Keeping it in the family
The moment Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz found himself on the path to uncovering an incredibly powerful story – one flowing through his bloodline – is the day the world stood still for the artist better known as Fantastic Negrito.
Quarantined in an Atlanta motel room while working on the soundtrack for an upcoming TV show Dphrepaulezz was going through a similar phase to most during this lockdown time – pursuing his heritage. The further back he went, he noticed that as the faded photographs kept appearing, each one held a familiar air – one of freedom.
He stumbled upon the story of two folks joined by an incendiary love that not even the slave laws of the South could upend. Dphrepaulezz’ fourth album as Fantastic Negrito – White Jesus Black Problems – was born at this moment and with it a sense of destiny and identity colliding; creative synapses set to trigger 270 years after these events took place.
The record is an ambitious project that pulls together both social injustice and romance through the story of Dphrepaulezz’ seventh generation grandparents – Scottish indentured servant Elizabeth Gallamore and an unnamed slave, christened Grandfather Courage on the album. Their forbidden relationship is a simple love story and one which in turn led to future generations of their family being born as free African-Americans – including Dphrepaulezz.
Born into an orthodox Mulism household in western Massachusetts – a land toting the sparkling promise of liberty and justice for all (terms and conditions apply) – Oakland, California resident Dphrepaulezz has lived many lives. He was 12 when his family decamped to the Sunshine state and ended up leaving home not long after. Becoming entrenched in the Bay Area’s clashing punk/hip-hop/street scenes, Dphrepaulezz’s own story is enough to warrant a call from Hollywood.
He began selling drugs as a teenager in Oakland but it was in the practice rooms at the University of California that Dphrepaulezz began playing properly. He would sneak in at night, and learn to play music in stolen moments. His lifestyle was cut short after being held up at gunpoint and he swapped out UC Berkley for LA, becoming an independent songwriter for hire after knocking around the studios until the doors finally opened for him. One of his demo tapes landed him a major-label bidding war and he eventually signed with Interscope.
Soon after, tragedy struck – a near-fatal car crash ended with Dphrepaulezz in a three-week coma and the loss of his right hand. The label dropped him after just release; 1996’s The X Factor, released under the name Xavier.
He bounced around with various musical projects including multimedia collective Blackball Universe before deciding to draw a line on his musical career in 2008 and selling his equipment. The break was only temporary; his newborn son soon required some late-night soothing, leading Dphrepaulezz back to a guitar which had been stowed away.
His return to music as Fantastic Negrito proved fruitful, delivering a trio of albums and winning three Grammys. A 2015 Tiny Desk concert remains a course in the power of showmanship and shows Dphrepaulezz channelling music as if nothing else exists.
Dphrepaulezz is someone who knows how to get things done. Wholly self-sufficient – from the farm he lives on, to the record label he runs (Storefront Records) and his eye for talent within his ranks (most of the figures in the accompanying film for White Jesus Black Problems are band members) – he knows his life is in his hands.
While all the questions that flew to the front of his mind in that motel room can’t be answered, truthfully, it was less about the search for identity than it was the realisation of one. Having always been true to himself, Dphrepaulezz’s understanding of this was always wildly independent, but it turns out it was in his DNA.
“I was very surprised to find out I was 27% European,” he marvels. "That's a pretty big chunk. It was very moving in a sense that I think I understood myself better. I've always felt to the left. I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo, you know, growing up making very strange choices and being fiercely independent. I think I understood myself a little bit better.”
Learning of and dissecting the story of his ancestors brought him closer to understanding his identity. That exuberance and courage of his – thanks to Grandfather Courage and Elizabeth Gallamore – means their story now exists beyond the yellowed pages of documents forged by white hands for purposeful gain. Once again it’s theirs, Dphrepaulezz’s, and everyone who’ll listen or watch to reflect within. “I think there's something about DNA…maybe if they had been serial killers, maybe…” he laughs at the potential for a sliding doors moment. “I don't know. Taking the good stuff, I felt some kind of responsibility like, ‘Man, I gotta tell the story again’. Because we still struggle with all the stuff like race and class.”
Looking every part the sage – thick protruding sideburns, grey hair tied back, with a wide-collared brown leather jacket – when Dphrepaulezz speaks, people listen. Currently sitting in a San Francisco hotel room, it’s hard to not get swept away in his excitement of the story he tells me. Dphrepaulezz is the kind of person you want to instantly ask for his thoughts about… well, everything.
“My view of the world?” He smirks at the question: “I mean, I hate to disappoint, [but] it probably remains the same. I’m kind of an amateur student of history, and we seem to just repeat, man. We decide, alright, we're repeating the last 50 years. Forget about the last 100 years, now they're challenging voting rights again. We had Trump back. McCarthyism! So the view of the world, I think I'm more optimistic in a strange way because I feel like okay, we've been through this.”
