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Fantastic Negrito: a funky journey into the age of slavery

Grammy winner Negrito’s provocatively titled new album, themed on his ancestry, is difficult to pigeonhole into a genre

Fantastic Negrito performing in Napa, California, in May.
Fantastic Negrito performing in Napa, California, in May. (Getty Images)

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If Fantastic Negrito does not win a Grammy for the Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2022, it may not come as a surprise. For his latest album, released early this month, is very different. Same artist. Totally different canvas.

Negrito is a blues master. In 2017, he won a Grammy in that category for his album The Last Days Of Oakland. In 2019, he won another in the same, Best Contemporary Blues Album, category for his album Please Don’t Be Dead. And then, in 2021, he won again (yes, in the same category) for Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

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Early this month, Fantastic Negrito released his sixth album, provocatively titled White Jesus Black Problems. It’s better than anything he has produced till date. But it won’t win a Grammy. At least not in the category he has been winning so far. Because Negrito, whose birth name is Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz (I tried pronouncing that last name and thanked the stars he decided to perform and record under the moniker he uses), has diverted his creativity so far away from his past endeavours in modern blues that it could even be difficult to realise that it is the same artist.

A bit of background, to start with. Fantastic Negrito, 54, burst upon the scene a bit late. Raised in Oakland, California, by a Somali Muslim father as one of his 15 children, he had a wild childhood, involving sale of drugs, some gang-type violence, and so on. Inspired by Prince’s music, however, he began trying his hand at music. In the mid-1990s, he got a record contract and released his first album. But after a near-fatal accident, he had to take a long break from making music. He got back to it in 2014, releasing a self-titled album.

The turning point came in 2015, when he won the NPR Tiny Desk Contest with a rousing performance. There has been no looking back. The three albums that won Grammys blend funk, soul and rock but are rooted in the blues, with a style that is all his own. His songs deal, variously, with urban life, racial tension and politics but they are always uplifting and full of energy. On stage, especially on the Tiny Desk video you can find on YouTube, he is a human dynamo, bursting with infectious adrenaline.

The most noticeable thing about the three Grammy-winning albums (besides the themes the lyrics touch upon) is Fantastic Negrito’s dedication to the blues. He is a true blues roots musician.  

Well, White Jesus Black Problems turns that perception on its head. It’s a musical sprawl that can leave you puzzled if you try to categorise its genre. There is a blues influence, of course, but there are many moments on the little under 42-minute album that can remind you of the psychedelic prog-rock bands such as Pink Floyd played. At other times, the maverick spirit of Frank Zappa seems to be invoked. And then there is the visionary, Kendrick Lamar style theme.

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The theme of the album is a story in itself. Researching his ancestry deeply, Fantastic Negrito arrived at the conclusion that among his direct ancestors way back in the mid-18th century was a Scottish woman, Elizabeth Gallimore, who was indentured as a servant in America. She fell in love with a black slave whose name history has erased but whom Fantastic Negrito recognises as his ancestor. As a result of his research, Negrito has discovered that he is 27% white. A union between a white woman and a black man in that era was illegal and the couple is likely to have faced inconceivable levels of ostracism, discrimination and suffering.

The new album deals with that. It comes with a 42-minute film on YouTube that features all the songs on the album, including bits of connective narration by the singer himself. The themes traverse slavery-related issues, the social stigma of interracial cohabitation, even connecting some of those things to current social themes and race-based discrimination and tension.

While the film, in black and white, is like a dramatic resurrection of a different era, interspersed with footage of Negrito and his band playing, it is the music on White Jesus Black Problems that stands out. It is a rich and brilliantly textured canvas, evoking so many different genres and styles that it can even seem borderline messy—but it is in that messiness that you can find delight.

Many concept or thematic albums require several listens before you truly start appreciating them. White Jesus Black Problems is one such album. Negrito is believed to have written or composed as many as 50 songs before he selected the 13 that make it to the album—and all of them are special. White Jesus will likely not be chosen as the Best Contemporary Blues Album at the next Grammys but it certainly is a winner.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    20.06.2022 | 10:00 AM IST
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