Fantastic Negrito Looks to the Past for a Path Forward

Xavier Amin Dphrepaulez, who is better known as the Bay Area rocker Fantastic Negrito, may never make another record. At least, that’s what the musician says now, as his latest LP and accompanying visual album, White Jesus, Black Problems, are unleashed into the world today (June 3). For Dphrepaulez, who is constantly on the hunt for new inspiration to create and create more, he thinks he may never have quite the internal push as he did for his latest work: finding out he is the descendant of a white Scottish indentured servant who fell in love and had children with a Black slave nearly 300 years ago.

Dphrepaulez learned about their story, first, through a random DM and some subsequent heavy research. Filled with the fire of discovery, he began writing his new work and the powerful project is now set for the light of day.

“For the first time in my life,” Dphrepaulez, “I understood who I was.”

Dphrepaulez first began to play music around 17 years old. For many, that’s late in life to pick up the love. But he says music found him. One of 14 brothers and sisters, Dphrepaulez never got a ton of attention as a young person (understandably so), so when he first got on stage in his teens, he liked the adulation associated with entertainment.

“I fell in love with that aspect of it, at first,” he says. Not long after, Dphrepaulez found himself on the campus of the University of California Berkley, which had a series of practice rooms with pianos. Always one able to sport facial hair (for him, it was lush sideburns), Dphrepaulez walked into the music building under the guise that he was a student. It was there, that the eventual multi-time Grammy Award-winner first began to play.

“There would be kids playing all around you,” he says. “I picked up on what I was hearing and started playing it. I think they should name those rooms after me now. They really should. People were getting shot up where I was born, there was a lot of drug dealing. And I found the piano room—it’s a beautiful story. I found beauty in the middle of a nightmare.”

Today, with the story of his ancestors in his mind, Dphrepaulez talks about coming from a “long line of people that had to face major obstacles.” That has, whether he’s known it or not, always given him strength. At one point in his music career, Dphrepaulez had a major record deal. But that fell apart. Later, he survived a near-fatal car crash. Yet, he’s since persevered. And done so with flying colors. He’s won multiple Grammy Awards along with the coveted NPR Tiny Desk Concert competition.

“As an African-American,” he says, “you’re coming from a legacy of people that came over here that way that they did. There’s a lot of that in you. [The idea that] we’re going to get through it and we’re going to be better. I stand on their shoulders.”

For Dphrepaulez, though, success isn’t necessarily about trophies. While he remains very grateful for the accolades and he’s celebrated earning them, he doesn’t keep the Grammy Awards perched high on display on the shelf. He says there’s still the spirit of a punk rocker inside and he wants to “raise hell.” Today, he cares about family, about learning, about keeping the fire inside going. He cares about inspiration and dutiful work.

“Why do people travel thousands of miles to see the pyramids?” he asks. “Because we’re looking at someone’s inspiration.”

In terms of his new album, Dphrepaulez says it all started with the famed bassist and frontman Sting. As Dphrepaulez was contemplating the beginning stages of his new album in 2019, he began reaching out to musicians who really meant something to him, from Sting to David Byrne to Taj Mahal. And as the record got going, the first song he made was with Sting. Then the pandemic hit and everything was put on hold in early 2020. (He still has the song with Sting, waiting for the right time to release it.) With the world in flux, Dphrepaulez went back to his farm in Oakland to contemplate the next steps. He eventually decided to fly to Atlanta after placing a song he did with the rapper E-40 in a television series. There, still, amidst the pandemic, he was quarantined in an Atlanta hotel. He had a lot of time on his hands and began reading social media messages he’d never gotten to prior. That’s when one changed his life.

“I read one that was one year old,” he says. “It said, Hey I’m your cousin. Your last name, I know where it comes from.”

Dphrepaulez did some research and figured out the message writer was correct about everything he’d said. Dphrepaulez’s father was born in 1905 and was 33 years older than his mother. Given the age difference, she believed all her elder husband had said. But he wasn’t telling her the full truth. “He had misrepresented himself to my mother,” Dphrepaulez says. Somehow, the title of the new LP popped into his head: White Jesus, Black Problems. Dphrepaulez kept researching. He found out he had “free negro blood” in his veins, which caused in him a “very strange feeling.” He felt guilty, for some reason. He discovered generations of free Blacks in his family, photographs of them from hundreds of years ago wearing well-to-do clothes, which is quite rare. He followed the records all the way back to the mid-1700s and found out about his white ancestor, the Scottish indentured servant. He called one of his brothers, and they talked.

“This interracial couple in the 1700s challenged the artifice of white supremacy,” Dphrepaulez says. “That is the most punk rock shit ever.”

All of a sudden he realized where his rule-breaking side came from, his bending of genres. He knew where he’d come from, which is a stroke of luck that many Black Americans are not afforded thanks to the ugliness of slavery, which stripped many Blacks of their names and lineages.

“That was probably the most powerful thing ever that I could come across,” he says. “I’m probably done making records now. This is it for me!”

Though, in reality, that’s not the case. Dphrepaulez says he’s working on an acoustic album that he may call, Black Jesus, White Problems. But even more than that, the benefit of the major discovery has allowed him to shift the way he thinks about the construction of race. It sees more clearly how society gets hung up on it, and how people allow themselves to be victimized or villainized. And he’s done with that, he says.

“I’m tired of that,” he says. “I’m not willing to be a victim. I don’t need villains.”

Dphrepaulez says he always wants to make music that makes people think. Well, he’s certainly done it with his latest standout work, which began with him writing 50 songs and pairing them down to 13 (serendipitous numbers making one think of 50 US states and 13 original colonies). Not only will the new work challenge and enrich listeners and viewers but it’s also helped Dphrepaulez understand himself better, and made him think about his own identity. In the end, it taught him that any goal could be accomplished. If his ancestors could meet, fall in love, sustain a relationship, and have mixed children together, in a time when all of that was illegal, then no one has an excuse. Today, when everyone feels entrenched in their own dogma, there is actually room to engage.

“They pulled off a miracle,” he says of his ancestors.

And music can do the same. Especially the kind of music that he’s made with White Jesus, Black Problemswhich itself is an ode to his family, each note, line, riff, and lyric meant to serve their story first, and foremost.

“I love that it transcends languages, cultures, and all the false constructs,” says Dphrepaulez. “I love that it reaches all of us no matter who we are.”

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