, which features the deep, bumping cuts like the shrieking “How Long” and wrenching “I’m So Happy I Could Cry,” featuring Tank of Tank and the Bangas – he also makes sure to keep changing, evolving. With each album, its’ as if Negrito wants to try on a new language with which to howl his truth to the world.

“I love taking that approach as a songwriter,” Negrito says, “keeping my finger on the pulse. With the new album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, it’s, like, boom! Now we’re all asking ourselves that. We’re in a pandemic and the virus has exposed how sick we were.”

One of the propellants to Negrito’s creative life is his home. The Bay Area, which expands further out than Oakland or San Francisco, is replete with excellent musicians in its history, including Santana, Green Day, Sly Stone, Digital Underground and others. This reality keeps Negrito on top of his game, keeps the bar raised. Simultaneously, however, he knows he has to maintain his own individuality because that – not any record contract or narrowly escape from death – is what makes him stand out.

“I’m not a rapper who gets a billion views,” Negrito says. “I’m not the pretty white girl singing pop. I’m just this guy. I’m just one of the people out here who had a dream about being a musician and I decided to walk out onto the street and do what I thought was best.”

Check out our review of his latest album, ‘Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?’

Leave a Reply

Ben Brown Defends “Socks & Sliders” in His Playful New Single