Fantastic Negrito’s music career hasn’t followed what anyone would call a linear path. As a teenager in the ’90s, he ran away from home and landed a major label deal at Interscope, only to be dropped by them after he survived a debilitating car crash. He thought his music career was over, but he rediscovered his passion and started busking on the streets of Oakland in his 40s. Winning the NPR Tiny Desk contest in 2015 brought him once again into the national spotlight. Fast forward to 2021, and he’s up for his third Grammy for his latest album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
“My life has been rocked with challenges and obstacles all along the way since birth. It’s normal to have things to not go as planned,” says Fantastic Negrito when I ask about the past year.
That’s not to say handling them has been easy. He says he previously made about 80% of his income from live shows, and was getting ready to head on a tour across Europe, Asia and South America when shelter-in-place orders came down in the Bay Area and the concert industry effectively shut down.
“I woke up one morning like, ‘Hey, you don't have any money coming in,’” he says. “I have mouths to feed—I have children, I have animals, I have it all.”
But instead of panicking, he steeled himself: “We have to rise to the challenge. I believe that, and I come from a long line of people who have done that.”
With touring canceled, Fantastic Negrito got online and revamped his merch store. He also began to craft a digital rollout strategy for Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, which came out in July. A crowdsourced video for the lead single, “Chocolate Samurai,” captured the stir-crazy mood of the first pandemic summer with footage of fellow musicians, friends and fans singing along inside their houses, looking slightly frazzled as they chase their children, work out to pass the time and tend to never-ending piles of dishes.
“I really got involved digitally with the album online because I knew people needed music and they’d be at home—so they needed even more music,” he says.
The approach worked. Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? hit No. 1 on Billboard’s blues chart. And support came in other ways: a grant from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and a gig at their virtual festival.
“They were one of the people who compensated their artists fairly,” Fantastic Negrito says, adding that he’s had to turn down numerous asks to perform for free.
Last month, Fantastic Negrito treated his U.S. fans to a virtual concert, and livestreams for his listeners in Europe and South America are also in the works. He’s also received commissions from the Oakland Roots soccer team and the local beer company Ale Industries, and flew to Atlanta to work on an undisclosed television project.
The time away from touring has also given him space to work on two ideas he’s had brewing for a while: his newly announced, genre-less independent record label, Storefront Records, which he started to develop artists who “do not want to be famous,” and Revolution Plantation, his urban farm. He hopes to expand Revolution Plantation into an educational nonprofit that teaches horticultural skills to Oakland kids, particularly kids of color. Teaching them to grow their own food and empower themselves, he says, is his way of affirming that Black lives matter.
“After the marches happen, then what? After the slogans and the signs, then what? What is tangible? That’s the good thing about the pandemic, and everything that happened this year,” he says. “It made me think, what can I do?”