In 1996, Xavier Dphrepaulezz was bound for superstardom. After being taken under the wing of Prince’s former manager, the guitarist had just signed a million-dollar deal with major label Interscope – not bad for a young man who grew up in a house with 14 siblings, ran away at the age of 12, and got involved in petty crime during his teens on the streets of Oakland, California.
But then life took another U-turn. His debut album was a flop. Then, in 1999, a near-fatal car accident put him in a coma and mangled his strumming hand; Interscope dropped him.
When Dphrepaulezz picked up his guitar again several years later, he had a new mantra: don’t try to please anyone and don’t chase trends. He reinvented himself as delta blues guitarist Fantastic Negrito, playing raw protest songs, dressing outlandishly, and making statements others might find uncomfortable.
This new direction has earned the 52-year-old the Grammy award for Contemporary Blues Album in 2017 and 2019, and praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders.
The Red Bulletin: What’s your aim when you write a song?
Fantastic Negrito: Basically, every song I write, I write for my kids. I ask myself, “What do I want to tell my kids?” The things I sing about are openness, equality, healing, accountability, a little bit of the middle finger. I think we need all of these things in our toolbox in order to navigate through this construct of society. Most importantly, I want them to know: don’t let anybody tell you what you can or can’t do.
Is that a rule you live by?
I mean, look at me! I released my first Fantastic Negrito album at 46. People in the music industry, they’re bean counters. They didn’t get it at all. They’re like, “Wait a minute, you’re not a rapper, you’re not a pretty white girl singing pop.” I didn’t fit into any of these categories, and yet here we are. So I like to think that Fantastic Negrito is for all the people who’ve been told no; all the people who didn’t get picked for the team.
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