Not many people would have pegged new-era blues vocalist and guitarist Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz as a logical opener for Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. In some ways, their backgrounds and styles of music are different, but perhaps their shared friendship and common bond is a sign that a lot of things have more in common than is often thought.
Finding that common ground is a theme on Please Don’t Be Dead, the new June 14 album by Dphrepaulezz, most known by his stage name Fantastic Negrito. He began touring with Cornell in 2016 and the new album’s ninth track “Dark Windows” is a tribute to the late grunge icon.
Negrito, a native of Oakland, California, first shot to national prominence after being named the first winner of NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2015. His 2016 album The Last Days of Oakland won a 2017 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Local fans can see Negrito perform 8 p.m. Tuesday at Opolis, 113 N. Crawford Ave., in Norman. Admission to the all-ages show is $12-$17.
Please Don’t Be Dead is Negrito’s testament to the American dream’s beauty even in the face of ugly polarization. The album cover, a photograph of Negrito in a hospital bed, was taken after a near-fatal car crash the musician suffered in 1999. The crash put him in a coma for three weeks, and a severely broken playing arm worried some that he would never play guitar again.
But, clearly, Negrito made a fantastic recovery. The artist joined Oklahoma Gazette in a phone conversation that spanned everything from the importance of comedy in the modern discourse to fashion as a superpower.
Oklahoma Gazette: Through all the travel opportunities you’ve had, has it changed your understanding of the country or of people at all?
Fantastic Negrito: Of course. When I was doing Last Days of Oakland, I was in New Orleans and I was like, ‘Holy shit! It’s going down!’ And I feel like I can reach across to the other [political] side easily because I have people on Twitter from the red states and the far right. I mean, maybe not that far, but they’re like Trump supporters, and I’m able to have dialogue with them, and I think that’s very important.
OKG: Your show in Norman is Tuesday, which seems like good timing to me, because Please Don’t Be Dead seems to be a lot about America.
F.N.: It’s a lot about America. I remember writing it when I was in Europe. I came up with the concept of, ‘Hey, wait a minute. America, please don’t be dead. I think the world may still need you, actually.’ The idea of America is fascinatingly great and wonderful — different people coming and getting together and creating a nation. As dysfunctional as it is, I think it’s still a great idea.
As artists, it’s great to be able to sit up there and express that. It’s a great platform to be an artist. There’s no real leaders or politicians really filling those roles. They’re all bought and paid for — on both sides, by the way. Dave Chappelle, I like what he does; Trevor Noah. You’ve got to get out there and get into it. You can’t sit on the line.
OKG: One of the interesting things about the album is that there are several songs, like “Bad Guy Necessity” and “The Suit Won’t Come Off” that work both on a political level and a personal level.
F.N.: Well, I wanted to write an album about what was going on around me, whether that is some beautiful woman with a great ass that was in my view or something else.
OKG: So does it work in a way where you would see a beautiful woman and be inspired to write a song right then and there?
F.N.: All the time. I’m looking at one right now. ... She’s from Connecticut. I just spoke to her a little bit. As I’m speaking to you now, I’m doing one of the most important things, which is getting into the Negrito wear.
OKG: Well, that’s very important.
F.N.: It’s important as an entertainer. I always want to make sure that when I get onstage I look good, you know?
OKG: Oh, yes. And your fashion is impeccable. I don’t know where you get that sense from.
F.N.: Well, I’m at Goodwill now. I like shopping at Goodwill, and then just other small designers that are important around cities and different towns. When you go to different towns you can find designers who help musicians look good.
Fashion is a very important part of what I do. Fantastic Negrito is like a superhero. I’m not always Fantastic Negrito. I think how you feel can really dictate how you perform. It can really dictate how you even write a song — the shoes that you’re wearing. I view that stuff as very important to me.
OKG: So it’s like stepping into your superhero costume with your cape and everything.
F.N.: Yeah, you’ve got to dress up. I used to feel that way when I was on the streets playing. I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re out here with your guitar; you’re like a superhero.’ People are trying to get home from a hard day’s work and you’re trying to relate to them, kind of. I think one of the best ways to test out your songs as a songwriter is to go out there in the street and play for people who don’t give a damn.