The American singer has reinvented himself and just released a new album. He talks to Jim Hickson about his recent good fortune
What happens when a down-on-their-luck pop-R&B singer leaves the music world in dire circumstances and turns their hand to farming (both legal and otherwise), before feeling that creative spark again? Well, if that singer is Xavier Dphrepaulezz, they re-invent themselves as Fantastic Negrito, one of the hottest talents on the blues scene.
Back in the 90s, Dphrepaulezz’s R&B sound landed him a million-dollar record deal, but after a not-successful-enough first album, that deal turned into major label hell and Dphrepaulezz turned his back on music. Twenty years later, and under the guise of Fantastic Negrito, he is making the airwaves buzz anew.
The sounds of Dphrepaulezz’s childhood were jazz, blues, classical and traditional African music – his Somali-Caribbean father forbade popular music, calling it a corrupting influence. He says his early exposure to the blues fell on unappreciative ears: “I wasn’t ready to hear it as a youngster, I thought it was terrible. But after I turned 40, and I’d buried a couple people, and I’d lived through tragedies, and I’d lived life, for some reason it just resonated with me so much, spiritually – because I had lived!”
The birth of Fantastic Negrito was a classic rise from the ashes. When a car crash left him in a coma for three weeks, he decided life was too short to make music you don’t believe in. It was five years later, singing to his infant son, that he realised what music he did believe in. Since this musical rebirth, Fantastic Negrito’s music is like looking into an alternate dimension of 21st-century blues, where 70s middle-of-the-road blues-rock never happened “It’s blues but it’s got a gospel-punk delivery – some guy called me ‘the punk rock Al Green’!”
“I was entrenched and indoctrinated into viewing music differently from such a young age… the things I didn’t really dig as a kid really came back as an adult.” With this musical progression, he is looking back – and the link to African music is still there. Asked what sounds he’s digging at the moment, there’s no hesitation: “Songhoy Blues. They’re amazing. I met them in Australia and we jammed together. I’ve been a fan ever since.” It’s a partnership that he wouldn’t mind developing. “I like all collaborations, as long as they’re real. It would be interesting because there’s a different school of thought going on in terms of the approach to the music.”
Fantastic Negrito’s first album only came out in June, but the music has already been heaped in hype: he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest out of 7,000 entrants, provided the theme tune for hit drama series Hand of God and was personally invited to perform at Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire rally. And that’s on top of his recently-finished 43-date tour, which took in four continents over 45 days – “it was hardcore!” he says.
So after a life of reinvention, what’s next? “Who knows? I never knew there would be a Fantastic Negrito. It’s just happening now and I’m enjoying it.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #119. Fantastic Negrito’s album, The Last Days of Oakland, is out now.