The cyclical nature of humanity and society is all too clear, especially in an age where all information is readily available on the internet. Cruelty and injustice live just as prominently in our world as does the love which ultimately led to Dphrepaulezz finding his path. He firmly believes life is just a series of decisions: “Every choice that you make opens the next door or closes it. It's all about choices. If I was to get out in here and say fuck you, I fucking hate you. I hate people with glasses!” The reflection in my frames fills with his pointed finger, a smiling Negrito on the other end of the arm thankfully. “And that I fucking hate those people, they should all die. You'd be like ‘Whoa’ and you know I made a choice, and something’s gonna happen after.
"Now, let's talk about positive theory. I think, especially in the streets, I like to be very polite to people. People cut you off or flip you off, I've always tried to take the high road but I tried to be very conscious of that because I feel like a choice that's going to influence what happens next. And we have road rage here and gunplay. So it's like, be very careful. America – there’s a lot of guns here.”
A month or so after our conversation, a white terrorist attacks a supermarket in a black neighbourhood in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people. Violence in America is very real – even the trigger point for his rapid movement from San Francisco to LA came from the barrel of a gun – and the bravery of Dphrepaulezz’s ancestors is all the more awe-inspiring when you note the ferocity with which a country can hate its kind. But if you look around the internet, it’s people sharing the inspiring nature of those unjustly taken, and ensuring their faces and voices rise above the hatred that ultimately conquers.
This is where the music comes in. While the power of love is a curious thing, music is an enchanting, beguiling medium of its own. The studio sessions which led to White Jesus Black Problems came from him wanting to do something to aid in the breaking of our perpetual societal cycle which means that issues that plagued his ancestors two centuries ago are similarly prevalent today. It’s about translating that and turning it “into something powerful.”
“So I felt the freedom in the studio to push this further,” he explains. “People are like ‘Hey, don't you know you've been successful, you've won Grammys, you have awards all that – you have to block that noise out. Go find the honest moment and try not to be full of shit because I don't know for other artists, but I know for me there's a tendency to posture and be full of shit a little bit. So, I felt so powerful and liberated making whatever choices that I wanted to make. I probably made three albums in the studio but came out with this one.”
The liberation that came from finding a story that not only spoke, but belonged to him is where White Jesus Black Problems becomes something grander than another addition to his curated output. Honing in on the feelings and emotions and how they resonate as much today as they did 270 years ago, he mentions “That is powerful in the studio. As a musician, that's where you want to be. You want to be on this highway to freedom to create what you want to create because there are lots of distractions out there. If you sound exactly like this it gives you a billion followers, and if you say these three magical words all these things will appear. So you have to ignore that and that's why I live on a farm in Oakland.”
Dphrepaulezz narrates the accompanying film for the new record, which ties musical moments with factual narrative to create a reflection on the experience of his ancestors. Mixing feature-length film scope with weirdly out-of-place props and flashes of ideas; it’s Fantastic Negrito coming to life.
In the film Dphrepaulezz reads through the document he discovered absolving his great-grandparents of their indenture and enslavement: “When I really read that, I thought, wow, free black people – this is all about money!” he exclaims. “Why if you had the money, you could just buy your freedom. I wanted to scream that to people. It's the money. Of course, race is used as a tool to get there…human beings love money and comfort. They make a huge profit at the expense of less fortunate people. And I don't think that's changed that much, just in a different form.”
“For African Americans, there's always a big question mark,” he muses. “So as a person, I feel relieved, like, gosh, now I know man. I sometimes wondered, but now I know. It's not common for us African American folk. Like, on my dad's side that's a whole other movie. When I think of White Jesus Black Problems I think of my dad. Why did he lie about who he was? Completely inventing a last name?”
Dphrepaulezz’s name is a constant reminder of the fight his blood and DNA contains. While 270 years ago his ancestors fought for their right to love, his father fought for his right to live. As a free man he chose to pen his own name – defining himself – even down to saying he was from East Africa: “He had to face this white supremacy thing,” Dphrepaulezz reasons. “He was born in 1905. That's the generation after slavery. So I'm thinking he was like, I'm going to get around this thing. I'm going to create this idea – this story – and that's my fight against this idea of white supremacy like ‘You're saying I'm nothing, I'm not a man’, I fight you back with a lie. And I'm going to tell my kids this lie. And so we grew up differently.
“We will think we're someone else. And based on this lie, we'll be successful and it will keep us off the streets. It’ll keep us out of jail. It’ll keep us from drugs and keep us from these pitfalls of the interactions that are out there for young African Americans. It worked in a sense, but it was a lie. I'm sure it could probably get you killed in someplace. So I'm a little like wow, that was a lie my whole life but I get it. I respect it in a way, man. He wasn't gonna ask anybody for shit. My dad always said to me, roll up your sleeves and go outperform these people. He used to tell me – no offence” he gestures towards me. "He used to say, white people, they’re not special. You can do everything they could do, you can even do it better. That was his mantra.”
