We Are the People: from Complicity to Hope — An Interview with Fantastic Negrito
Interview conducted by Phil
Photographs courtesy of Mike Lawton
MFN: So, this is your second time with the Safety Harbor Songfest. Welcome back!
FN: It is my second time back, but in the area I think it’s my… the first time I came I was opening for Chris Cornell, and that was at Ruth Eckerd Hall so I never heard of Clearwater. Chris and I toured; first we did all of Europe and the U.K. Then we came and did all of the United States, and, um, I was surprised at how really good the audience was in Clearwater. I was like, damn, this is a really good crowd to play for! It’s kind of been a… love affair! It’s been my fourth – Chris Cornell, Safety Harbor twice, and something else at Ruth Eckerd, so this is my fourth time in the area. Tampa Bay is embracing me.
MFN: We’re definitely glad to have you! Everybody’s talking about you back at the festival, and I was able to hear a little bit of your soundcheck earlier this morning.
FN: Yeah, we were trying to. Our bass player missed… well, I wouldn’t say missed; he’s very responsible; it was an eight-hour flight that got delayed, so it was kind of a stressful sound check. I kept thinking, man, there’s no bass, this is weird!
MFN: I do want to congratulate you on the Grammy!
FN: Thank you!
MFN: That was since you’ve been here for the last Songfest. One question I had in regards to that is you speak in your profile about several self-transformations over your life. How does the acknowledgement as Fantastic Negrito feel for you compared to your previous endeavors?
FN: Ooh, that’s a good question! Good question, is this Europe [laughing]? I would say, what’s different? I can see when a big room acknowledges you for something like that; I think as Fantastic Negrito the difference I feel is that I started this project five years ago, and it was the first time that I didn’t want anything. I think that’s the difference; I was like, you know what, I just got to go play! My soul is… burning. I felt like, um, now I’ve got kids and what am I going to tell them I’m doing? I was growing a lot of weed before then; I had quit for five years all music, and I’m in Northern California growing… a lot of weed! Lots of it! I was living off it basically, so, I had the urge to go, so I went and said “just play on the streets,” and that, I don’t want anything, I don’t want to blow up, not looking for fame, I didn’t want to be like, “Oh, what’s this song that everyone’s going to like.” I think there was something very informative about that is that I thought, philosophically maybe artists, when we’re looking more to contribute, rather than get something, there’s a magical power in that shit. Wanting to contribute.
MFN: What do you hope to get out of this tour? You’ve been around for some time now, this one being while you’re coming out with a new album.
FN: Yeah, it’s called Please Don’t Be Dead, and I think it’s a departure from The Last Days of Oakland, because I felt like The Last Days of Oakland was more observational. Looking around, I’m in New Orleans, and I’m like, “wow.” I’m listening to people, you know the guys driving Uber, and I’m like, “What are you doing” and he says, “I’m a postman; I deliver mail.” I thought to myself “Wow, when I grew up the postman went home and had a beer. Is this the new America where people are, they seem ok and enthusiastic about working three jobs?” And not really to live but just to pay this bill. They’re working really hard to pay these bills.
And I think when I was in Europe it was amazing that the same question was asked over and over again from every country. They’d be like, “What is going on in America?” That’s all they would say; people would grab me, and I’m like, “I don’t have the answer!” But I think it made me look at America a little differently. You know, I’m from here, and especially being a black male that’s 6’ tall, you have a different experience. That’s just the way it is. I didn’t make the rules up; it’s just the fuckin’ way it is. And my dad thank God gave me the tools to deal with that.
But, when I look in these people’s eyes, and I can feel their pain and their emotion and their anxiety, I thought, you know what? This is a great idea! This American thing, no matter what, all the shortcomings. I can stop at a traffic light, and I can be shot just for reaching for my cell phone, I know that, but I thought to myself, “It’s a damn good idea, these people got together, all these immigrants, we came from different backgrounds, and we decided we were gonna be one people.” Now, we fall short of that just like the diet you want to be on, but I thought to myself, “Please, don’t be dead, America,” because I like you! I like the idea of this experiment with all these different people from different places, and I like the idea of liberty, and you can live in a place where you can believe in what you want and not be persecuted. So, I thought, “Please, don’t be dead, America.”
