09 August 2016

Late night tracks / Fantastic Negrito

These days if I can't fall asleep, the last thing I want to do is stare at a computer screen. There are all kinds of studies these days that talk about the havoc wreaked by screens and modern electronics on our sleep cycles (for teens and the rest of us).

But here I am again, and my music of choice tonight is Fantastic Negrito. I might have first heard about him on NPR, but those are vague recollections. It was his first single, "About a Bird" (above), that hauntingly drew me in. I bookmarked it. I also bookmarked an article on Consequence of Sound, detailing his life story and the genesis of his album The Last Days of Oakland. I read it. I was intrigued. I then kept going, listening to the album in its entirety. I took a chance on him.

Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, isn't everyone's ideal bedtime music. His is a music of contrasts that's hard to pinpoint. There are ballad-like interludes alongside growling choruses. There's often a driving bass that borders on the roaringly hypnotic (especially present in the track "Lost in a Crowd"). It's a music that makes me listen closer, not only to the layered sounds but also to the lyrics. It's probably more likely to wake you up. Many of his songs are about racial and social justice (like in "Working Poor"), commentaries on society, reflections of a deep pain as well as exuberance.

It's essential to know Negrito's backstory. He's a man of three lives: from a sheltered orthodox Muslim Massachusetts childhood clashing with Oakland street life, to a chance at making it big in LA, to a life reborn after a near-fatal car crash. A tragedy that became a source of hope, "life after destruction." This radical change is reflected in the bluesy-folkish song "Night Has Turned to Day," released on his 2014 EP:

I ain't going back to the work
I ain't going back to the work
I ain't going back to the work plantation 
That's captured all the dreams of happiness
Gonna find the highest ground to stand on
3 lives is enough child
Night has turned to day
Night has turned to day
and it feels so good
There are references here and elsewhere to the labor of African slaves, made akin to the struggle to make ends meet or the dog race of unfulfilling work. That jubilant chorus reminds me of a rocking negro spiritual (and somehow of this, too). Another song from the EP, "A New Beginning" (worth a listen if only for the opening guitar riff), also clearly marks his transition, notably in these lyrics:
The King of Pop and Elvis died on the floor
But I don’t wanna sell what’s left of my soul
I need a new beginning
I’m headin' down the road
There are a bunch of these contrasts in his songs, transitions from old ways to new ones. Instead of trying to return to what he had before -- a phase of life that he describes as "creative death" and selling out -- he embarks on a quest to find and redefine himself. On his website, Negrito also says,

"Instinct is God’s tool that makes an artist into an individual."

Not copying someone else or following the flow -- but striking out on your own, finding your own voice in a very deep and real way.

It's this third life that resonates with me -- not because our upbringings were particularly similar (they are not) or our cultures alike (different kinds of minority here), but the way that a personal tragedy can become so much fodder for genius. He landed in a coma for weeks, then endured painful physical therapy to regain movement in his legs. His playing hand was mutilated. His career literally crashed and burned. But he learned to play again and eventually find inspiration from a truer place than before. Sounds like he's going back to his spiritual and musical roots.

/ / /

P.S. If you're curious what his old sound was like, check out a song like "Without You," released in the 90's under the name Xavier on the album X-Factor. Or try "Cinnamon Girl." After listening to The Last Days of Oakland, I can see why Negrito wants to distance himself from these older tracks. They're not terrible. I just feel like they transport me back to a middle school dance floor -- awkwardness, syrupy pop, and all.

Most ironically, around that time Negrito was quoted in an LA Times article as saying:
'"I just take things one day at a time," he said. "I'm just thankful that I have my legs, my arms, my eyes. . . . I don't have any physical problems. I try to be as positive a person as possible. People forget about simple things. If you're fully functional, you can do anything."'
Four years later came the car crash and coma, the utter opposite of "fully functional." And yet it's this brokenness that lead the Fantastic Negrito to the more solid place where he is today. Sounds like a kind of redemption.

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