Fantastic Negrito’s Journey from Drug Dealer to Blues Musician and Bernie Spokesman

By Paul Gaita 08/08/16

The self-taught musician's transformation from teenage drug dealer to blues sensation is nothing short of spectacular.

Fantastic Negrito’s Journey from Drug Dealer to Blues Musician and Bernie Spokesman
Photo Bernie 2016/YouTube

Bernie Sanders supporters who attended rallies for the Vermont senator’s presidential bid in various states may have also gotten their first glimpse at the artist Fantastic Negrito (born Xavier Dphrepaulezz) a Los Angeles-based modern blues musician. Sanders heard his “Working Poor” and enlisted him to fire up the crowds at his events in those states.

The Sanders rallies were just the latest in a seemingly endless series of transformative events in the life of Dphrepaulezz, who rose from dealing drugs as a teenager on the streets of Oakland, California, to initial stabs at fame as a neo-soul singer in the ‘90s, to a car accident that nearly ended his life. The incident provided the performer with a doorway to his current incarnation as Fantastic Negrito, whose “blues with a punk attitude” won the 2015 NPR Tiny Desk Contest and earned the attention of critics and listeners, including Sanders.

Before any of these laurels came his way, Dphrepaulezz was one of 15 children living in rural Massachusetts with his father, a restaurateur and strict Muslim who brought the family to Oakland in the late ‘70s. There, Dphrepaulezz fell into selling drugs after leaving home to live on the streets with a group of friends. “We were all selling drugs,” he told the Guardian. “We all carried pistols. I was the kind of kid who would sell fake weed, shit like that.”

He began teaching himself how to write and play at the age of 18, honing his skills by pretending to be a student at the University of Berkeley, where he would sneak into music rooms and watch other students practice. Dephrepaulezz ultimately headed for LA, where he scored a record deal with Interscope. But his funk-fueled 1996 debut album earned few listeners, and he drifted through the industry for three years until a car accident left him in a coma for three weeks, with lasting physical injuries. After a stint as a club owner and a member in various musical acts, including the punk-funk band Blood Sugar X, Dephrepaulezz struck upon the blues as a musical outlet after calming his crying son with a few acoustic chords.

He began writing songs in that style, that merged the classic blues tradition with his own tumultuous past—in the song “Night Turned to Day,” he sings, “I saw people die for nothing/I sold coke to hungry eyes.” This led to the Tiny Desk Contest, performances at SXSW and his album released in June, The Last Days of Oakland, as well as appearances with Sanders on the campaign trail. Of the former presidential candidate, Dephrepaulezz said, “I’m honored to support a man who’s stood for the same things throughout his life. A man who is really in it to fight for those of us who have the least. He represents the working poor.” It’s a stance he supports in his own work and his long path to current success. “I thought my story was over,” Dephrepaulezz told the Guardian. “But that was when I realized I finally had a story to tell—and it seems to remind people of their own story.”

Here's Fantastic Negrito performing "Lost in a Crowd":

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.