Bluesman and master of reinvention Fantastic Negrito is bringing his unique sound and unapologetic social message to Nell’s Jazz and Blues in Hammersmith tonight.
This is the latest incarnation of musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz, 50, whose career as a generic major-label R’n’B artist in the 1990s was cut short when a near-fatal car accident cost him the use of his playing hand.
Having lost all interest in music, he moved back to his hometown in Oakland and made a living growing medical marijuana until one day, he picked up a guitar to comfort his two-year-old son.
Dphrepaulezz said: “I remember playing a G major and it just changed the course of life.
“The expression that this kid had was just so beyond what I understood as a human adult.
“In that moment, his reaction was so pure, so magical, that it lit up the room and I thought wait a minute, there’s something here to this music thing.”
Embracing his creative rebirth under the name Fantastic Negrito, he took inspiration from the rich cultural pool of blues music and from the crowds who gathered to watch him as he performed on the streets.
Dphrepaulezz said that performing in subways was the purest way of getting back into music, as he got to genuinely connect with people and see the impact of his sound.
In 2015, his song Lost In A Crowd won the NPR’s music competition Tiny Desk Contest and the following year he released his album The Last Days Of Oakland which went on to win a Grammy award.
His success is far removed from his youth in 1980s Oakland where he said he lived with the height of the crack epidemic and a multitude of dead bodies, some of them friends and relatives.
A proponent of the theory that the CIA was involved in cocaine trafficking to fund the Nicaragua Contra war, Dphrepaulezz recounted getting into hustling himself as a disenchanted teenager.
“Before we knew it, us kids were cooking up cocaine and making crack and selling it to our own communities not knowing that we were ruining them,” he said.
“I only realised that as I became older: we were set out to kill our community in the name of the American dream, which is really materialist.
“They say it’s freedom, but it’s really materialism, freedom to be a consumer.”
Fantastic Negrito’s music doesn’t shy away from controversial matter, whether it is class inequality, discrimination, or America’s obsession with guns, though he dismissed the ‘political’ label, which he associates with someone having an agenda.
The title of his latest album, Please Don’t Be Dead, is essentially a direct plea to the idea of America that’s in an especially precarious point in the current political climate.
“America is like a diet, you know, when you’re on a diet and you just keep screwing up,” he said.
“That’s how I view my country, we’re a great idea and we need to keep on being an amazing idea.
“We’re not going to live up to it ever I’m sure, but we’re striving towards it.”
The same optimism that allowed Dphrepaulezz to overcome being in a coma for three weeks and all the other hardships he has faced continues to inform his attitude.
He said that that his approach to music was never to preach to anyone, but to show optimism in the belief that we could all do better.
“Go and have a cup of coffee with someone you disagree with, because realistically, we’re all being played against each other anyway, that’s just how the system is set up.
“And none of these politicians are working in anyone’s favour,” he added.
“I see Donald Trump as the president and I’m optimistic, I think we’re going to do something great, we’re not going to succumb to this negative, destructive energy that’s out there.
“Music can change the course of the world, it’s medicinal, it’s therapeutic.”
Dphrepaulezz loves bringing people together through the power of music in his concerts, and described a recent gig in Berlin where people of all races, religions and backgrounds were unified under the music and the message.
“My concerts are like church without the religion: it’s gonna go down baby, it’s gonna move you, it’s a beautiful thing,” he added.