On March 14th our friend and Change the Story guest Xavier Dephrepaulezz, also known as Fantastic Negrito will hear if he has garnered his 3rd Grammy in 5 years for his 2020 release Have you Lost Your Mind Yet.
To help nudge the stars into alignment for Xavier we are re-broadcasting our Episode 6 conversation with him. This Episode not only includes great music and, of course, FANTASTIC stories, but also, an inspiring dialogue on next steps for the coming community revival.
What is the danger of scapegoating?
Well, of course, that's the biggest lie ever sold, not told. There should be a class on that. That is how every civilization has controlled other nations and its populace, from Genghis Khan. The Chinese say Genghis Khan was the bad guy that’s going to get us (he actually did get you). You know that. Yet the Romans did it. You know, everybody does. We do it.
Is music a change agent?
Music's a change agent, film is a change agent, art is a change agent, a bakery's a change agent, a coffeehouse is a change agent, a conversation is a change agent. They're all change agents, but the most important change agent is in your heart. That's the thing that changes the world. Change your heart and change the world.
What do white folks and black folks need to talk about?
But we got to at some point talk to each other. I want to do, a town hall like this. And I want the white people to stand the fuck up and say, you know what? I'm kind of scared of you guys. We need that shit, and the black people; don't you don’t call the person a racist.
What's next for Oakland?
What I'm doing right now is trying to build this hotel and this whole all these blocks in the California hotel, boutique hotel. The first African American town.
Have you Lost Your Mind Yet: Fantastic Negrito's latest album
The Suit that Won't Come Off. : YouTube link to a cut from Please Don't Be Dead.
Watts Prophets: Legendary west coast pioneers of the new music form with ancient roots, that has come to be called rap. Amde Hamilton, Otis O'Solomon, and Richard Dedeaux first met at the Watts Writers Workshop. Fusing music with jazz and funk roots, and rapid-fire, spoken-word poetry, they created a sound has deeply influenced the course of music and poetry in the US and the world. They released two albums, 1969's The Black Voices: On the Streets in Watts and 1971's Rappin' Black in a White World, which established a strong tendency toward social commentary and a reputation for militancy. (See also: Art & Upheaval, W. Cleveland, NYU Press, Chapters 11-13)
Native American Community Development Institute: A Minneapolis based community deveopment organization that was "founded on the belief that all American Indian people have a place, purpose and a future strengthened by sustainable community development. NACDI initiates projects that benefit the Native community, often in partnership with other Indigenous-led organizations."
Bill Cleveland: It's early 2015, and I'm sitting in my living room watching the rain and wind turn my windows into a drip collage of streaking grays and greens. The phone rings, its daughter, Heather. As usual, she's quick. She says, “I just shot you a text with a link. Just watch and listen and I'll call you later”.
It was a YouTube page with the NPR logo on a frozen frame of four musicians crammed into what looked like an abandoned freight elevator behind a small makeshift desk. As I move to click, I'm thinking, “Desk? Oh, yeah, tiny desk.” Then this hit me.
I'm knocked out. This was a one mike, one take video with the pulsing power of a locomotive. That tall, skinny guy up front with the voice that stretches like a rubber band says, “Get through the day, don't drown.” But I'm drowning --- in a good way--- in the music.
Part One: Griot
Heather tells me his name is Xavier. XD lives down the street from Heather, with his wife and kids, and from time to time, their families hang out. I thank her for the gift of connection. Since winning the tiny desk, things have more than taken off for Examiner, who goes by Fantastic Negrito on stage. Two Grammys for best contemporary blues albums in 2016 and 2018 have fueled non-stop global touring and an international fan base.
It's also given Xavier a platform as a change maker in his beloved hometown of Oakland, California. Over the past few years, Xavier and I have connected over both music and a shared passion for the power of imagination and story to make a difference for struggling people and communities. Xavier's own story exemplifies this belief and commitment. One of 14 children, Xavier, grew up with an obvious musical bent and a seemingly smooth road to musical notoriet. But a near fatal car crash that put him in a three-week coma, and left him with a disfigured hand, provided a hardscrabble detour that has spawned the birth of Fantastic Negrito’s one of a kind explosion of 21st century roots music.
