by Dom Jones
Fantastic Negrito is a hometown hero. When I heard he was coming to perform at the Red Room on Berklee’s campus – an artist from my town of Oakland, California, I went from my usual laid back self to a perked up fan. He independently released an album in June called “The Last Days of Oakland,” which debuted at number four on Billboard – an amazing feat not just because he’s an artist who isn’t on a major label, but he because he manages to so ingeniously introduce a new generation to the origins (blues, rock, soul, gospel) of all of the popular music we listen to now (R&B, hip-hop, pop) without diminishing or dumbing down important messages about what’s happening in Oakland and across the country. His candor in his music is both shocking and refreshing, as it’s more honesty than vulgarity. I had the chance to sit down with the artist for a more in-depth interview before the show:
DJ: So… Last Days of Oakland came out a month or two ago?
FN: June! It’s been like [since] June. You know it’s strange, I was talking to the publicist, and it just has legs. It just keeps on going. Came out in June, we debuted number four on Billboard, and I’m telling you, man, we have been going strong ever since. We toured Europe with it, now we’re touring the United States with it, and then after this month, we’ll tour with Temple of the Dog. We’re going to play Madison Square Garden, The Forum in LA, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, so it’s a pretty great year for “The Last Days of Oakland,” and Fantastic Negrito.
DJ: Tell me how you came up with that title.
FN: I was really into listening to the old black roots stuff. I was just really moved by it, for the first time in my life. I had heard this music all my life, but I had never really gravitated towards it. I just thought: people from our community don’t even know who Skip James is. They don’t know who Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton or Blind Willie Johnson [were] and all these people who were blowing my mind – even Leadbelly.
These people are just penetrating my soul, and I can feel the call of the ancestors. And I thought… “Fantastic Negrito,” and I thought that anytime someone asks me what that means, I want to say, “Skip James.” I wanna say, “Charlie Patton.” I wanna say, “Robert Johnson and Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf” and all these geniuses – American geniuses, Black American geniuses to be right on with it…
To be honest, I think that we came from a slave culture in this country and I think there’s a lot of shame around it. But I think that there’s a lot of amazing things that came out of it, and I don’t want those people that came over here to be treated like animals and sold. I think about stuff like that – I have a kid now – what if my kid were sold away from me? Well, that music came from a very dark place, and I feel like Fantastic Negrito [says] “We’re okay… we’re alright.” It has nothing to do with me, but it has to do with everything that came before me and how much love and respect and humility that I have.
I want to also add that it’s the people from England who gave it right back to us. When I was in England on the last trip, Robert Plant came to my show, and we had this great conversation. He was telling me, “Skip James, sure! I saw Skip James back in 1960” – whatever it was, and it’s amazing the far reach of black roots music. Here was Robert Plant, this kid in the 60’s and he’s listening to black soul music from America, and he’s from Birmingham [England]. I just thought [soul music] it’s got a hell of a hand. Look at the Rolling Stones, look at Jack Whiting, you can go down the list. And it’s beautiful that it’s all of our music. When I say black roots, I mean black roots for everybody. But I feel an obligation towards my own community because we don’t know our own geniuses.
DJ: My favorite song on the album is “Rant Rushmore.” When I first heard it, I was shocked. I thought that melodically, it was menacing, and then the hook comes and you say, “B***h, eat my cancer/then I’ll know we’re really dancing…” How did you come up with that?
FN: I spend a lot of time on lyrics. That song is particularly about the darker side of love – the things that we don’t want to talk about. What if I lost both my legs and my face was smashed in? Would you stick around? I think that song is really about that. And in no way does it mean any disrespect or demeaning of women. It has nothing to do with that. It just has to do with like, “F**K! Who wants to talk about that?!” I mean… nobody wants to talk about that. We want to talk about only the good things, the flowers and the candy, but I’ve been there. I was in a coma for three weeks, so it changed my view of love. Love is about being there when it’s not good for you, that’s love. If I’m done, and you’re still there for me, and you love me for me, that’s love.
DJ: There’s a lot of ageism in the music industry, and it’s almost like if we don’t hit by the time we’re 25, it’s not going to happen. What advice do you have for Berklee students?
FN: I’m hitting when I’m 45, still pretty! [laughs] I’m 48 now, what does that mean? Tiny Desk concert, I was the old dude. I beat all 20 year old hipsters. [Age] doesn’t mean anything. If you can move people, if you’re real, that’s what counts. If you want to make great music, if you want to be a contributor, that’s amazing and you’ll get a lot back. If you want to be a star, forget it. If you want to be a celebrity, forget it. If you want to write hit songs, forget it. You gotta not want, you gotta give. You gotta give yourself.
We concluded our interview, and I awaited the performance. A Berklee student band had the opportunity to open the show, and as I looked around the crowd, I noticed that the Red Room – usually brimming with the young Berklee crowd – was distinctly mixed with an older crowd tonight. It was the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen in the venue, and I suspect it is the general resonance of Fantastic Negrito’s music with humans from all walks of life that created such a mixed bag of people. What of the performance? It was exhilarating! For the educated music lover, you can definitely hear how these songs are referential to the black roots music of days gone by, but the phenomenal thing is that none of it sounds dated. Using his brotherhood of band members, Fantastic Negrito served as lead vocalist and guitarist, while his drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and second guitarist all sung background vocals on several songs. The outfit of the band was tight and high performing, with the lead artist even admitting that he’d taught them one of the songs we heard just earlier that day, and saying, “They’re nervous.” The amount of fun and joy that the band was experiencing was palpable and overflowed into the audience who danced and laughed along with them. As I watched, and sometimes sang along, it dawned on me – I think is Fantastic Negrito isn’t just illuminating black genius of the past (and his own genius), but trying to get all of us to tap into our own.
THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND IS AVAILABLE NOW! VISIT www.fantasticnegrito.com TO LEARN MORE. DID YOU MAKE IT OUT TO THE SHOW? SOUND OFF IN THE COMMENTS!