The first couple of times that I met Xavier Dphrepaulezz, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being sold something. He knew how to charm, and he had the look of the converted in his eye—a gleam that reminded me of the woman who used to help my parents around the house (until she started painting crosses made of dirt over the door frames, a nice companion piece to the mezuzahs). Xavier would speak in platitudes, delivering a rotating cast of realness, love, and togetherness. He was quick to show you his mangled arm, the result of a car crash fifteen years prior that had put him in a three-week coma and ended his deal with Interscope, and he was even quicker to break into song.
When I first met Xavier, he had recently adopted the moniker of Fantastic Negrito (“black roots music for everyone!” was, and remains, his calling card), and he was busking on the streets and at various BART stations. Under the auspices of a school assignment, I interviewed him on several occasions. Something about his charisma made me nervous; I was intimidated by his lack of inhibition and his confidence. As time went by, however, I relished our time together. The most mundane conversations quickly became challenging, existential explorations. And for every sentence he uttered, it seemed there was a song to go with it—many of which eventually appeared on Fantastic Negrito’s EP.
Rooted in both gritty blues and church spirituals, there was something overwhelmingly immediate about his narratives; a lack of filter and an explicitness caught me off guard just as much as his mannerisms. He sang about the car crash that almost killed him and his spiritual rebirth—“like being born again, without all the frills and thrills,” he told me once—without an ounce of pretense. While another artist might employ metaphor to get a point across, Xavier launched into it headlong.
Since Xavier wouldn’t sit still, our interviews often turned into long walks in the neighborhood around Blackball Universe, the art gallery and home of his creative collective. He was prone to exclaim things like “It’s all about sex!” as he pointed at the mix of dilapidated warehouses and new condos on either side of us. He’d encourage wide-eyed baristas to touch the metal rod in his arm, and dive into the local Salvation Army and start pounding on the piano and singing Al Green, leaving at least one member of the custodial staff utterly perplexed (but not upset). Even when he wasn’t singing or strumming his black acoustic guitar, he couldn’t help but share his joy with whomever was watching.
One evening last February, Xavier told me about a contest that his business partner, Field, had advised him to enter. Late one night, they had filmed a one-take clip of the band playing in a beat-up freight elevator below Blackball Universe. He had been chosen as a finalist in the contest, but he seemed a bit unsure of what exactly he was a finalist for. The next morning, he was announced as the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Competition.
When I met up with Xavier earlier this December at Blackball Universe, he seemed tired. That is, relatively tired. Like Michael-Jordan-still-scoring-twenty tired. “I wanted it, and now I have to do it,” he said by way of introduction. He had just come from a rehearsal for a private show in San Francisco, an event for Laurene Powell, the widow of Steve Jobs. That afternoon he seemed tense; he later started complaining about a vest that someone was picking out for him. As we chatted, a fine mist began to fall outside and the smudge of downtown, rising behind the freeway, hulked in the fog. On one wall, between paintings from Blackball Universe’s current art show, hung an enormous framed orange poster, courtesy of NPR, with an image of Xavier superimposed behind the Tiny Desk.
Early next year, Xavier will release his first full-length as Fantastic Negrito. It’s called The Last Days of Oakland. For countless Oakland residents, the title carries more than a little menace; 2015 has been marked by skyrocketing rents, eviction notices, an invasion of stale bourgeois culture from across the bay, and crackdowns on public performances around the city’s crown jewel, Lake Merritt. Yet Xavier remains eternally optimistic, even as he acknowledges that the vibrant Oakland of his youth lays on its deathbed. “It’s not apocalyptic…the challenge is, ‘What do we do with it?’” he told me.
The bluntness of the album’s title extends to its narratives. One song is called “The Nigga Song,” and addresses the misuse of that word by white people. “I think it’s gone way too far,” Xavier points out. “That’s our word. It came from our struggle.” In an interstitial track on the album, he instructs young men of color how to act when approached by the police; it’s advice Xavier received from his own father. “You feel the streets on the album,” he explains, “because I’m out in the streets talking [to people].”
It’s the juxtaposition of the highly personal and the universal that makes Xavier’s music so potent. He is able to focus inward while still leaving the door open for his message and his music to sucker-punch you in the gut. “I don’t have solutions,” he told me. “I’m just telling people, ‘Hey this is what’s going on. This is what it is.’” In a sense, he’s an unlikely candidate to speak to universal truths. How many major label musicians do you know woke up from a three-week coma and reinvented themselves as blues singers? But at the end of the day, that experience was his reawakening, and he carries it everywhere he goes, often on full display like a fresh wound.
On his self-titled EP, released late 2014, he often addresses things you’d rather not hear about: the brevity of life, its hardships, spiritual loneliness, the delusion of material goods. “An Honest Man” finds him “empty, black and very cynical,” yearning for the fix of material goods. On “Lost in a Crowd” (which is not on the EP, but is the song he performed for the Tiny Desk competition), he tackles the cruel consequences of modern capitalism: “Slave through the year for a holiday / Stuck in a room for too long.” Later, in the song’s bridge, he includes himself in the equation, telling his listener that we’re all “lonely people, you and I”—an updated “Eleanor Rigby” for people lost in the glow of their iPhone screens.
But underneath that pain is optimism; throughout the EP he details his spiritual reawakening in crystal-clear terms. In “Night Has Turned To Day,” he escapes a past filled with “money, whores and cars.” On the album’s final track, the propulsive “A New Beginning,” he celebrates his need to start over. There’s nothing radical about any of this, but Xavier’s refusal to dilute any of it still comes off as eccentric.
Throughout his Tiny Desk performance, recorded a few weeks after he won the competition, Xavier points his finger directly at the NPR employees standing just in front of him. It’s not a whimsical rock star move; he’s making it clear that these songs are about them, too. Dressed in a yellow shirt, grey vest and black tie, it’s hard to take your eyes off him as he belts his songs, pantomimes his lyrics, and shakes his hips. Yet he doesn’t back away from challenging his adoring crowd, either. “Bitch, eat my cancer,” Xavier sings unannounced in a little segue between songs. “Then I’ll know we’re really dancing.” You can almost hear the NPR audience seize up in response. It’s my favorite part of the session, a reminder how weird he can get without a moment’s hesitation.
As Xavier is quick to acknowledge, winning the NPR competition has changed his life—2015 was “the best year ever, better than the million-dollar [Interscope deal],” he says. “[Calling it a] springboard is an understatement.” Virtually overnight, Fantastic Negrito has gone from busking on street corners to playing packed clubs; he has become a local hero and the de facto ambassador of Oakland. Yet, as his performance at the Tiny Desk makes clear, he remains true to the radical nature of his own honesty.
His cautionary tales are not judgments or put-downs; they are wake-up calls from a man who understands that the line between life and death is a very narrow one. His songs challenge us to look inward. They challenge us to love ourselves. Looking back on our first meetings, when I showed up at Blackball Universe and was met by Xavier’s 100-watt smile—and a nervous lump in my throat—I realize that he truly was selling me something. But it wasn’t a con or a deception; he was selling me on his truth. I just wasn’t ready to buy it.
When Max Savage Levenson isn’t writing for Bandcamp he is busy hosting The Max Savage Show.