“The last days of Oakland. The end of something, the beginning of something. There’s good in the old Oakland. There’s good in the new Oakland,” Fantastic Negrito began. As the sun set over First Fridays on June 3 in downtown Oakland, the city’s favorite blues musician was celebrating the release of his debut album with a free show for his hometown.
Breaking out into bluesy howls, Xavier Dphrepaulezz launched into “Working Poor,” the first track off his new album, The Last Days of Oakland. Growling into the microphone and gyrating across the stage, not even issues with jumpstarting the sound system could put a damper on the singer’s fiery performance.
“It’s been a hell of a year,” Dphrepaulezz told the crowd after finishing up the rascally, acoustic guitar-driven hip-shaker “Scary Woman.” That’s no understatement — it was only about a year and a half ago that Fantastic Negrito won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, launching him into the national spotlight. The dapper musician and his band have spent most of 2016 touring across four different continents. But that doesn’t mean Dphrepaulezz has forgotten his roots.
Fantastic Negrito’s success is more than just one man’s rags to riches story — it’s a success for all of Oakland. Dphrepaulezz’s unconventional odyssey to living out his dreams has been a turbulent one, full of the kinds of struggle and pain many Oakland natives are quite familiar with. On stage, he didn’t shy away from laying out these woes, from leaving home at age 12 to a debilitating car accident that left him in a coma for three weeks.
Dphrepaulezz may have been through hell and back, but he lives by an uplifting mantra: “Take the bullshit and turn it into good shit.” Raising his arms to the crowd, the musician urged everyone to say it with him as he launched into “Night Has Turned to Day.”
While the audience eagerly got down and dirty to the new songs they were hearing for the first time, “Night Has Turned to Day” sparked a wildfire. Those who knew the words to the old favorite led a street-wide boogie to the gruff kick drum and slide guitar-driven ode to rebirth.
At 48, Fantastic Negrito is no spring chicken, but his energy on stage is insatiable. He swings his hips, shouts to the sky and spreads his arms out to accept the praise of the adoring crowd like his life depends on it. During “Honest Man,” another Fantastic Negrito standby, he quivered with passion as he modulated between raw falsetto and deep-throated hums. He conducted the crowd to repeat the hummed backing vocals after him, transforming the entire block into one buzzing, living entity.
“… I told everybody out there I’m nothing without you, Oakland.”
— Fantastic Negrito
“Oakland: greatest city in the world. Bay Area: greatest tribe that ever lived,” Dphrepaulezz yelled to the cheering audience. “Edgy motherfuckers. Eclectic motherfuckers.”
The show took on a more somber note when Fantastic Negrito spoke about the friends and family he’d seen shot growing up in the streets he called home. He lost his brother at age 14. His cousin was shot in Berkeley at age 16. His close friend died over on Alcatraz Avenue. Dphrepaulezz gripped his acoustic guitar and began crooning a mournful adaptation of Lead Belly’s “In the Pines” — a eulogy to the ones he’s lost in the same streets he’s celebrating. It was less of a cover than a loose interpretation of the song; he joked, “I don’t do covers. I’m terrible at covers.”
Despite the tragedy Fantastic Negrito often sings of, The Last Days of Oakland is not so much a doomsday call as it is a hopeful look at the city’s future. It focuses on the rapid change hitting the city as gentrification metastasizes and the income gap widens, but at the root of it all is a deep love for the place that raised him. “I just got back from a tour with 43 stops,” Dphrepaulezz announced to the crowd. “But I told everybody out there I’m nothing without you, Oakland.” Fittingly, “Nothing Without You” is the last track on the album.
The sky now dark, Fantastic Negrito closed out the night with the song that made him famous — “Lost in a Crowd,” the NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner. The dynamic song roars with gospel intensity — raspy, impassioned vocals broken up periodically by softer, melodic interludes. The crowd sung the poignant words right along with Fantastic Negrito: “We’re just people, lonely people, you and I.”
Madeline Wells is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].