Photo: Lyle Owerko
Fantastic Negrito On How His New Album, 'Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?', Is A Timely Commentary On American Society
"Focusing on what can be done not what cannot be done."
Two-time GRAMMY-winning artist Fantastic Negrito, the moniker of Oakland, Calif.-based singer-songwriter Xavier Dphrepaulezz, tweeted out those words earlier this month while reflecting on the ongoing injustices he sees in American society. For the past five years, he's used Fantastic Negrito as an outlet to speak out musically against social issues like gun violence, opioid addiction and homelessness—parts of what he considers a broken political and social system. But as a lifelong optimist, he feels there's a solution to each problem if we work together to solve it.
On his new album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, out August 14 via Cooking Vinyl/Blackball Universe, he scales down the scope of his songwriting to ground level, writing about mental health in America and reflecting on specific people he knew growing up who have impacted his life. That includes "I'm So Happy I Cry," a collaboration with Tarriona "Tank" Ball of New Orleans-based Tank And The Bangas, which the artist premiered today (June 25).
The song was inspired by the death of rising rapper Juice WRLD in late 2019 due to an opioid overdose. Dphrepaulezz feels too many young artists fall victim to overmedication, especially recently due to stress from coronavirus-induced social distancing and the fear of dying unjustly at the hands of the police.
"There's something very sick and wrong with a state-sanctioned police force that arbitrarily murders people disproportionately," Dphrepaulezz tells GRAMMY.com in a recent interview. "I feel that there has to be a significant movement against this and something that's tangible that people will be able to hold onto after this is all said and done and quiets down. I think Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is completely in step with our current situation because people—yes, they have lost their mind. They expressed it in the streets, and as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, 'Rioting is the voice of the unheard.'"
Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? sees Dphrepaulezz voicing encouragement for those struggling with their form of mental illness. Sometimes it's found in untraditional places, such as "How Long?" where he pleads for the shooter to stop their violence. The album also features collaborations with E-40 via "Searching For Captain Save A Hoe," a remake of the rapper's 1993 hit, as well as Masa Kohama on "Your Sex Is Overrated."
Much like his previous releases, including his pair of GRAMMY-winning albums, The Last Days Of Oakland (2016) and Please Don't Be Dead (2018), Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? continues Dphrepaulezz's timely commentary on American culture and the nation's most urgent issues.
"My music is just my social commentary as a human being and an artist living on the planet, and there's such a wide spectrum of issues," he says. "I just try to feel the pulse. It's exciting to feel the pulse, make an assessment and then write material and create art around that pulse. It's what inspired me to come back as a musician after years of layoff and become Fantastic Negrito. It's OK to write about injustices and inequalities. This is a great position to be in as an artist."
GRAMMY.com chatted with Dphrepaulezz about his new album as Fantastic Negrito and how he's combating the various forms of mental illness, including racism, through his music.
How are you doing today?
Well, I'm better than some. I'm not as good as others, but I still like my chances as a human being.
You've been using social media as a way to start conversations about everything, from rappers getting back to political and social commentary in their music to your thoughts on the fight for equality. Why are these real-time conversations important to you?
Twitter is like a nice, warm, safe place for me. I like that I can really just express a million views. My view is, if you have a platform, use it. If you're living in the world and society, be a contributor. That's just something I believe in philosophically. I see Twitter and Instagram and all these [platforms] as a way to contribute. You could get up on your platform and scream out stupid things, or you could get on your platform and try to connect and engage. Be a contributor, a positive force in the world. Be a voice of reason. Be in that tribe, the voice of reasonable people. I like that tribe.
On your first two albums as Fantastic Negrito, The Last Days of Oakland (2016) and Please Don't Be Dead (2018), you took a bigger-picture approach in talking about issues plaguing the country such as gun violence and homelessness. Why is it meaningful to write about those topics?
My music is just my social commentary as a human being and an artist living on the planet, and there's such a wide spectrum of issues. I just try to feel the pulse. It's exciting to feel the pulse, make an assessment and then write material and create art around that pulse. It's what inspired me to come back as a musician after years of layoff and become Fantastic Negrito. It's OK to write about injustices and inequalities. This is a great position to be in as an artist.
On your new album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, you scale things down a little bit to a more personal level, with songs about people you know. Why did you take this approach?
I think it's important because if you really want to change the world, we got to start with ourselves. If we want to effect change and make really positive and good things, then we have to start with the people in our circle. Community is a word that people like to throw around, but it really starts with ourselves: It starts with our brothers and our sisters and our cousins and our co-workers, and we have to build coalitions with these people. I thought it was interesting to just write [about] the state of people around me. There seems to be so much [of] what I call just an attack on the brain, this mental illness that we're all living with. We're functioning people in the society every day, but we're living with this disease—whether it's depression, the proliferation of too much information, racism, slogan-isms ...
I thought just the dependence on social media and the internet—man, it's a mental illness. And so it was interesting to write an album from that perspective and talk about real-life people. Because, of course, the people walking down the street talking to themselves, that's the easy part, like, "Wow, they're mentally ill." But what about your friend in the cubicle? What about your brother or your cousin? How are they coping with the challenges of modern society?
[Our society] is so technologically advanced and yet it's so far-removed from the emotional context of a one-on-one [conversation] with a person and looking into their eyes rather than staring into our so-called smartphones and looking to get validation—likes and followers. That's our value system, when in fact, you can buy likes and followers. So what does that say about our value system?