MFN: That’s great, and it speaks not just to the observations from The Last Days of Oakland, but it speaks of a lot of hope.
FN: Yeah, this one was like a sword, my mighty sword. This was like “Please don’t be dead!” I feel like that’s why the sound is different. “Plastic Hamburgers,” the first single, people are like, “Oh my God, that’s aggressive,” and I’m like, I feel aggressive! I feel like we’re a little bit under siege here. I feel like I call the other side the tribe of “Love-not.” No matter what we believe or what side of the spectrum we’re on politically, if you’ve got love in your heart, you can sit down with someone who maybe believes in something different, you can have a beer, you can have a cup of coffee, and I think the other side is just kind of hellbent on just being nasty, hateful.
I think as artists we got to be on the front line – and journalists and film makers – whatever you do, I think this is it! History is going to judge us all. I think even corporations… I was speaking with YouTube and some of these people, and I said hey, history is going to judge you. What did you do, at this time, when it looked weird out there, and it was just kind of… I don’t know – populist, nationalist, weird shit which always leads back to racism and all that shit.
MFN: I was really struck by the music video for “Plastic Hamburgers.” The hard hit that you took on, say, the rallies and the gun violence, everything that was going on. I was really impressed with the statement that you were making with that. I was curious what that metaphor “Plastic Hamburgers” means for your music?
FN: [whispers] They all want to know!
I think it means a lot, you know hamburger being very American, although the French are on our ass now with their baguettes which are pretty amazing, I think as a question it is “who are we? Please don’t be dead. Is this real? Are we fake here? The stuff that we espouse to be, the stuff that we say that we are, are we really this?” I’m willing to keep pretending because I think it’s better, or at least I kind of compare it to where you want to… I gotta do my exercise every day, your yoga, your stretching, and sometimes you just lay in bed, and you don’t want to do it.
So, it’s all optimism, it’s a metaphor for checking yourself by just looking in the mirror — positivity. It’s the best way to move forward to be like, “Let me see, am I the asshole in the room?” Ok, then I’m gonna work on it. I always call myself a recovering narcissist. I think it has a lot to do with that and some of the other themes on the album like the bullshit you got to take the bullshit and turn it into good shit. I think that’s kind of the theme of the album, and I think where I want to go as a parent, as a citizen. There’s a lot of bullshit, so let’s make it good!
MFN: And I definitely hear that coming through with your music. Your lyrics are so powerful and direct. It’s something you can hear, and every time I do listen to your songs I discover something new that wasn’t there before.
FN: To speak on that, I just want to say as a producer and a songwriter I learned a lot of that from just listening to so much Delta blues, and I feel like the same thing, like Robert Johnson’s a guy that every time I listen to him, and it’s just a guy with a guitar, but there’s so much emotion there. Every time I listen to it it’s like shinning the light on his mastery and his genius, and I thought as a producer, self-producing is kind of a weird thing; I look at myself as this artist, and what I want to get of this guy Fantastic Negrito is purity, the truth, even if it’s a little bit of a bad note or whatever, if it feels good, man, that’s the thing that matters.
MFN: Another question that I had for you, and I don’t know how open you are with this part of your life…
FN: [gives a smile and chuckles]
MFN: In the columns I’ve been writing for MusicFestNews I’ve been detailing my recovery from substance abuse.
FN: Congratulations, by the way!
[reaches over and shakes my hand]
MFN: Thank you for that! In the bio that I read for you, you speak to having been in Oakland in the ’90s during the crack epidemic.
FN: Oh yeah.
MFN: Does that still influence you in your reincarnation, and how has that changed your perspective especially now that you’re a father?
FN: Well I’m an old dude, so I was even there in the ’80s, yeah I was a little kid in the ’80s, and I saw it destroy my community, and I remember the day that my best friend, and he’s still my best friend, he came to school as little kids and was like, “Come here look at this money,” and he’s got three thousand dollars and said “They’ve got this new shit, it’s called crack, and they’re going crazy!” It’s just etched in my mind to this day. And I remember going back home to the neighborhood, and I’d watch people walking fast, and I was like, “they’re walking fast, where they goin’?” which is when the word “tweaker” came into mind and our vocabulary.
