by Lara Eidi. January 24 ,2021
“Have you lost your mind yet ? To get free tonight..”
Picture this : Richie Havens walks into a bar, Lead Belly playing some acoustic, raw , soul wrenching guitar. Hendrix is a 15 year old loner, because he’s watching Lead Belly with a curiosity only quenched by his innocence. Tony Kushner (playwright to Caroline or Change ) is also there , my friends. He’s taking notes, because his instincts are begging him write about the real thing. Prince (yes Prince) shows up, turns around to face his audience ( enter, YOU ALL) and says ” let’s funk this s**t up. Enter , Fantastic Negrito.
And that’s him performing with no audience..
I’ll write as I feel, which I’m hoping reflects the way Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz aka the brilliant Fantastic Negrito sings : because he needs it. This man is fueled by his life, desperate to connect with the unbearable and performs with an urgency only heightened by his incomparable story telling. I didn’t expect to ” see” what I saw , in this strange parallel universe we call livestream. The 2 x Grammy award winning artist literally changes into this roles as he did in life. In short : he’s the real deal, and it’s only fitting that with his new album out ” Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? ” he literally draws out the juice of the Delta Blues, Richie Havens, dressed in a subtle tribute to his Somali Heritage, Appalachian earthy edginess that well, could only be called his own.
Fantastic Negrito started as strong as he finished, his band truly respecting his performative space. They clearly let him hold his own whilst he belted out truths that could turn anyone’s head around and make them recant their own lives in a heartbeat. That’s how connected the whole performance was. Starting with Chocolate Samurai , sat at the Wurlitzer ( I smiled from head to toe ) he asked if we’ve lost our mind yet? I nodded, completely drawn in . He literally asked all the questions , I didn’t know needed to be asked.
In a world divided by hate and love, to paraphrase Negrito , the second song of his set really had me tuned in the negative ” Everybody needs a bad guy”. (from award winning album Please Don’t be Dead) That’s so true I thought! Sure enough, he told the story we don’t want to hear: we all need to put the blame somewhere, so that , ” we can feel ok “. This was the first song that Negrito broke away from the lyrics and began by what followed to be a recurring improvisational , spoken word flow in each of his songs. You could hear the reconciliation with his father, who I discovered came from a strict Somalian background. But Negrito took what he could understand from that past, and that was to turn the hate into acceptance and love.
It felt completely within context to narrate his life story in this setlist, and I started to really understand his complicated and rich history – particularly through ” Honest Man ” ( Hand of God Theme Song) . It was here that his improvisational skills really blew me away, to tears . He turned to the camera, and in true blues call and response fashion, he told us the story of his encounter of the devil. The devil was , ” a woman she looked a little like me- are we fixing to be free?” Damn, he writes his own gospel in that single line..
” I’m so happy that I cried ” couldn’t have come at a better time mid-set, the band picking up the tempo with the title track from his previous album. Black Roots Music if anything, was certified in gold in Negrito and his band’s performance. The theme, and I’m willing to bet Negrito is as organised in his setists as he is in his lyrics, of being saved through hardship and toil , despite the racism, despite the date , seemed to dominate the rest of the song choices, giving anyone who hadn’t really listened to his music carefully, and that includes myself, a full breadth of his life story. Songs from his conceptual artist role as the Fantastic Negrito- Xavier, Please Be Dead, The Last Days of Oakland, and finally Have You Lost your Mind Yet were all part of this carefully planned out performance.
I mentioned earlier that Xavier comes across as an urgent and ‘desperate ‘performer. I chose that word purposefully , highlight the need to tune into the ” negative” and bring out the “positive” ( his words, not mine). You could see that the songs he performed, bouncing between the Wurlitzer, acoustic guitar and singing to his band, kept telling the same story all over again. As an individual , he was a hustler, drug dealer and quite frankly a victim of the ugly side of the industry. He bounced back, with honest and pure intention to clear his conscious as well as others. It’s as if ( and this comes across in his performance) he needs to remind people that they kind of don’t have a right to give up, only a right to look in the mirror and see what needs fixing. Like I said, he’s an honest to God truth teller. He said , halfway between performing ” These are my friends“- ” Come on music, save me”. I heard it, and I can resonate, as a songwriter myself. I can’t believe the power of that : to connect, with no audience, to his fellow artists. The power of the arts is alive and well.
It came as no surprise when that was highlighted by the fantastic medley ( special kudos to the band here) with the rock infused and heart wrenching performance of ” How Long” into LeadBelly’s ” Where did you sleep Last Night ” .. Two things : you couldn’t help but feel the anger, pain and sadness of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor deaths. as well hearing the changing of the lyric ” My girl ” to ” Black Girl “. On the surface it seemed like the Fantastic Negrito was highlighting the cultural appropriation of the song, as we all know the Nirvana version, and on a deeper level, his repetitive and almost haunting end of the shout chorus: “the sun don’t shine no more , no more, no more. “
Like I said : the power in his voice, lyrics and performance lies in the masterful conception embracing the ultimate dualities of love and hate, good and bad, and the acceptance of feeling somewhere in between.
Once again, just as I was feeling his heartbreaking story , the energy levels rose back up again with ” Lost in a Crowd” and the stomping blues filled ” Night has Turned to Day ” . Kind of an Anthem for our times, as we struggle to make sense of this now almost completely virtual world. funnily enough. The band were in full groove by this point. Amazing musicianship from all 5 musicians ( guitarist, lead guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and drummer) . This is the point in the set up where Prince had entered ( circa introductory passage in this review). I was already dancing at this point. Thanks lads !
Almost Appalachian and a rightful salute to Native America, combined with Black Roots fueled themselves in the performances of ” The Duffler ” and “A Boy named Andrew“. I feel the need stress that knowing Fantastic Negrito story is vital and necessary to fully appreciate his music. He not only highlights his heritage but others’ as well. I think the choice of his final song, highlighting the negligence of equality was perfect to end the performance , with a fully charged and in your face performance of ” Take that Bullshit and turn it into Good Shit“.
I think I will. I would urge you all to do the same, this is medicine in it’s finest and purest form.
An absolute honour to write about this artist , and have a chance to talk about his truly unique voice. He speaks the truth, and truthfully, if not judging by this performance alone, has proven he has written the music that speaks to him , as opposed to the masses. I can’t wait for the day the stages are alive again so that we can continue to appreciate the power of true performers .
To listen to Fantastic Negrito’s music, click here
To watch his award winning and Grammy nominated Tiny Desk Performance, click here .