We met together at his studio a few weeks before the pandemic tilt. Actually, I was just realizing the last time we were together, you were doing the same thing for the second album as you're doing for the third. So, I'm going to fire away with some questions and look, Xavier. Yes. What is it you do in the world?
Xavier Dphrepaulezz: I feel like I serve as a healer. I feel like I serve as a person in the community that has something to contribute to the narrative, that has something to contribute to the human saga. I feel like I'm an artist and musician. I tell stories that I hope are helpful to people. My new record is called Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? And a lot of it is based on people. My other albums were based on this big thing that I'm trying to fight the system, proliferation of pills, and last days of Oakland’s gentrification, and this big thing that's happening. But this record is about people, and it's the hardest record I've ever made because it's not something big that you're fighting, that you're imagining is your problem, your nemesis. It's the people, right? The community. It's the engineer you're working with. It's your buddy. It's yourself. So, I write stories about people, places, and things, and hope that they are contributing then medicinal to people's lives.
BC: So, you have told your life's story many times eloquently. But, there are many musicians who would not articulate their work in the way that you just did. Talk to me how you came to that definition of your work.
XD: Well, through a lot of failure. Did a lot of trials, jubilation, doubt, crime. Yeah, a lot of really negative things and overcoming a lot of obstacles. You know there's going to be obstacles, but the problem is, how do we deal with it? You know, I mean. So, I think I've arrived here especially. Have you lost your mind yet? Because, you know, we're now in this period man, we're just getting all this information, and I don't know if we're really meant to handle all this information, but I think people are there's record levels of anxiety and mental illness. It's not the mental illness of people walking down the street talking to themselves. Those people are probably actually OK, because in living in this insane video game world that we're living in, where we're justifying who we are based on, how many views do you have? How many likes you have? Well, how many followers do you have? We're now validating ourselves based on those statistics, which are really quite irrelevant because how many followers did Hitler have? He had a lot of. Yes, he did. How many followers did Michael Jackson have? And he and he got on the floor. Yes. You know, I mean, so how many followers in Prince that many followers get to the younger generation? How many followers did Juice World have? The guy who died, Twenty-one years old, riding in his own parade with 70 pounds of marijuana and he overdoses on Promethazine, dizzying or whatever that is. I mean, heck, out of that answers a question.
BC: No, it does, and actually, I mean, the wit the way you describe it is that you've gone from the from the big story, the broad story, the universal story here, the obvious confrontations that we're having on a regular basis on the front page of the newspaper, and now you're looking, I mean, in essence…
XD: Now I’m looking at you.
BC: Yes. And you're also… what you're doing, is you're going hyper local…
XD: I like that because then the ball's in your court.
BC: Yeah, well, it's also touched. You can touch and feel and see. So, here's a question related to that. At the end of the day, what is it that you want to have happen as a result of your work?
XD: What I would love to have happen is to help bring about some balance, because I think that in the end is what it's all about. I'm a parent, I'm a member of this human community, and I would like to do what I think human beings feel most fulfilled. When they contribute, and have a voice, and hopefully help make a difference, and hopefully all the things that have not stopped me because there's been a lot of things that were supposed to, I can now use them as a means to teach our youth, and that's I think that's what this life is. It's about we live, we get beat up, we go through it, we go through, and then we're older than we can help. The others come, and we can make that road easier.
BC: There's a word for that. You know, Griot that is adapted by many cultures who have basically recognized that in their traditions, the older you get, the more you might have to pass on to one who is younger.
XD: Well, you're more valuable, but, yes, you know, I don't think we do that here in the weather. Well, I think that that's you know, you got to live outside of the box if you want to be successful in America. Sure. It's a great country, but I’ll tell you what, you better live outside the box here.
BC: So, in in your work, how do you know when the thing you just described, which is making a contribution and bringing potentially some balance? How do you know when that's happening?
