His last three albums have won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
On Wednesday night, Fantastic Negrito plays the renowned 9:30 Club in the nation’s capital, where he’ll perform songs from his newest album, “White Jesus Black Problems.”
“My entire album is based on a story I found seven generations ago in my ancestry in southern Virginia,” Negrito told WTOP. “They weren’t allowed to get married, sneaking around in the 1750s, a white Scottish grandmother — my grandmother — and a Black enslaved man — my grandfather — hooked it up and seven generations later, booyaka!”
While the subject matter is personal, the title of the album has proven controversial.
“I’m catching some heat for it, which is OK, I like heat,” Negrito said. “I just felt like I needed to represent that story in the most bombastic, gregarious, amazing, powerful and shocking way that I could, so that title just came to me. I was just like, ‘Wow, this is just so what it is,’ here is a white woman challenging white supremacy in the most serious way.”
Born in Massachusetts, he grew up in Oakland where he taught himself music by listening to Prince and sneaking into music classrooms at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I discovered Prince at a very young age in the ’80s and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a brother that’s doing something different,'” Negrito said. “I did sneak into UC-Berkeley to learn how to play. I was in a pretty rough neighborhood and there weren’t any pianos, so I snuck in and pretended to be a student. … They should name those practice rooms after me!”
He released his first album, “X-Factor” (1996), under the moniker Xavier before a near-fatal car crash put him a coma for three weeks and shifted his perspective on life.
“The guy in his 20s wanted to be famous, live like a rock star, have all the finest things,” Negrito said. “After I lived life, failed a bunch of times and lost my playing hand from a car accident … I became a middle-aged guy and didn’t want anything. … There’s a power in not wanting to be famous. … I just started doing it because it helped relieve my stress.”
He emerged with a new name for his second album “Fantastic Negrito” (2014).
“I became a middle-aged guy just ranting and raving in the train stations of the Bay Area and playing in front of coffee shops and just not caring,” Negrito said. “Man, there is a power for an artist when they stop caring. That’s what happened and then I was very surprised that people were interested in what I’m doing, and I’m still surprised.”
He won his very first Grammy for the album “The Last Days of Oakland” (2016).
“I just did the album I wanted to do without boundaries, without worrying about genres,” Negrito said. “I won and tried to practice gratitude. … I’m grateful for everything that happens, even the bad things, because you learn the most off of that. I’m happy to accept a Grammy if someone wants to give it to me, I celebrate for a day, then I put it in a box.”
He won his second Grammy for his next album “Please Don’t Be Dead” (2018).
“I just tried to be nothing, just nothing when I go into the studio but get inspired,” Negrito said. “Be nothing, just connect with that energy that made you an artist when I was 17. For me, when I get into the studio I feel like 17 and a grandfather all in one, the wisdom of a grandpa but the freedom of a 17 year old. That’s what I try to do on every album.”
He won his third and most recent Grammy for “Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?” (2020).
“It had to do a lot with mental health; it just so happened that we were all going through stuff [in 2020],” Negrito said. “I like to keep my finger on the pulse. I feel like an elder in society. I try to impart or contribute something. I like when it’s useful. I don’t make music for people to like, I make music for people to think. That’s the stuff I’m interested in.”
Despite Grammy acclaim in blues categories, you can’t really pin down his genre.
“I don’t ever fit anywhere,” Negrito said. “They’re like, ‘It’s contemporary blues,’ but I think the blues people hate me, then they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s rock, it’s funk,’ so I don’t fit in anywhere. That’s OK, though. … I just want to continue being an artist [with] expression, artistry, digging deep and trying to tell the stories of the world and of the neighborhoods.”
Today, he lives humbly on a farm in the Bay Area.
“I grow a lot of veggies and I’ve got about 15 chickens,” Negrito said. “It’s better than prescription pills. I just feel at peace and at one with the soils and with the trees. You know you’re just a guest on this earth and you take care of it the best you can.”