For me, this is a mental illness. I've been doing social commentary now for three albums. I'm happy and proud to know that my fingers are on the pulse. We're in the midst of [the] COVID-19 [pandemic] and everyone is stuck inside; this is interesting. They keep knowing what's going on and being right there.
Do you find it's important to put a face to an issue when you're writing a song?
I think on this record, I did particularly put a face to each song and that's what made it probably the hardest record that I've ever done, to be that transparent, like in [album tracks] "Chocolate Samurai" and "How Long?"
[On] "How Long?" I was really writing about the shooter, the perpetrator of violence. I was writing about the guy who lost his humanity so much that he chokes out a Black man in Minnesota on the street. I was writing about the kid who went into a church and shot up nine Black people. I was writing about the Las Vegas shooting. I was writing about Sandy Hook still. I mean, where do we go and where do we lose it mentally to where we feel like that, that we can justify murdering children?
Something is very wrong in our society where we take it as, "Hey, it's rainy today and there [were] 25 people killed in Las Vegas. Hey, so what are you guys doing later?" I mean, it's just become so casual. And again, I felt like, "Wow, this is more mental illness." So I wrote that song from the perspective of not the victim, surprisingly. I'm saying, "How Long?" But it's the perpetrator of violence, the shooter.
How do you think the album relates to the recent nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice?
I think it relates 1,000 percent because there's no other mental illness that destroys, decapitates and deconstructs communities as much as racism. It's perhaps the greatest mental illness of them all. I feel like on "Chocolate Samurai," I ask and I say, "The whole world is watching, get free tonight, my people, my teachers, my soldiers." It's like a rallying cry … in my view that we seek freedom. Freedom and peace go hand in hand, like brothers and sisters; they need each other because you can't really have one without the other.
"I'm So Happy I Cry," which I did with ["Tank" Ball from] Tank and The Bangas … "Searching For Captain Save A Hoe," which I portray myself as the whore with E-40, who's one of my favorite rappers of all time. But songs like "King Frustration," because people are frustrated and I wanted to write about that.
All of this tied together to me with this proliferation again of a mental illness that seems unchecked. There's something very sick and wrong with a state-sanctioned police force that arbitrarily murders people disproportionately. I feel that there has to be a significant movement against this and something that's tangible that people will be able to hold onto after this is all said and done and quiets down. I think Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is completely in step with our current situation because people—yes, they have lost their mind. They expressed it in the streets, and as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Rioting is the voice of the unheard."
Despite the tough subject matter, you often are able to find a glimmer of hope in your songs and provide encouragement that people aren't alone facing these various issues.
I've always been an optimist. I'm the eighth of 14 children. For whatever reason, it made me an optimist. I had to be a survivor from day one, like, "Hey, will you get that glass of milk or water? Will you get a clean pair of socks? Will you even get some acknowledgement from a parent with so many children?" It turned me into an optimist, and I've always walked towards the light. I lost my playing hand in [a car] accident. I was in a coma for three weeks and I lost my playing hand. But you know what? I just always walk towards the light and I try to write from a very positive place. There's enough destruction in the world.
I've watched a few interviews recently of African American celebrities and politicians who have talked about how their celebrity or status has impacted how people viewed them. As a GRAMMY winner, how has that applied to you?
As a two-time GRAMMY winner, I just don't live in that world. I live on a small farm. Oakland is a small town. I don't live in L.A. or New York, and I just don't really have any interest in that, so I don't pay attention to that. I'm really focused on growing food, being part of a community and creating albums, making contributions to the world that I live in.
I don't live my life like a celebrity or any of that; I'm not looking for that. I guess you are what you think you are. I'm just a regular guy. I'm one of us, but that's my honest opinion, that I live in small media markets. It's wonderful. Small-town mentality, big aspirations.
Do you have any personal stories regarding the recent protests?
In this current phase of protesting, I'm a person that believes that we can all protest, but that doesn't mean that they have to be in the streets necessarily. I'm only speaking for myself, personally. That's something that you may have done at one time. But then as you get older, you evolve from the streets and you can start your protests in other ways, or it can turn into a photo op. I'm not really interested in doing that. The greatest protest against tyranny, oppression, police brutality is to make sure you have the tools to fight against them. If you have the tools, make sure that you're sharing those tools and teaching people younger than you how to use and apply those tools.
I really love that form of protest. Having a platform and just writing and creating music that means something and that is a contributing factor—to me, it's all protest. The news, the cameras will all go away. I'm not into being someone's flavor of the month. What I can do is support and encourage peace and justice and try to be the voice of reason.
I'm not getting out to the streets at 52 years old and taking on the cops; that's not my thing. You got to evolve past that. You want to boycott some stuff? I love that idea. It's got to be organized. We just can't scream out slogans over and over again. I mean, what do you do after that? What do you do the day after that?
Obviously, through my music, I'm not one to follow trends. I'm here to support meaningful, long-lasting reform. That is interesting to me. The first opponent I get to face is me every day. You have to let these young people speak, too, man; I've done my damage. Let these 20-year-olds speak, let them have the mic for a change, let them rally in the streets. It's their time.
I'm going to write music. I'm going to use my art. I'm going to use my platform as I have in my last three albums, The Last Days Of Oakland, Please Don't Be Dead and now Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? I've been doing it very quietly in a small town in Oakland, and the GRAMMYS have recognized it, [for] which I'm very grateful.