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With Sudden Fame, Grammy Win, 'Oakland Keeps Me Sane,' Says Fantastic Negrito

Since winning NPR's Tiny Desk Concert in 2015 and a 2017 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, the musician known as Fantastic Negrito has become an international sensation. Raised in an orthodox Muslim household that relocated from Massachusetts to Oakland when he was 12, Negrito has described his music as "blues with a punk attitude."

In the first half of our extended interview, Negrito (also known as Xavier Amid Dphrrpaulezz) talked about how his upbringing shaped him as an artist, the impact of sudden success, and why he's decided to remain in Oakland.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Over the last couple years, you’ve won the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, released The Last Days of Oakland, started touring internationally, and earned a Grammy award. Was that win kind of a cherry on top?

Wow, that sounds like a lot of stuff. It’s always funny when someone says it to me. The best thing to do is to never think about any of it and just keep writing great material. But the Grammy is a great honor.

I’m more excited for the Bay Area and the joy I see on people’s faces. That means more than anything. It brought a lot of pride and joy to the Bay Area.

Fantastic Negrito Performs "Honest Man." | via YouTube

Speaking of the Tiny Desk contest, did you foresee this much immediate success upon being notified that you’d won?

I didn’t even want to enter that contest! [laughs] I was outvoted by the collective I’m in [Blackball Universe] and had to enter. I really didn’t care about what anyone was thinking in terms of being creative and having a voice. Not giving a fuck gives you freedom.

So everything that has happened is great, but I don’t know if I foresaw it or am surprised by it. It’s very organic and it’s all happening right now. There’s a liberty in not caring and not trying to please anyone. Making connections artistically, creatively and spiritually with the people of the human tribe — that’s big for me.

Negrito performs with his band in the Netherlands, September 2016. | Photo: Fantastic Negrito/Facebook

In which ways have living in Oakland influenced your music, especially “The Last Days of Oakland?”

I’m a child of the city. I grew up in the old Oakland, and I’m getting down and being creative in the new Oakland. It’s interesting to me. I feel like a bridge for a lot of people. There’s such a legacy and rich culture in this city and so many important, innovative artists and movements and people that laid down the foundation for me.

It makes me feel the standard is high here in the Bay Area. It’s great to be a part of it. To help uplift it. To help maintain that high standard. If you’re growing up in the Bay Area, there’s something very special about that. I always say the Bay Area is the greatest tribe ever. An interesting, edgy group of people. I hope we maintain that edge. 

Why have you decided to stay in Oakland, instead of moving back to LA or elsewhere?

Oakland keeps me sane. I love being able to walk around here. And 99 percent of the time, people are open and considerate of my privacy. The vibrations here are so intense. Why would I leave here?

I can walk around and write about Oakland parties, cocaine, hookers, drugs. And the loving, beautiful, edgy, interesting environment. It all keeps me grounded. When I was young, I went to get a record deal — which I was successful at — but this is much better. People at my record company are better. I came up at BART stations, playing in front of Colonial Donuts at 3 am. Oakland is real. Nothing is better than that. I want that.

At the Blue Note Tokyo. | Photo: Fantastic Negrito/Facebook

Why did you choose the title, “The Last Days Of Oakland?”

Because it’s true. These are the last days of Oakland that I grew up in. The last days of New Orleans that I visited as a child. The last days of London and New York City. All these places are going through massive transitions. And that’s gonna happen. It’ll happen again in 10 years, then again in 20 years. That’s what things do; they go through transitions.

This is a different Oakland. It’s very important to write about it. It’s profound to me. Here we were, in this amazing place that we called home, and if you’re from here, you may not even be able to afford to live here. That’s very interesting to me. I wrote about it, hopefully in a way that people could understand. My mother was like, “That’s so dark. So morbid!” I was like, “No, that’s actually beautiful.”

As a resident of Oakland, what do you love about the city? Do you have any go-to restaurants, venues, etc.?

I love the art galleries, like Joyce Gordon’s on 14th. She’s been there so long and she’s so nice. I like B-Dama for Japanese food. Tay Ho for Vietnamese. Taste of Africa for Senegalese. Charles Blades’ barbershop has a family vibe. I love places like that. I go to World Ground Coffee every morning. They’re family.

Bicycle Coffee gives out free coffee every Friday. The lake is beautiful to walk around. Laurel District is really coming up and growing. I like to see that. I just hope they’ll stay affordable. I love driving through East Oakland still. It’s so beautiful. Some people may say it’s a little dangerous, but beautiful things come out of the dark sometimes…a lot of times…I think almost every time.

I don’t eat Colonial Donuts anymore, but I’m so fond of it, because that’s where I was playing my first gigs. Some of the most important listeners would be 60 or 70-year-old homeless black men from Arkansas. From the South. And I knew if I could get them I was on to something. They’d say, “Where’d you learn to play that? That’s roots!” I see them now and say hello and give them a hug and throw them a few dollars. If I got their ears, I’m in the right neighborhood, sonically. 

In Part Two, Negrito shares more about his desire to keep living and recording in Oakland, how he sourced his Grammy-night wardrobe locally, and the future of the city's music industry, including other topics.


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