Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz talks a mile a minute when on the topic of his alter ego, Fantastic Negrito.
In 2015, he shot up from obscurity as the 2015 winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk contest. Now with two full-lengths and two Grammy wins, his talent was clear in that initial single-take video he shot in an Oakland industrial elevator. The song harkened back to old blues and gospel but jumbled together with modern funk and soul until it was nearly impossible to pinpoint any single genre influence—a conglomeration of hundreds of years of Black American music, done with a lot of groove.
Now we’ve switched gears to talk about his new alter ego, Shigamabu—the first time he’s mentioned said alter ego in the press, he tells me. Shigamabu is a character people are likely to become better acquainted with on his new album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, which should be out later this year.
“This is an exclusive,” he tells me. “Shigamabu is a colorful character I created. He’s an anti-hero, because Fantastic Negrito is a hero to me. Shigamabu is funky. He’s got soul. He wants to have a good time. He’s my Ziggy Star Black. I don’t know if I can trust him yet.”
It’s unclear what role Shigamabu plays on Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, but he will at least appear on a tune Dphrepaulezz did with legendary Bay Area rapper E-40, who resurrected his character Captain Save A Hoe to play therapist to Shigamabu.
“Men in bands, they say, ‘She’s a hoe.’ I say men are the hoes,” Dphrepaulezz says. “Shigamabu is confessing to being a hoe. He needs Captain Save A Hoe to come save him. It’s pretty funky.”
It’ll still be a Fantastic Negrito record, but Dphrepaulezz is constantly looking to change things up and reinvent himself. He always has. Back in the ’90s, he was just known as Xavier. He had a major label deal, but lost it—along with three years of his life—to a coma after a serious car accident. Music went on the backburner. He didn’t even want to do the NPR Tiny Desk Contest video that relaunched his career—his friends talked him into it.
“I didn’t feel a part of things that were mainstream,” Dphrepaulezz says. “I felt on the outside, like I didn’t fit in. I think once I embraced that I was a little different. Then it really started to work for me.”
He went into recording his debut full-length as Fantastic Negrito already in his late 40s, trying to carve out a music career. But he didn’t let it stress him out.
“I just feel like, ‘Who cares?’ Nobody cared anyway. I’m this guy that is middle-aged playing in the streets,” Dphrepaulezz says. “The pressure is on rappers. The pressure is on pop stars. I don’t feel any pressure. I think when you live as long as I have, it’s an opportunity to just speak the truth.”
On his second album, Please Don’t Be Dead, he featured a photo of himself after the accident in the hospital, a move the marketing department at the label didn’t care for. He talks about his own struggles and redemption, but much of the album addressed the nation and our crumbling democracy, greedy corporations and gun lobbyists.
With the new album, he turned his gaze on the people around him, his friends and neighbors, and tried to understand why they—and he himself—are going crazy.
“I was looking at everything big and broad. I thought it would be great to make an album to hold our feet to the fire,” Dphrepaulezz says. “I’m talking about my friends, who I see suffering from some form of undiagnosed mental illness. I’m talking about myself. Writing like that was extremely difficult.”
The first video from the album should come out soon. It’s a collaboration with Tank and the Bangas, who won NPR’s Tiny Desk contest in 2017.
“I’m now announcing it to the press for the first time. Two Tiny Desk winners collaborate on a record—it’s never happened before in the history of our planet,” Dphrepaulezz says. “I’ve won two Grammys. Tank is nominated. That’s the power of the Tiny Desk. I owe so much to them. They’re amazing. And they believe in people.”