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Blues

Fantastic Negrito's new album springs from personal history

Fantastic Negrito
Amy Harris/Invision/AP
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Invision
Fantastic Negrito performs at the Bottle Rock Napa Valley Music Festival at Napa Valley Expo on Friday, May 27, 2022, in Napa, Calif.

KNKX All Blues host John Kessler talked to Grammy winning singer, songwriter and activist Fantastic Negrito. He'll perform at the Neptune Theater in Seattle on June 15.

Fantastic Negrito has made a name for himself as a flamboyant rule-breaker and genre bender. He won the inaugural NPR Tiny Desk Concert competition, and since then he's earned Grammy awards for best contemporary blues album in 2017, 2019 and 2021.

Negrito (born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz) was raised in an orthodox Muslim household. His father was a Somali-Caribbean immigrant who mostly played traditional African music. By the time he was 20, Negrito had taught himself to play every instrument he could get his hands on.

But his story is one of continual re-invention. In his twenties, he signed a multi-million-dollar deal on Interscope Records as the R&B artist “Xavier.” But his album flopped, and then he was in a terrible car wreck that left him in a coma for weeks and mangled his hands.

“And then I decided to just go,” Negrito said. “I gave it all up, sold all my equipment. I quit. I’d had it with the music business. I felt like it had defeated me. So, I moved back to Oakland, California, and invested what I had left in a marijuana farm, good investment at the time. I thought I'd never play music again.”

After starting a family, he was drawn back to music.

“And then, you know, I had a son and having children sometimes, they become your teachers,” Negrito said. “You know, they become the ones that say, 'Hey, you know what? It may not be that bad, Dad.' So, through the eyes and spirit of my son, I found music again. And I decided to busk on the streets just for my own happiness. And I was not in my twenties anymore. I didn't want anything anymore. That's the key here. I didn't want it. I didn't want recognition or fame. So, it led to freedom.”

How his journey led him to the blues:

“I'd rediscovered a lot of Delta blues musicians that I really didn't care about as a young person. But I think it must've been Skip James that made me go, ‘holy shit.’ Like I remember hearing him singing ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.’”

“Yup. I remember crying. I think I finally felt this music because I failed and so much had gone wrong in my life and there had been so much turmoil. And suddenly I was a middle-aged guy and I could just finally hear Robert Johnson, which I couldn't hear 30 years before. This whole world of music opened up to me. This inspired me to express what I could do.”

“I felt like I owed it to the 22 million Africans that came here. I think I owed it to the people in the fields. Maybe they were talented geniuses, musically. Or scientifically and mathematically, but they could never be that and we won't know their names because they were never recognized as human beings. So, I think I stand on their shoulders and I think my lifetime is to honor that journey that my ancestors took.”

Fantastic Negrito - Oh Betty (Official Video)

The new album and accompanying film took Negrito in a totally unexpected direction.

During his pandemic downtime, he decided to research his genealogy and found a number of surprises, including that he had 28% European ancestry, along with Nigerian and other African roots.

Further research led him seven generations back, to colonial Virginia of the 1750s and a document citing his ancestor Elizabeth Gallamore for "illegally cohabiting with a Negro slave and having several mulatto children."

Gallamore was an indentured servant from Scotland, and her husband was an enslaved African-American. Their marriage was in defiance of the laws of racist, separatist colonial Virginia of the 1750s.

“So, I have this document,” he said. “I decided this is the source of my inspiration. This is ‘White Jesus Black Problems.’ How has a white indentured-servant Scottish woman and a Black slave-man challenged the edifice of what really is white supremacy in its peak?

“It was emotional. And I think I looked at race differently. I have now. Looking at this whole idea of all you are white, I'm Black. And I happened to be 28% white and never knew. So there you go. It was just incredible. I'm very proud of the decisions my grandparents made.”

“White Jesus Black Problems” releases June 3 on Storefront Records.

Fantastic Negrito performs at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre on Wednesday, June 15. Find more information and tickets here.

Listen for “Oh Betty” from the new album “White Jesus Black Problems” on All Blues this weekend.