by Dom Jones
Full disclosure: both Fantastic Negrito and I claim the city of Oakland. At first, this is what drew me to him and his music, but over time, it was his story, his persistence, and his staunch independence (as he always says “the people are my label”) that made me a lifetime fan of his artistry. That’s why I was so excited when his cousin (and one of my acquaintances from Oakland) reached out to invite me to the show. I happily accepted and arrived at The Middle East Restaurant and Club early to hear the opening act. Starting the show was Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys, and they brought a bit of drama into the room, for those of us who don’t necessarily frequent Middle East enough to keep up with the culture of the venue and what’s happening behind the scenes. The band started their set by making a statement about apparent allegations of abuse that former staff and artists who have performed at the venue made against the owner and one of the booking managers. Bands have dropped out of performing at the club, patrons have started to boycott, and the club itself has issued a statement on its Facebook page addressing the allegations. This shifted the energy of the room as some applauded the band for using their platform to address major concerns by a portion of Boston’s art community, while others were visibly confused and unaware of the allegations. Stylistically, the band was a perfect fit as an opener for Fantastic Negrito and gave a rousing performance to the crowd, many of whom seemed very familiar with the band.
When Fantastic Negrito walked onto stage with a cane, I was concerned and curious. I couldn’t tell if he actually needed the cane or if this was some new part of his eccentric mystique. He would, about halfway through his set, admit to being in a great deal of pain, and needing both the cane and the stool that he would sometimes lean on throughout the performance. He talked about going to the emergency room as soon as the performance was over (which he did), but also said closer the end of his set that he felt no pain for the moment, though he knew he would as soon as the show was over. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Fantastic Negrito, he was in a near fatal car accident that permanently damaged one of his hands and left him in a coma for three weeks. Though he survived, he still has days where he feels pain, the night of his performance in Boston being one of them.
Performing songs from both his Grammy award winning album The Last Days of Oakland and music from his new album Please Don’t Be Dead, if he hadn’t admitted to being in pain, the untrained eye may have never even noticed. As a musician, it was difficult to know that he was in pain, and watch him give an astounding performance, full of soul, funk, rock, and blues… but it was also inspiring. It brought up the question of health and wellness for me. Many times, as artists, we are expected to take no sick days, no vacations, and even the glamorous moments in our lives must be monetized for more likes, clicks, and opportunities. Many musicians have no retirement plan, and in recent years, we’ve learned that some of the biggest stars have left no last testament and will. But much of Negrito’s performance was about perseverance and overcoming challenges and obstacles to be one’s greatest self. It’s a fine line, a tightrope that artists walk, sometimes putting their own wellbeing on the line to give their fans a great piece of work. I’ve performed through sickness and pain, and felt the adrenaline of doing something I love take that pain away temporarily.
A song that really resonated with me last night was “A Letter To Fear,” which talks about carrying on despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges we face as a society. And while Fantastic Negrito talked about the artist’s responsibility to be on the front lines of change, using their platform to inspire action, I wondered how we, as purveyors of important musical messages, could reconcile our responsibility to the world with our responsibility to our own wellbeing? For me, that question remains unanswered, but Fantastic Negrito is a remarkable example of an artist on the front lines, giving not just his voice, but his body as a sacrifice for the transformation of us all.