Fantastic Negrito: We Can Turn It Around (Part 4 / conclusion)

Continued from Part Three

And even though Fantastic Negrito is now a high-profile Grammy-winning performer and recording artist, he still feels and maintains a close connection to that neighborhood. “The people I started my collective label [Blackball Universe] with, they’re all guys I grew up with,” he says. “We did everything – committed crimes and everything – together. And now we’re all in business together.”

Xavier feels a responsibility to the old neighborhood as well. “I figured it out,” he says. “Every day you wake up, the way that you carry yourself, and the decisions you make: that’s your responsibility to your community, to your family. It starts with you.” For him, it’s not about “starting a nonprofit and marching down the street with a fucking sign. It starts with how you treat people.” But he doesn’t hold himself up as a model. “I’m still a major fuck-up. But that’s my struggle, that’s my fight, and that’s my aspiration and goal. When you want to contribute, that changes everything.”

The way he sees it, America currently has people in power who advocate internal conflict: “Me against you, and you against them, and this group against that group,” Xavier says. “But I think music does the opposite. It says, ‘Hey, let’s all get down. Let’s all jam on this, because this is beautiful. We’re gonna all party and be beautiful, and be amazing.’ And hey: in history, that’s the side I wanna be on.”

He takes the making of an album very seriously. “Artistic expression is so profound and so necessary,” he says. “When we look back at other civilizations, what are we looking for? We’re looking at what they created, what they left behind. And I think that that’s probably why we’re here.”

True to Fantastic Negrito form, his lyrical themes are placed inside a compelling musical context. Xavier characterizes Please Don’t Be Dead as “a riff album. There’s something about a guitar riff that unites people.” He says that the new songs “have teeth.” And as much as he thrives on the contact of live performance, Xavier sees something special about the recording studio. “The studio is very spiritual,” he says. “It becomes the most honest place there is.”

The basic musical recipe for Please Don’t Be Dead follows the approach used on The Last Days of Oakland. “I use the same tools for Fantastic Negrito: drums, bass, guitar, organ, piano and vocals. That’s it; I don’t let anything else into the kitchen,” he says. The personnel for the album are the same as last time, too. “I use these guys because we all know each other and we can get it done,” he says.

“I just have one and a half hands because of my injury,” Xavier says, “but sometimes the playing is so original that it’s like, ‘Damn, that feels amazing, and that’s it. I’m gonna keep it.’” When it’s suggested that Django Reinardt did pretty well with missing fingers, Xavier snaps back, “He was a genius, and I’m not.”

One way in which the new album departs from its predecessor, though, is in the use of more live drums. “And I’m braver,” Xavier says. “It’s more experimental. I’m doing things that are different, and that’s what we should do. I wanna push, always. Push, push, push.”

Live performance does inform Fantastic Negrito’s studio work. At the 2017 LEAF Festival, Xavier led the audience – one that grew significantly in size as the concert went on – in a chant. That chant (“Take that bullshit / and turn it into good shit”) forms the basis of “Bullshit Anthem,” the 11th and final track on Please Don’t Be Dead. “I wrote it just right on stage,” he says, “and now it’s turned into a song. It’s about, ‘This is bullshit, but you know what? We can turn it around. Let’s do that.’ It’s inspiring.”

The optimism that has been a defining feature of Xavier’s life and music remains strong. “Americans are a resilient bunch,” Xavier says. “I don’t think one thing can really wreck it. I think we’ll be all right. We’ll recover. We’ll come to our senses.” But he’s sure that positive change won’t come without effort. “In the hour of tyranny and fascism and totalitarianism, the people they get rid of are the thinkers, the intellectuals, the artists,” he says. “Someone on Twitter got mad for me saying this, but that’s how I feel: artists are the last line of defense.”