Before Xavier Dphrepaulezz became Fantastic Negrito, the Oakland musician who won two Grammys for Best Contemporary Blues Album in the past three years, he was, for a brief period in 2012, my weed dealer.
Every week or so, he’d stop by my Berkeley apartment in an old car with a car seat in the back to deliver eighths that made my shifts as a barista more bearable. I’d always hated the awkward small talk that accompanied these sorts of encounters, the feigned attempts that the exchange was anything but transactional. But it was different with Dphrepaulezz. He had an infectious positivity to him, one that seemed unbefitting of his circumstances and the challenges life had thrown his way.
As Dphrepaulezz busted out small bags of OG Kush, he told me of his past lives: a youth spent on the streets of Oakland, where he says he robbed homes and sold crack; a momentary brush with fame in the 1990s as a crooning R&B singer and self-taught multi-instrumentalist with a million-dollar record deal whose career and creativity foundered under the pressures of trying to make a hit; a near-fatal car crash in 1999 that put him in a coma and robbed him of his desire — and, for a time, his ability — to play music; and his retreat from the music world to his farm in Oakland, where he grew weed, raised chickens, and returned to hustling.
The birth of Dphrepaulezz’s son in 2009 inspired him to play music again. He co-founded an Oakland arts and music collective, Blackball Universe, to support struggling black artists. He also started busking at BART stations and on street corners. He went “fishing” in public places, observing the mundane everyday lives of others for material.
If Dphrepaulezz had any ambitions for the life of success that soon awaited him, he didn’t betray them in our meetings. I last saw him late that summer, after I was awarded a research fellowship to Harvard. A few days before leaving town, I hit him up for a last celebratory eighth. I had to meet him in his car, because he was in a rush. As we drove around the block, I couldn’t find my wallet. He told me not to worry about it, congratulated me on my fellowship, and handed me the bag of weed.
“Just don’t forget about the little people when you make it big,” he said.
Our paths diverged from there. I never “made it big” in quite the way I imagined or Dphrepaulezz predicted. But he did.
In 2014, Dphrepaulezz became Fantastic Negrito. One of his first songs, “Night Has Turned to Day,” triumphantly proclaimed that he had found his way out of the darkness. The spoils soon followed. In 2015, Dphrepaulezz beat out 7,000 contestants to win NPR’s Tiny Desk competition with a song that he and his bandmates recorded in one take in the freight elevator of a warehouse. Since then, he’s played sold-out shows and toured the world. His song “Working Poor” was embraced by Bernie Sanders and his supporters during his 2016 campaign; others have been licensed for television shows and movies. Along the way, Dphrepaulezz released two critically acclaimed and Grammy-winning albums, The Last Days of Oakland and Please Don’t Be Dead.
“I do appreciate being acknowledged by my peers, but I’m not going to get caught up in it. I came home my Grammy night and I washed dishes after dinner. That’s where I wanna keep it.”
Fantastic Negrito’s music channels the blues of the Mississippi Delta with the volume turned up to 11 and lyrics that lay bare America’s failure to deliver on its dream. While the subject matter can be dark, the tone is unfailingly hopeful. Fantastic Negrito’s message can perhaps best be summed up by a line from “The Bullshit Anthem,” the closer of his most recent album: “Take that bullshit and turn it into good shit.”
After Fantastic Negrito’s second Grammy win in February, I reached out to his team for an interview. I wanted to hear how Dphrepaulezz was dealing with his newfound fame and what lessons his comeback taught him. I also wanted to know if he would remember a little person from a past life, now that he’d made it big.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you remember me?
Fantastic Negrito: Refresh, who am I speaking with? Who is this?
This is Ahmed Kabil.
Oh, fuck yes! Egyptian brother. I had no idea who I was even speaking with. Man, I’ve had like, this is my sixth interview of the day!
It’s all good.
We hung out in Berkeley at your apartment. I remember dropping off for you. You were a standout person to me because we had the common thing of being raised Muslim. You were one of the people that I marked in my head like, “Hey, whenever I see that dude, it’s not just a drop-off. It’s a conversation.” That’s fucking amazing that I’m talking to you right now.
I know! A lot has changed since then. It seems that the moment you stopped seeking success, you received it. Do you see it that way?