XD: I know it's happening when I don't fear the kids walking down the street, because I know I've done my part and you can feel the vibration because we fear these kids, these kids that come in, they look scary now that they sag and all that. You know, I feel like when I feel kind of comfortable, I feel like, you know, this is something much bigger than all this stuff that's happening, and I know I've done my part where I can look them in the eye I like this. I'm doing my part. I'm not scared of you, I love you, and I'm here for you. You understand? I've said and I know it when I can look in the mirror. I know it. I can sleep at night when I don't have a guilty conscience. I know it when I'm not judging people who haven't been as fortunate as I am, which is a quite popular thing to do these days. Yeah and I'm the hardest person I've got to face every day here. So long as I know that I'm doing it right. You know, I'm on asshole in the room, you know, and I've got to get past this dude and make him make the right decision. But that's how it is here. I don't fear these so-called predators on the streets.
BC: So, when you're in the music, do you see the visceral evidence of this kind of change in front of you?
XD: Well, I don't think I see it. I think I feel it. The feeling one thing about music or creativity is you feel it because it's you're channeling into these… This is…I didn't do nothing. I need to say that I ain't done nothing. These seeds are planted a long time ago. I come from a whole long line of people man. that laid this down way before me. And I didn’t even know all of ‘em. People laid this shit down, I've said it before in Black Panthers laid it down. The Hells Angels laid it down. Whether you like them or not, they laid it down. The Grateful Dead laid it down. Sly laid it down, you know Too $hort laid it down. The guy at Cal Berkeley in the 80s who got me off the street and had me boxing and laid it down. The people that came here in the 30s from the Dust Bowl, they laid down, the Chinese people that came to build railroads. This has been getting laid down for us for so long. And then you could connect with those vibrations. Then you can feel your purpose and can feel life happening and when you touch it, that you're in pretty good shape. Cause there's a lot of protection in that context.
BC: So, the image that comes into my mind is an archaeologist going through layers and layers and layers of stories, of stories layered on top of one another, not emerging from nowhere.
XD: From nowhere. That's bullshit. People make that up are insane.
BC: But they're entrepreneurs.
XD: Yeah, you're right there. I just had an engineer I'm working with is from Argentina and he just said that this morning. He said there's a lot of things imposed on us that are people who want to make a lot of money. Isn't this young Argentinean dude? It's the universe. But we know, therefore, we can't get out of our own fucking way. There's this fear because I'm scared of you and you kind of scared of me, and you come from here, and I come from there, and they tell us “you’ve got to watch out for these black people”, and “hey man, the white people are trying to kill you” and “you getting the flu shot. Oh, no, don’t do that”, “immunization, oh no those white people, they are coming to get you”, “hey the Mexicans are coming” […] You got a lot of that shit, you got a lot of that shit. And that's a bunch of fucking bullshit.
BC: It is.
XD: Excuse my language.
BC: No, no, no.
XD: It really is, and so we got to fight that shit. Yes. And that shit is us. Yes. I got to look in the mirror. I got to go, man. I got to say have you then your mind, I’ve got to do that. Because when we can do that, when I can talk to you and look at you and shake your hand, when I can have dinner with you…How come can can’t have dinner? Why? Because they go “oh fuck, I’ve got to clean this, oh shit. Listen, I got to text this, and I got to do this. Oh shit. Wait, how many likes do I have…” And we don't even talk to each other. We don't look at each other.
BC: So, here's an interesting thing to think about. The human species evolved as a as a mechanism for cooperation. That's how we're wired.
XD: It's how we are wired.
BC: It is how we survived. As we become more isolated into the world of likes. Which is not a relationship.
XD It's slavery. It's called voluntary slavery.
BC: It is the tyranny of comfort and pseudo information and pseudo relationships.
XD: Pseudo information is the word, because it is not information.
My dad was like, there's no television in his African accent, “you can not watch television, you read the book”. So I've read books for hours laying there, fucking reading books and I got to know some stuff through it. But now it “Siri, tell me, what's the capital of Uzbekistan. You kno, Pakistan. You know, I mean, it's I think that's bullshit. It's not knowledge. So then let's talk about Uzbekistan. You can’t. Who are they? How they become? you know. I mean, you know, there's no reason. You said it. Pseudo information.
BC: And they have children. They love each other. They have families. They're struggling with the exact same question. How do I make my family safe and how do I thrive in the world?
XD: Can I tell you man, last year I had six continents, and I can't tell you how real that is. It's a real. The same thing. Same.
