Fantastic Negrito Earns the Limelight
An Oakland musician’s star is rising as he bests the competition to win NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest.
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
Xavier Dphrepaulezz filmed his winning music video in “just one take.”
Xavier Dphrepaulezz can’t read a note of music. He never graduated from college. And he spent much of his youth robbing people, “living in excess,” and being an “attention-starved narcissist.”
But that checkered resume doesn’t really sum up the Oakland musician whose star seems to be rising. In February, he beat 7,000 other contestants from around the world, winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, where the missive was to find new talent as long as they pounded out tunes behind a desk. The radio station’s music editor, Bob Boilen, said the judges chose the 40-something artist because they heard the raw passion emanating from his soul.
“He penetrates people,” said his friend and manager, who goes only by “Field.” “He evokes emotion.”
Dphrepaulezz (deh-freh-peh-lez), who prefers being referred to by his latest band name, Fantastic Negrito, said he didn’t even put much thought or effort into the “Lost in the Crowd” contest video. He created it about 1 a.m. in the elevator shaft of his Jack London Square office, behind a steel desk, the night before the submission was due. He rounded up some musicians an hour or so before the shoot, bribing one with weed. He couldn’t get a photographer at the last minute, so Field shot the video on an iPad, proudly, he said, in “just one take.”
“I thought it would be too edgy,” Dhprepaulezz said on a recent afternoon. “I didn’t think I was the NPR aesthetic.”
Apparently, he was wrong.
Since his recent mainstream moment of fame, Dphrepaulezz has been fielding phone calls from talk show hosts and music festivals from across the country, all wanting him to perform.
It’s not like he’s never seen success before. In the 1990s, through some connections, he was signed by Interscope Records, for which he released an album called X Factor. But he said he walked away from that major contract because he wasn’t able to make the songs he wanted to. “It had nothing to do with music,” he said. “It was this structured, corporate model.”
In between then and now, Dphrepaulezz lived in Los Angeles, “hustling,” running illegal after-party nightclubs where his nickname was “Mr. 1 A.M.,” and selling secondhand clothes.
That was before he returned to Oakland in 2007, eight years after a car accident in LA, which sent him into a coma for weeks and left him with a permanently damaged left arm and right hand that he calls “the claw.” Doctors told him he wouldn’t play music again. He bought a grand piano in defiance.
He got married. His wife gave birth to a son five years ago, and after a long musical hiatus, he picked up his love of guitar again and was changed forever when his baby cracked open a big wide smile when he strummed a simple chord of G.
“That was, like, everything,” Dphrepaulezz said. “It was positivity, hope, clean and pure.”
And so, he picked up his life again, too, making the rent by growing weed and licensing others’ music through Blackball Universe, a multimedia collective he helps manage. He also took his music to the streets.
On any given night or afternoon, Dphrepaulezz will put on a tie and a vest, grab an instrument and jam, full-throated and sweaty, on the sidewalk, or in a parking lot, or along the street.
Sometimes it’s on Broadway, outside his office on Madison Street, near the Fox Theater in Uptown, Joyce Gordon Gallery on 14th Street, all in Oakland. When he wants to make even more money, he heads to the BART station on Powell Street in San Francisco. He never tells people where or when he’s going. He doesn’t Tweet his soon-to-be whereabouts. He likes the challenge of wowing strangers.
Someone took a video of him playing in November and simply titled it, “Killing it on Broadway.” “Jammin on the sidewalk like there’s no tomorrow,” the fan wrote. “Raw talent. A blend between Otis Redding, James Brown, Lenny Kravitz.”
He won’t say how much he makes during these impromptu organic gigs, other than it’s “serious money.” One time, he admitted, someone dropped a $100 bill into the tip jar.
It’s been a long and challenging journey for Dphrepaulezz, the eighth of 14 children. He’s the son of a strict Sunni Muslim Somali-born U.N. ambassador who kicked him out of the house for being a punk. He’s a teen who bounced around at four high schools before he graduated from Berkeley High School, after lying about his address, while living with foster care families. He said he’s a “jerk from the gutter” who spent some time in “lightweight jail” for “hustling, dealing, and selling weed.”
Oh, and he’s never taken a formal music lesson. In his 20s, he taught himself to sing, play guitar, keyboards, and drums, simply by listening, mostly to Prince, Harry Belafonte, James Brown, and Sly and the Family Stone.
For now, and for a self-described narcissist, Dphrepaulezz speaks pretty humbly, talking about his luck for being reincarnated, again. For being so lucky that NPR gave him a renewed chance to show people he has something to say.
“The light’s on me now,” he said. “I’m filled with gratitude. I just want to enjoy life. I know this sounds so simple, but I don’t want to do music if it doesn’t make me happy.”