But, um, yeah… it’s so traumatic that it just left such a profound imprint on my life… hell, yeah, it still affects me because I was complicit – one of these kids making it. When I had my album cover on 32nd and San Pablo, that’s where I made my first batch of crack. We were like, kids, and when I look back on it now it’s like, ok, here we were, these kids living in these impoverished areas economically, and we thought, “Ooh, the American dream is here! Shit, we can have stuff,” which is what they tell us we’re supposed to have, they tell us if you ain’t got this you aren’t successful. So, I think us kids we thought “finally, it’s here,” but in doing that we destroyed our own community… we reeked havoc on our own community… so, that gives me a lot of reflection, you know what I mean? I think quite frankly, openly speaking, I don’t think the black community has ever recovered… it just never recovered from the crack epidemic. It was so severe and so swift and so strong. I just see remnants of it as an older dude; I see these kids, and I’m like, wow, who raised them? Well, people from my generation, and a lot of them were addicts.
So yeah, that has a huge affect on me and especially now when I see them. It’s weird now — I see like the opioid crisis, now it’s happening for white people, I feel. I thought “Whoa, they’re having their crack epidemic!” And the beauty is that… not the beauty, but the trip, the irony, is that wow, our government, this should get everybody’s minds like, this shit
[touching our camera man’s arm pointing to his skin]
this shit doesn’t matter because all of us, the government doesn’t fuckin’ care that it’s happening to you now! That’s mindblowing to us brothers on the side; they’re letting it happen to white people, their own people. And that should just let people know that we are the people. We have the fuckin’ power! We have to get over all our really stupid differences and our little factions, our little “I’m over here, I’m LGBT, I’m Black Lives Matter, and I’m a pissed off white guy, I’m a Mexican, or I’m an immigrant,” and I feel like that’s how the other side, they win; because we’re so entrenched in our ideology that we can’t even talk to each other. So that’s how I feel about the crack epidemic. That’s how I feel it has affected me, and as I look upon the opioid crisis I’m like, you know what, I’ve got a chance, I’ve got a platform, and I’ve got a voice, and I’m a veteran of that war, and I’m gonna say something.
MFN: Thank you for doing that. That is a very powerful message to have. I’m grateful that you include that in your story, because there are so many people struggling, and there are lots of musicians who, to their credit, have had their issues but kept it secret. And it’s no one person’s responsibility to take that on, but if you have that strength which you have, then, to take that on and send that message, it’s a really great one to have.
FN: Yeah, and I look at my kids and think “it could happen to them.” And I’m a gun owner, but I’m like, you know what, we’ve got a gun problem, and I look at my kids and think “it could happen to them,” so if we don’t do something about this and this is all… I do this for my kids. I don’t have anything else to give them. I’ve got a platform, I’ve got this guitar, I’ve got the music and a voice. It’s basically the only reason that I do it. Otherwise, I’d just grow more weed. [Laughter] They still don’t know, when they get to me they’ll be like “you grow weed?”
MFN: Finally, do you have anything you want your fans to know especially with the upcoming Please Don’t Be Dead album coming out?”
FN: Well, what I want my fans, whom I call my supporters, I don’t really like the word fans as much but my friends and my supporters, I’m just thankful, man, I’m so thankful! They’re my record company; I always Tweet “the people are my record company!” because I have to play this guitar and go face them at the train station every day, and, boy, that’s the best audience you could ever have, because if you ever think you got good songs? Go play for people that are getting off of work, and you’ll know really quick! Always for the people that support me, I just have a profound gratitude.
MFN: I’ve really appreciated your time. I hope you have a great set. I’m looking forward to it!
FN: Yes, sir.
MFN: It’s been a real pleasure! Thank you so much.
FN: Thank you, and again, congratulations on your sobriety.
MFN: I appreciate that!
FN: Right on, Thank you!