With a lawyer and a Phd among his thirteen siblings, Dphrepaulezz’s family took heed of his father's sentiments, and carved out their own spaces. Influenced by the freedom and attitude that remains strong and prosperous, which while its rooting may be despite the crushing white hand, it's flourishing under the assumption of being stronger than any idea. The real American dream.
“Making the album and I try to be about accountability and healing at the same time. Hey, man, let's take it to the next step. Let's stop repeating this shit. I'm sick of hearing the same argument, I'm not gonna play that game. I think my father didn't. More power to him. He did kick me out of the house when I was 12. And he was crazy and a bit abusive, but nobody's perfect.”
Music can be a conduit for ideas and stories that not only establish emotions but define them. It’s a medium for truth in trying times, and a release valve for hurt. It can’t be captured in a bottle – it’s a feeling in a moment. “I think people who are oppressed often get very creative because they didn't even have the guitar,” Dphrepaulezz tells me. “They were using foot stomps and handclaps and chains and banging on objects, but the blues is still you know…DMX. That's just the blues if you want to be real about it. It's an expression, and it can be anyone's challenges that they're facing. How do we get out of this and maintain our humanity and our dignity when we get out of it, you know, through a celebration.
“I remember when someone in my family, I think it was grandma, said, ‘When white folks heard it [the blues] they said it's sad – that we were sad. We weren't sad.’ She just said that, and then you got to figure out everything else. Like, what do you mean?! That's it. But I think what she meant is that we were just expressing our humanity. How about that, people? We're just maintaining our dignity through very challenging times.”
This is the core of the sound Dphrepaulezz found when he tentatively re-entered music.“I think people misunderstand what the blues is,” he reckons. “It's not some notes. Miles Davis said anybody can play a note, but to quote him, he said, ‘I want to meet the motherfucker behind the notes’. Yeah, that's what we're trying to get to. And that feels like the black roots, African American tradition. What's behind the notes?”
Humanity is the answer to that question. Dphrepaulezz recalls the first time he heard blues icon Robert Johnson: “I decided what the fuck is this? I'm a kid of the hip hop generation. [But] later on I started crying. Literally, because I think I lived my life and I failed. I've been a human being, I've been abusive, I've been terrible. I've been wonderful. Rediscovering that then made me cry. So I wasn't ready to receive it, you know. Back then I was still listening to DMX or A Tribe Called Quest, you know the music of my generation and that is amazing.”
Life is all about timing. Where the stars align for the moment to make sense, the same goes for music. Its messages often only become clear when the time is right and you’ve grown as a person, or as Dphrepaulezz tells me: “You're ready for the truth. You may not always be ready for the truth. Now may not be the time, and that's okay, to not be ready for the truth. I think I may have discovered this story at a time when I can handle it.”
"You can change the world with a piano; with a voice; with a painting; with a gesture; with a slogan; with a thought you can change the world."
White Jesus Black Problems are four individual words that when separated can be loaded guns of their own. As an album title they represent multifaceted ideas that carry everything from the story of his grandparents, to his father, and even the world at large. To Dphrepaulezz those four words are a necessity: “That title says everything and maybe for some people it's been a hard pill to swallow, but I think sometimes the best pills in life are the hardest ones to swallow because it makes us get to work a little bit.” It also came from somewhere higher. “I didn't sit down like ‘let's see, we've got Jesus…we’ve got Moses…let's see we've obviously got problems, we've got solutions,” he cackles.
There are no religious connotations: it’s all ideas. “It has to do with this falseness – this lie that we were living in,” he explains. "I don't know if people want to keep living in it, but I don't. So I think what the title is, what's the truth for my family? I mean, not only for my dad, how do I not become a victim, which is a powerful thing for a human being.”
He remains positive about the power of music: “You can change the world with a piano; with a voice; with a painting; with a gesture; with a slogan; with a thought you can change the world. You're a journalist and you can write something that can change the world – that’s powerful. It's this endless possibility of creation – that’s exciting. And as excited as I was about making White Jesus Black Problems, maybe that's my last record too.”
The levity of this statement isn’t fleeting. As a three-time Grammy-winning artist, he has somehow found his footing in a world that doesn’t care as much for stories as it does for the quick-fire dopamine hits of Tik Tok. “I don't know,” he chews on his statement. “Like I said, I like to tell good stories. Let me go back and get out and put the engine behind my label. We’ve got an acoustic version of this coming out. I just got these acoustic instruments and every two days redid the whole album – it's so different. It's kind of absurd how different it is, but so I think I had all my fun and now yeah, it's time to go run a label now.”
Dphrepaulezz remains is a rare kind of artist – one who has managed to live a story that seems even absurd by Hollywood standards, yet it’s all very much real. This on its own doesn’t make him rare, however. It’s the fact that being an artist doesn’t make a difference to him. It’s all a medium for his life to be lived, nothing more nothing less. And as long as his inner self is fulfilled, then the road will always be paved with gold. “Maybe I did Fantastic Negrito just to find this story,” he concludes. “This is important. This is what it was about. Now I can move on.”