Part Two: A Letter to Fear
BC: Your songs are stories. Okay, so can I just have mentioned some of your stories here. So, who is Benny Walker?
XD: It's actually my uncle Benny, who is a notorious… It’s my grandmother's brother, so that’s called my granduncle. After that, whatever his grandmother brother, he's a tall good-looking dude, mulatto, looking to from deep southern Virginia. Those are the summers I used to spend in deep southern Virginia, which really gave me a lot of my sound later. But Uncle Benny was a slick dude, and man he liked the ladies, liked to drink painted on mustache. Yeah, he was his character. Very quiet, very soft spoken. He moved up to Harlem and was doing all kinds of stuff there. Owned a hotel in Harlem. He was doing all kinds of deals on the side. So, Uncle Benny, you know I got all these people, characters that I grew up with. You couldn't write this dude into a movie. They wouldn't believe.
The greatest hater of all time. He talked to Grandma like, I was in shit like this boy was a drug dealing maniac from Oakland and I was coming to Virginia and he just was like, how does this kid have money? You don't have a job. He knew. So, I said he's a hater. But, you know, he wasn't a hater. He's trying to protect. But the same time, he did his dirt too.
BC: So, this is the song, you know, that this bad by necessity thing, this if you don't have a devil, you can't be saved.
XD: Well, of course, that's the biggest lie ever sold, not told. There should be a class on that. That is how every civilization has concreted controlled other nations and its populace, from Genghis Khan. The Chinese say Genghis Khan was the bad guy that’s going to get us (he actually did get you). You know that. Yet the Romans did it. You know, everybody does. We do it.
BC: Twisting an already wired in impulse, that something we're not familiar with might be dangerous.
XD: It's a good sales point. There's one percent of us that are just kind of clever. I hate to say it, and kind of heartless. Man, I could do all kinds of shit, I always think they should have to do. Damn, I could do that. I could steal that copy. Do that. It just ain't in me. I could have been a pimp. I don’t like that. I don’t like it. I'm not worried that way. But I know I grew up with some dudes that were killers. Bill, they were fucking cold hearted killers. But I couldn’t do i. I had the gun that was used to rob me, and you know, that story and I couldn't do it. It's like you got to go get him. They did rob me, they humiliated him, they took 50 grand from me. I can't do it. I can't.
BC: So that cold November Street. So, there's this boy who isn't really there.
XD: Yes, there's a boy who's not really there, I think I was talking about myself as a runaway boy. He is a man, because I had to live on the streets at 12, and I saw everything, and sometimes I had to be like, I'm not here. I saw a lot of things that children shouldn't see.
BC: Would you envis-
XD: Yes. And yes. I don't why people don't want to hear it. And I wrote a song called The Suit that Won't Come Off.
Automatically, It's a trip. I got to be… It’s in this country mostly, because I’ve been in, I noticed this. You know, this is on our minds as black people. I'm in Japan, I'm on the elevator, I'm like, what's going to happen? Nobody grabs that purse. Nobody is scared. I'm in France. The beautiful, beautiful French white girl humming] Going to her hotel, I mean her apartment you know that if you've been to France. Yes. And they're right there on the street, “O Bon soir”, like just so kind. I was like “fuck’… Those old white lady in England, man, midnight. I'm out here walking doing my thing. No fear, Bill. No fear of me. And I was like, holy fuck, yes, that should change. I'm in Istanbul. I'm walking down the street. They come up. What are you from? You come to eat with us. Sit down. And I’m like fuck, fuck, fuck. He treated me like I'm human and not scared of me. I believe black males, by the time we get into our 50s are nervous system is so fucked up from this shit.
BC: It's internalized.
XD: It's so bad.
XD: Because you are just tired of it. Second guessed, but mostly the fear thing. Look, when I was two years old, this was the first time a policeman put a gun on and I remember I said this, this guy scared me. This big, strong, light, powerful…
BC: -needs to pull out a gun.
XD: And I was shocked. Do you understand me? Like, I was shocked that this dude fears me. Like Why? I’m not… and I remember when I was 16, another guy stopped me in Berkeley, I just had my license. Right on University, Liberal Ass Berkeley stops me for whatever reason and was like “got a license? He walks back to his car like this.
