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Fantastic Negrito aims to lift spirits and pluck inspiration from 'the black-roots garden'

Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The musician known as Fantastic Negrito arrives at an old-school Hollywood bar for an interview, fresh from a stop at a favorite thrift store not far away where he's scored a couple more colorful additions to his wardrobe, including a striking orange Ben Sherman blazer that he said was a steal.

"I love mom-and-pop stores like that," said Negrito, 49, whose given name is Xavier Amin Dhprepaulezz and who notched an even bigger score earlier this year when his 2016 album, "The Last Days of Oakland," took the Grammy Award for contemporary blues album -- a mighty feat for an independent artist putting out music on his own label.

"People want to talk to you. They're enthusiastic," he said of his experience at the Pineapple Mama boutique that the Bay Area artist frequents when he visits L.A. "They remember you, as opposed to walking into a huge department store, where no one knows you or cares about you. I think I approach life that way, and I approach music that way."

His approach has been paying off in significant ways in the two years since he started recording what would become "The Last Days of Oakland." One song from the album, "Lost in a Crowd," was singled out from among 7,000 entrants to National Public Radio's annual Tiny Desk Concert competition, earning him national exposure from the resulting NPR feature on him.

His music caught the ear of Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell, who invited him on tour last year as the opening act for Cornell's Temple of the Dog tour, and has gained placements in such TV shows as "Empire" and "Hand of God," the latter using his song "An Honest Man" as its theme.

He continues to build on the attention that has come his way with the Grammy win in a fall tour on which he's supporting Americana artist Sturgill Simpson.

There's no sign, as he sits in a booth at the Pig 'N Whistle, that any of this is going to his head. When a photographer starts shooting for some portrait photos, he quickly removes the sunglasses he was still wearing after coming in out of a bright late-summer afternoon on Hollywood Boulevard.

"I like being photographed without glasses," he explains. "I don't want to be pretentious. These are $10 women's shades, and they look cool! But when I step out, I take 'em off. I don't wanna be that guy with the shades, trying to look like a rock star. I'm just wearing 'em for my eyes."

Negrito's attitude comes through loud and clear on "Last Days of Oakland," which NPR praised upon its release as "among the rawest pieces of music -- sonically and emotionally -- you'll hear all year. But it's also the work of a craftsman, full of subtlety and sophistication, along with the kind of scars that only a survivor can flaunt."

It also comes through in myriad ways in conversation, such as when he recounts the years he was living in Los Angeles during his first go-round as a recording artist, having landed a major-label deal with Interscope Records, which yielded his 1995 debut album, "X Factor," released under the name he was using at that time, Xavier.

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