The cover of Fantastic Negrito’s June release Please Don’t Be Dead shows the singer/songwriter—born Xavier Dphrepaulezz—laid up in a hospital bed after the near-fatal 1999 car crash that broke his arms and legs and left him in a coma for weeks. But he realized another context when he recently saw the photo.
“America right now feels like it’s been in a terrible accident,” says Negrito, 50, whose band opens the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival on July 27. “Just across the board—how we are, who we are as a country, how the world views us as a leader, as a world power. Culturally, we’re banged up.”
Long recovered from his crash (except for a guitar-picking hand he calls “the claw”), Negrito now considers the state of the nation. “It’s a good time to be an artist,” he says. “I make my music for my children. If something ever happens to me, [it would] be some kind of blueprint, a statement, a philosophy that I could leave to help them navigate through this insanity. We’re living through this age of fear, where everything’s like this weird witch hunt and people are so entrenched in their ideologies.”
Negrito provides a blueprint on Please Don’t Be Dead, his follow-up to 2016’s The Last Days of Oakland, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. The new record—which Negrito says he knew “would be really rooted in riffs, chants and the hardcore tradition of what the blues is”—opens with “Plastic Hamburgers,” a snapping riff-rocker in the vein of Lenny Kravitz where he growls, “Let’s break out these chains, let’s burn it down!”
Fantastic Negrito plays the Newport Folk Festival on July 27.
“It has nothing to do with color—it’s the rich race versus the poor race,” he says. “We’re all in chains—the 99 percent. They have us in chains and they have us bickering among each other and living our lives against our best interests.”
Negrito, who performed at Bernie Sanders rallies in 2016, claims that he’s not being political or partisan. “We’re not toeing these party lines,” he says. “The left and the right are doing this together. They’ve been doing it for a long time. Let’s not just jump on Donald Trump.”
Negrito’s “black roots music” on Please Don’t Be Dead also swings from “Transgender Biscuits” (about people from all walks of life drawing blame) to the near-psychedelic “Dark Windows,” which nods to Soundgarden lyrics in tribute to departed friend Chris Cornell. “I knew it was different, but that’s the fun thing,” Negrito says. And the album closes with the funky “Bullshit Anthem,” where he sings, “Knock me down two or three times. I’ll get back up and keep on fighting.”
Raised in western Massachusetts, Negrito experienced ups and downs across a wild life with multiple acts. As the son of a Somali-Caribbean father in an orthodox Muslim household of 15 children, he was 12 when his family moved to Oakland. He encountered ’80s culture shock and hit the streets, hustling drugs and soaking in the area’s artistic cauldron, which produced everything from Tony! Toni! Toné! to Green Day. “Amongst the places that were considered bad neighborhoods and dangerous, there was also beauty,” he says. “It was so diverse and bubbling.”
He moved to LA, met one of Prince’s former managers and scored a $1 million record deal with Interscope, releasing an R&B album as Xavier that fizzled—and then came the accident. “It got me out of my deal and a second shot at life,” says Negrito, who eventually settled on a farm to raise chickens, grow weed to sell and start a family.
He only returned to music through his young son. “I couldn’t put him to sleep one day, having a rough time, and there was an old beat-up guitar laying underneath the couch. I picked it up and played a G major chord and it shifted my whole universe with his expression, which was so pure,” says Negrito, who embraced Delta blues, began busking in Oakland and won NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk contest three years ago. “This baby was teaching me the power and possibility of music.” ◆
For more music coverage, check out Paul’s Weekend Music Ideas.