Every once in a while a natural talent arises that distills the American experience. According to the interesting bio on his website, Fantastic Negrito is out of Oakland California. But that’s like saying Bob Dylan is from Minnesota and taking significance from that fact alone. I know, I know–I’ve used origins of artists as a way of placing them in time and space.
No doubt, anyone with a passing knowledge of American social history understands the significance of Oakland to African-American culture: its centrality in the Great Migration on the west coast of the United States, its musical influence on West Coast Jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, jump, and funk. It’s economic importance in the development of the black working and middle class. The political movements that contributed to the advancement of equal rights and equal opportunity and then, in the wake of redlining, assassinations, white flight, and white backlash, the organization of the Black Panthers which came to a violent end. Out of this strong conflict of cultures and ambitions, however, arose a city that learned the meaning of reconciliation and synthesis.
Fantastic Negrito’s real name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz. He is the son of the first Somalian ambassador to the United States. He was raised as a strict Sunni Muslim from childhood. When his family emigrated to the United States they first settled in Massachusetts, where he was born, but then crossed the country and landed in Oakland in the 1980s. It was during this time that Xavier was exposed to one of the most diverse cities in the United States. The African-American community in Oakland during those years reached its peak in both proportion of population and cultural influence. Thus, Xavier made the transformation from the strictures of religious chants to the music of Funkadelic and other similar bands, absorbing the culture, music, and ideas of the liberal and accepting world around him.
This transformation caused him to be rejected by his family, but also led to his reinvention in the 1990s from emigrant to the personality known simply as Xavier. Under Xavier he created a unique R&B/funk/electronic dance sound, where he played all of the instruments, under the title the X Factor, which landed him a contract with the Interscope label. Unfortunately, realizing success too soon, which stilted his creativity, and at the wrong time–since Rap had overtaken the type of music that he was doing–led to disappointment. Coinciding with the end of X Factor came a devastating auto accident in 2000 that left him in a coma. After awaking from his coma, he undertook many months of painful physical therapy due to muscle atrophy while he was bedridden. A reinvigorated life after cheating death, and the birth of his son, caused his eventual transformation into his latest incarnation as the Fantastic Negrito. If Elizabeth Woolridge Grant can be Lana Del Rey, then Xavier Dphrepaulezz can be the Fantastic Negrito.
His appropriation of the word Negrito is interesting. The term is derived from the Spanish to describe small dark-skinned persons. Geographically, it has been largely confined to refer to the diminutive dark-skinned people of Southeast Asia. Rather than having a direct association with groups in Africa, DNA testing has shown that Negritos are most closely related to Asian populations that surround them with some splitting from the African migration that occurred about 60,000 years ago. Thus, despite their distinctive physical characteristics, they are a very diverse admixture of distinctive Southeast Asian ethnic groups. Perhaps, for one who has self-confessed to having gone through several transformations within the span of a single lifetime–which is a typical part of the American experience–the moniker is an appropriate one.
The band members, aside from Xavier, consists of Thomas Alcedo, Nate Pedley, and Ruthie Price. The band won the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Award for 2015 back in February. Then in March they took SXSW by storm. This is the blues updated to our joint experience–essential, urgent, and exciting.