We live in that fucking world. I live in the world. I live in the Oakland Hills and I see Black Lives Matter signs on white people's lawns. But they're looking at me like “is he going to rob me?
BC: Exactly. What's he doing here?
Yeah, and then this. So, we got to live with that, and I can preach a sermon for ten hours on that, but do we as black people help perpetuate that sometimes? That is some real shit, like what are we teaching our kids at? And I say we all of us, they being talking like “yeah, you know, get up her motherfucking nigga, I’m saggin’, I’m hard nigga…” Why we keep passing that shit on? You got to be hard, got to get mad.
I kiss my son every day I tell I love him, I grab his hand, kiss him, kiss his face like we as black people do this some accountability. People want to hear that shit. Bill, that makes them uncomfortable when I say that. But there's something, it's a two-way thing. We're doing this thing in America.
BC: All humans have to be accountable
But we got to at some point talk to each other. I want to do, a town hall like this. And I want the white people to stand the fuck up and say, you know what? I'm kind of scared of you guys. We need that shit, and the black people; don't you don’t call the person a racist. Well, let's start to talk why? This is why I feel that way. Well, man, I'm doing all this because… tell him why. Then we can know each other. Come on, black kids, if you look at the statistics, you know what it is? You white people got nothing to fear because we kill each other. Yes. Statistically, we don't fuck with y’all. So that part, it's really interesting to me, like the role. And then go into other countries and nobody fucking figures and nobody. You don't know what that's like, brother. No, it's a fucking.
BC: I hear you, and it's both a relief, but also a shock to have it not be there.
XD: It's a shock.
BC: So, you called fear out in A Letter to Fear?
XD: I did
BC: …And in many ways, all that all that posturing is a fear response of the fear of being feared. Of knowing that you're in this endless cycle and no way to control.
XD: But hold on. No, I think we have…I think I have something to do it, and I have a way to control it. Want to know I can do it? Again, I'm boring. I warn you; I look into the fucking head and I've got to deal with that dude, and if everybody if we can all look into the mirror every day, I think it's going to… We have a lot of control. We have so much power, Bill. We got so much power. But we don't know what that how to use it all the time, but, man, I have a lot to do with that cycle because I got a boy. And it's up to me how I raised this boy.
BC: You don't want him to grow up with that thing on him.
XD: He won't. He won't. Because I'm making sure, and so does Heather's husband. So, think about it. We do, we have we have some power. You have some power. The machine tells you to fear people like me, but your like, come on, my grandkids. Come on. It's not like that. My kids, my grandkids.
BC: My kids, my grandkids, and even all the guys in prison that I've met for ten years.
XD: Right, its like come on. There’s bad, it's some scary motherfuckers. But come on.
BC: But we have a we have a duty, actually, to be discerning about what's dangerous and not dangerous. Let me, let me cut to some music. Some musical. There's a thing you do, and I’m trying to think that one of the places that it's just really, really blew my mind the way you do it. There's a song, A Letter to Fear. Now, there's a long history and a long tradition that humans have in situations of conflict is to is to make music, to make solidarity and to and to basically change the fear dynamic into the thriving, embracing, bold, audacious that perhaps the dynamic.
XD: My grandmother told me, because I used to be …lot. She's like, oh, about blues, honey you know white people thought we were sad. We weren't sad. You know, when she said that I didn't know what it meant at 16. But as I thought about it, every year life that they were coping. It's a power. It's a power. It's.
BC: So, here's the thing that you do over and over, and actually, one of the things that I noticed is it's a musical strategy. But I'm sure it's….
XD: I'm interested, what do I do?
BC: You have a verse that is hard, it's got an edge to it […] and then you segway into a place of beauty.
XD: Yes, exactly. I think I do that maybe my subconscious, but you are absolutely [right]. You know, because I've had criticism from some people who've been like “man, why don’t you just keep it hard the whole time”?
BC: I will carry on. That line.
XD: Whatever you do to me, I will carry on.
BC: To me, it's like I'm like this, and then I melted and then I'm like this, and then I am melting.