I do think that the time I stopped wanting to be famous and decided to just relax and go, “You know what? It won’t happen for me. I’m not a pretty white girl, and I’m not a rapper” — the moment I gave up on those dreams, I was much happier. When I stopped wanting, I started contributing. That’s what playing music on the street was. When you’re playing on the street and you’re giving that energy out to people, you’re contributing. When you start approaching life that way, man, you become happier. You become more successful.
You’ve said that the return of your creative energy coincided with the birth of your son. What was it about having a child that catalyzed your creativity?
Having a kid changes everything. You ask yourself, “Wait, who are you? What do you represent? What is your true spiritual value and contribution as a human being living on this planet?” I knew I could grow hella weed and sell it, but then what? For me, the answer was music. This is who I am. No matter what happens, my kids can see that and they’ll see who I am. Every song I write, I think of my kids. Did I tell the truth? Does this help? The truth helps. I’m leaving some philosophy for them that’s going to be around forever.
You told SFWeekly that when you submitted a video to NPR’s Tiny Desk competition, you thought that no one was “gonna be into this black roots gutter shit.” And then you won. Why do you think your rendition of the blues resonates with people?
I think people can relate to what I’m doing because I’m pulling from something that is simply extraordinary and magnificent and is the bedrock of all of pop culture. Skip James, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, all these geniuses. And if you pull from that, and if you trust and respect your ancestors, they’ll take care of you. There’s nothing great about me. What’s great is the garden I’m pulling from.
What does the persona Fantastic Negrito give you that you can’t get with Xavier Dphrepaulezz?
I need to become that persona in order to have the courage to do what I do. It feels like a superhero’s costume. But then when I go shopping at the grocery store, I’m not Fantastic Negrito. Sometimes I want to go fishing in the public and get inspired by people. Sometimes I just want to stand on the corner and talk to people. I still secretly play on the streets. I can’t do it as much [as I used to], but I still do it.
You called your first Grammy win [for ‘The Last Days of Oakland’] a “distraction.” What does the second one feel like?
I’m enjoying it more. I think I’ve lightened up a little bit. With the first Grammy, I just didn’t want to look at it. People start talking to you when you win Grammys. And I really love making music. I’m in a bubble, and I want to stay here as long as I can. It feels like when you’re a teenager and you first start writing songs. And you can get robbed of that very easily in this business. It can get very twisted. And I just don’t want any part of that.
I do appreciate being acknowledged by my peers, but I’m not going to get caught up in it. I came home my Grammy night and I washed dishes after dinner. That’s where I wanna keep it. It’s good to be a middle-aged guy doing all this, because you don’t fall for the tricks and the shiny objects.
The pressure of having to deliver a hit derailed your career and creativity in the 1990s. How do you deal with the pressure now?
What’s the pressure on me? I’m an old dude. I’m just fucking around here and winning Grammys and making really good music in an art gallery in fucking Oakland. No one expects anything from me. I’m not gonna sell a million records. I’m not going to have a billion streams. It’s great to be in this position.
Prince inspired you to start making music. Like Prince, so many musicians in your position, particularly those who are getting up in age, turn to using drugs to deal with the constant grind. What keeps you from going down that path?
My high comes from performing. Life is not always going to be positive and lovely, and that’s part of the ride. We all go through different phases on that ride. I don’t want to run from it. You gotta embrace it. You gotta “take that bullshit and turn it into good shit.” There’s something very powerful about taking something dark and transforming it into light. That’s really the story of what I’ve done with my life.
What have your close encounters with death taught you?
It’s so simple you’ll be disappointed. That breath that you have going? [Inhales.] Man, that is sweet. Enjoy it. You’re ill? Enjoy it. Everything is happening in the blink of an eye. Your mother’s smile. Your father’s voice. Your lover’s hand. Everything is incredibly precious. Even people you disagree with, man, enjoy that shit. Because this is what life is.
Where does your capacity for gratitude come from?
The amount of people that abused me in my life is equal to the amount of people that have given me love and encouragement. There’s been a lot of negativity and darkness in my life, but all along I have always walked towards the light. One thing that I learned about growing weed is that if you nourish these plants, give them their light, their space, their love, and their food, they will take care of you. They will provide for you. But if you don’t and you neglect these plants, the crop will fail and you’ll lose thousands of dollars.
People are the same as those plants. If you love these people and give them air, light, space, and food, they’ll provide for you. People really loved me along the way, and I gravitated towards that. As much as there was abuse, there was love, and I paid attention to it.