“Wherever I go, I’m just a guest. Wherever I am, I like to feel the vibration of what’s going on and I try to be a contributor,” Xavier Dphrepaulezz says with a modest grin. Other than the fact that he’s still visibly catching his breath, it’s difficult to believe that this is Fantastic Negrito, the soulful, dynamic, and pissed off singer-songwriter who had a few hundred people captivated not even ten minutes earlier. “You wanna be a great contributor in the context of each situation,” he continues, “Whether you’re a busker or a musician screaming on a stage.”
Although his first official release under the Fantastic Negrito moniker came out in 2014, Dphrepaulezz has a long and complex history with the music industry. In 1993, he signed with Interscope Records and released the album, The X Factor, three years later. He played all the instruments on, wrote, and produced the album, which showed early signs of his eclectic influences and unique sound, despite being marketed as an R&B/ pop act at the time.
In 1999, he was in a near-fatal car crash that left him in a coma. He awoke three weeks later to find that Interscope had cut ties with him and his hands had been severely damaged. After much physical rehabilitation, he still found himself limited with what he could play on the guitar. This led to him acting solely as the vocalist for various subsequent projects, such as Chocolate Butterfly, Me and This Japanese Guy, and Blood Sugar X, until he eventually decided to quit music in 2007.
However, Dphrepaulezz soon discovered a new affinity for the music he grew up listening to and reemerged as Fantastic Negrito in 2014, describing his sound as “black roots music for everyone.” While he was writing material for the project, he decided that the best way to test it out was to play it for people who didn’t necessarily want to hear it. By busking around the Bay Area, at places like Oakland’s BART Station, he developed the engaging and familiar style that has become the trademark of Fantastic Negrito.
It’s this sincerity and passion that filled The Parish (the smaller, church-themed venue inside Anaheim’s House of Blues) this past Memorial Day. Fantastic Negrito, now a two-time Grammy winner, captivated the few hundred fans in attendance with the help of his four piece band. “The roots, the blues, the gospel, a little soul, it’s all there,” explains drummer Darian P. Gray. “But he lets us get kinda get wild a little bit, because that’s what he likes and that’s how he is.”
As Fantastic Negrito, Dphrepaulezz embodies this dynamic. His voice constantly spans from a soulful drone, reminiscent of the chain gang “call and response” style, to a gritty screech, with plenty of nuanced runs sprinkled in. Much of his energy comes from an underlying sort of punk rock attitude. Although this is present in his commanding stage presence, it was most obvious when he introduced a song from his latest album, titled “Transgender Biscuits.”
“If we ain’t pissing someone off, we ain’t doing something right,” he said with a chuckle. “I ain’t dressing like this for nothin’.” The song’s lyrics are equally unapologetic. “I got fired because I’m a woman/ I got fired because I’m black/ I got fired because I’m a white man/ I got fired because I’m fat/ I got fired because I’m an asshole/ I got fired because I’m gay /I got fired because I’m a Muslim/ I got fired for being late.” This kind of passion permeates Fantastic Negrito’s catalog. He is perceptive, inquisitive, and often profound.
The highlight of Fantastic Negrito’s set was when he played a soul-stirring rendition of Lead Belly’s timeless song, “In the Pines.” Before counting his band off, he reflected on his formative years in Oakland. He admitted that he used to think violent men and drug dealers were the strongest, hardest type of people, but that as he grew up, he discovered that was far from the truth. “So I dedicate this song to the strongest people out there: mothers, sisters, aunties, and grandmas.”