Clad in overalls, a red plaid shirt and a straw cowboy hat, Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz proudly picks up one of his laying hens, Bessie. Then, smiling, he shovels horse manure for fertilizer and, later, displays voluptuous strawberries on the vine. Thanks to Dphrepaulezz, hope is growing in Oakland, a city that saw 5,685 violent crimes in 2017. That’s where the urban farm he calls Revolution Plantation — home of Bessie and her feathered kin — is flourishing and giving hope to the community.
Dphrepaulezz, better known as multifaceted musician Fantastic Negrito to his NPR-listening fans and Bernie Sanders supporters (he played several rallies for the candidate), is not merely local in his efforts to elevate. His music, soulful, groove-heavy, sonically layered with intense lyrics, is exemplified on his latest album, “Please Don’t Be Dead,” and his Grammy-winning 2016 record, “The Last Days of Oakland.” With a singing voice that’s powerful and a little wild, he creates albums that speak to his experience in and of America. Negrito’s music is as cathartic, elemental and therapeutic — for both creator and listener — as having hands in the soil.
At one point, Negrito was one of those dire Oakland statistics. Born into a large Muslim family, his future by age 12 was uncertain. “I was in three different foster homes, in and out of being arrested. I was one of those kids,” recalls the singer, now 50. “My best friend was murdered. They told me I was gonna be an inmate. They told me I was gonna be a bum on the corner.”
Instead, he eventually turned that corner, using music as spiritual and literal escapism. It was the birth of his son about nine years ago that spawned the Fantastic Negrito character, a musical almost-superhero who “takes things back and gives them power.”
He speaks truth to power in every aspect of his life. The plea “Please Don’t Be Dead” is addressed to America itself, the album rife with songs of hope and pain, coming full circle to powerful positivity in the final two songs, “Never Give Up” and “Bullshit Anthem.” It’s that last cut that exemplifies Negrito’s turn-it-around ethos, with the lyric “Take that bullshit and turn it into good shit.” “They can put that probably on my grave at this point,” he says. “That’s what I believe in. That’s my life.”
Lithe and energetic onstage, his shock of hair as electric as its owner, Negrito puts no restrictions on himself, explaining: “I’m a middle-aged guy with no interest in being a pop star. I’m independent. I was like, ‘We gotta come out swinging on this record because we’re in the times where I feel like the opposition — and that’s anybody who opposes love and equity and justice and liberty for all human beings — they’re screaming very loud right now.’ We need to scream loud.”
Using seven bass guitars — many of which he played himself despite a right hand badly mangled in an accident (he calls it “the paw”) — “Please Don’t Be Dead” became a riff-tastic gem. “The black roots music riff that comes from soul, blues, struggle, rock ’n’ roll, that’s what I wanted to really channel, and that’s what ‘Please Don’t Be Dead’ is about,” he says.
Along with American roots influences, the song “A Boy Named Andrew” — Negrito’s Americanized nickname in foster homes — features Arabic guitar, creating a soundscape that’s as scary and foreign as a young Muslim boy named Xavier Dphrepaulezz must have seemed to some of his Oakland schoolmates and neighbors.
Forty years later, as Negrito, he’s got a large base of “woke” white people, even though when he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2015, he barely knew what the organization was. “NPR seemed like something that was far away that I couldn’t relate to. But I think their base has been supportive, a lot more open than I would’ve thought, man, because I’m not no walk in the park, you know what I mean?” he says with a laugh. “I give them a lot of credit because I’m the most dangerous person they could’ve picked: former crack dealer, a history of violence and getting into trouble and being arrested.”
Then there’s his chosen name: “People are telling me, ‘Hey, white people, they don’t wanna say that name. Call yourself something else,’” Negrito says. But the risk has proven worth the reward. When Dphrepaulezz is Negrito, he says, “I’m glowing.”
Ultimately, he concludes: “I wanna put everything on the line. I don’t wanna be one of these people trying to do stuff safe and safe, and ‘Oh, they’re gonna get offended.’ I just wanna make the record that I feel is the right thing to do and that contributes to the conversation.”