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Bluesman Fantastic Negrito sings of America's working poor

By Alison Hird

Californian bluesman Xavier Dphrepaulezz aka Fantastic Negrito plays black roots music, with punk attitude, for everyone. His album The Last Days of Oakland won this year's Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album. RFI caught up with the self-taught guitarist, whose songs about America's working poor have been praised by the likes of Bernie Saunders, at the Afropunk festival in Paris in July.

Dphrepaulezz first played Afropunk in the US 12 years ago, in basements in the Lower east side and warehouses in Los Angeles.

"We really needed that platform," he says ahead of performing at the Paris event, "for what I call black roots music which is what I consider I do. So much music has spawned out of that garden."

As a bluesman he feels perfectly at home at a festival which spans hardcore metal and soul.

"Punk to me means not fitting in, counter culture, and I think there was nothing more punk than the early blues musicians," he explains. "One of the reasons I call myself Fantastic Negrito [a Spanish term of affection meaning black boy] was because I know I can shine the light on where this music came from; heroes like Robert Johnson and "Skip" James, Charlie Patton, these early pioneers who started this."

Bluesman Fantastic Negrito, at the Paris Afropunk Paris, July 2017 RFI/HIRD

The hustler turned musician

There's plenty of material in Dphrepaulezz's life to nourish the blues: absent father, poverty, drugs, a prevalent gun culture which lost him close friends and family members.

"I come from poor," he says, but doesn't see himself in the same light as so many of the working poor he writes about on his award-winning album The Last Days of Oakland. "Toiling endlessly for someone else to make someone else very wealthy just to make ends meet, I refused that a long time ago. And wanted to become an artist."

So in his last year at high school he hustled his way into music school.

"I would dress up and go to the university, sneak into the piano practice rooms and listen to what was going on around me. It’s kinda how I learned to play."

He claims it was the American way of doing things.

"The whole foundation was hustled. So I think that we are a nation of hustlers. It’s not always in a negative way, it’s how we survive and get by. You have to hustle friendships, relationships, so you can live, breathe and eat. And be a valuable human being."

Lost in a crowd

One of the most successful songs on the album is Lost in a crowd, winner of the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest 2015.

"When I wrote the song Lost in a crowd I wanted to take the focus off myself and I walked into the streets of San Francisco and Oakland and I just watched people: I watched people be happy and frustrated, I watched them in the state America is in where people work endlessly just to pay their rent and I watched what I thought was broken in America and it really inspired me to do that song."

Push back is a recent composition. "As a contributor to the human family I think we need to use our power and platforms to connect with people, especially when politicians won’t, they’re more in the game of deception," he says.

Hostile to President Donald Trump, he feels it's time now more than ever for artists to share their experiences and perception. "It’s extremely helpful. Every human being on this earth has a soundtrack or a song or an artist that they can relate to because of what that artist has contributed. And we need to keep that tradition alive."

So who does he most relate to? "Maybe Robert Johnson, that’s my hero now [...] that’s the genius that’s the fuel in my motor."

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