XD: But I want to tell you, you know, something is that every song I write is for children, my children, your children. I want to say to them again, I have some control over this, and everything gets better. My son sometimes says, “you know, this is not fun”. I'm like, “you know what? Everything's not supposed to be fun”. You know, that's life. That's what we do, you know every day. It's not sunny. You know.
BC: But it goes, I mean, the thing that I hear you doing is you're almost saying I'm both these things. I can be angry. I can be contentious, […] but I have a heart here [indistinguishable chatter].
It's the only way. If you have a bridge or a chorus here, if you have two hard pieces, you have to have the other thing.
XD: Yeah, you have to or you get or it turns into gangsta rap.
Then what does that do? That's promoting, look what happened to Tupac? I mean Tupac was a nice kid. His mother was a Black Panther from all these progressive roots. I want to be hard. I want to be hard. So, he goes out and he beats up a gangster with about 20 people and guess what? That’s a bad move, because Tupac guess what? That’s a real gangster and now you die. Yeah, true, it's a good observation.
Part Three: Oakland
BC: So, cutting to the chase, one of your major characters, the big character is Oakland. There are lots of places whose story or two are told ad nauseum. The Oakland story is like this vein of gold.
XD: I agree.
BC: But it's at least in my mind, it's only there if you cast your gaze on those hyper local characters and neighborhoods.
XD: It's all right here. It's all right here. I agree, that's why I record my records here, and say I won't leave. People are like, “you to go to L.A.” You know, I struggle people don’t know but I struggle sometimes. I'm raising three kids, but you know what, I believe man. It's all right here, and we're going to make it, and we're growing, and now more people are coming. It's getting really good. This is the best year I've had, just in terms of this growth and really just seeing that this thing is music, it's film, it's art. It's all these things that are coming together. I've got three film people in there, and with this record I did a documentary. Have You Lost Your Mind, and we shot the whole thing.
BC: Fantastic. That is great. So, you have a history of working in collective.
XD: I do. I grew a lot of weed in collectives. But it's good that worked out. You know what, my southern roots my…I said grandma in the south, tell me about segregation. Tell me about how it was, how the white man was evil, and it shocked me. My grandmother, she goes “honey, we didn't really have the problems with white people […] because we had our own. We didn’t have to ask anybody for it”. And I was like, wow. She's like “your great grandpa, we had farms, we had hogs, we had this…We go out in the forest. We cut our own Christmas tree”, and I'm like damn. But they were a family, in a group of people. They own their own property. But I think that really inspires me.
BC: Didn't you know the name Richard Dedeaux? He was one of the Watts Prophets. He tells that story of dozens of well. He says, I came west. I lost a completely self-sufficient communities that I came from.
XD: Exactly, and we need to get back to that. I've got a whole story and that. What I'm doing right now is trying to build this hotel and this whole all these blocks in the California hotel, boutique hotel. The first African American town. Now I'm working on it with some pretty big investors, and I'm trying to make it as.
BC: He did that in Minneapolis with the Native American can be Native American and. And I mean, basically they said this renting doesn't work. We've got to own-
XD Be like Chinatown.
BC: Exactly. We need to own our own stuff. We hire our own people. We tell our own story. We celebrate our own story right here.
XD: What's the name of the community?
BC: It is Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis […] and it's the largest urban Native American community in America. And they created the Native American Community Development Institute, and he's a community developer, and basically, the approach was culture first, culture first. Ownership, food, celebration, getting rid of the liquor stores are smart and they marched down the street, right?
XD: No, I love about that is this was a liquor store in notoriously bad. Ho, ho, ho. This is I hated this place, Bluebird Liquors.
BC: One last question. Is music a change agent?
XD: Absolutely. Music's a change agent, film is a change agent, art is a change agent, a bakery's a change agent, a coffeehouse is a change agent, a conversation is a change agent. They're all change agents, but the most important change agent is in your heart. That's the thing that changes the world. Change your heart and change the world.
BC: Amen to that, and amen to coming full circle back to the power of griot work. Tell the Story, share the lesson and the history, and touch the heart. That's what makes it indelible.
Shortly after our conversation when our twin plagues turned the world inside out, Xavier asked his global community to share video's in response tot he question posed in the title song of his new album. "Have you lost your mind yet?" Here's a taste.