On Wednesday, June 3, Xavier Dphrepaulezz—Fantastic Negrito—sat down with RIFF editors Daniel J. Willis and Roman Gokhman to talk about the ongoing protests against police brutality in Oakland and around the world. From his studio, he told us about where he thinks the protests are going, his life growing up on the street and his emotional reaction to the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. A couple of hours later, as Black Lives Matters protestors were gathering in downtown Oakland, he led photographer Jane Hu around his neighborhood.
Daniel J. Willis, managing editor: How are you doing?
Fantastic Negrito: You know; better than some, not as good as others. I’m somewhere in the middle, which is fine with me. I like my chances.
Willis: We’ve talked a couple times, I don’t know if we’ve ever actually seen each other. I guess this counts as meeting these days.
Fantastic Negrito: Yeah, these days it does, and I think we’re all healthier and smarter to practice social distancing. It’s real. Coronavirus is real. COVID-19 is real. And it’s killed over 100,000 Americans. For all the patriots out there, 100,000 Americans! And you know when 9/11 happened—3,000 Americans—we went to war for 20 years. That is a perhaps more shocking to me than anything these days, that number.
Roman Gokhman, editor-in-chief: I had a Facebook notification pop up today. On this day four years ago, you had just released Last Days of Oakland.
Fantastic Negrito: I feel like I’ve been quietly writing about all this for years. The Last Days of Oakland. Please don’t be dead, America. Please Don’t Be Dead. And now, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet. I mean, it’s interesting. I’m happy to be in that realm, I’m happy to be in that lane. I’m happy to be in that zone as an artist. It’s one of the great things about being a middle-aged artist who decided to go play on the street. Let’s face it, guys; I’m not some incredible, powerful young rapper with a billion followers. And if you haven’t noticed, I’m not some pretty white girl singing pop music. So I feel like, man, ain’t nobody really looking for me. And so I just make the records that I want to make with no pressure. And it’s good to be able to tell the truth.
Willis: I don’t know if you’ve been ahead of the curve, but you’ve been talking about it before the mainstream.
Fantastic Negrito: Yeah, I feel like I’ve been like a little bit ahead. … I’ve been riding that curve like a surfer. I’m like, “OK, here we go. Oh shit, they’re killing people. Oh shit, they’re killing some more people. Oh, they’re doing drugs.”
Willis: I was just having a conversation earlier today about how, in Oakland, none of this is new. Oscar Grant was 11 years ago, and there were protests.
Fantastic Negrito: This has been going on for hundreds of years. Man, this is our legacy. This is who we are. Oscar Grant … that’s just a chapter in this whole book. So, from my perspective, I don’t try to get riled up about all this because I’m an old dude. I’ve seen this, man. I’ve seen this happen before, and I’ve seen how it’s gonna play out.
You’ve got a protest, that’s a phase. You go, you’re protesting, then you elevate and become something else. You’re able to express that differently. That’s just my personal belief. You’re going to hit the streets at some point—maybe in your 20s or something. But then I feel like you just can’t be a lifelong protester. There’s gotta be something else [that] has got to happen. You have to acquire some more tools to make change happen.
Willis: Like you said, you’ve seen this before. What are you expecting to come next? And what are you hoping comes next?
Fantastic Negrito: Well, I’m an optimist. Remember: I’m the guy that lost my hand and still plays. Some people yell at me on social media for being positive right now. I want to say “fuck you,” but I’m 52 and I know that that doesn’t help to say “fuck you.” I think what helps is I have the wisdom to be consistent and to be honest. Every day that we live, man, it’s a blessing. Every day that you wake up, man. We got another chance to make all this right. …
All of us are in the same thing. We think there’s all these subgroups [but] we’re all in it together. That’s the thing that we haven’t realized.
Let’s face it, poor white people didn’t pick cotton. Think about that. Poor white people weren’t hired. They didn’t say, “Gee, let’s have the cotton-picking union, and we’re going to pay you well, and you’re going to have a nice carriage too.” No, they outsourced on day one. And when our white brothers and sisters realize that one day, then they’ll go, “Oh shit, this white supremacy shit, this isn’t even good for us.” It wasn’t on day one. It was good for a very small percentage of people who controlled all the wealth, and they sold you white supremacy and people ate it up. They think it makes them big and strong but it’s not good for anyone. Except for that super small group of people controlling us.
I probably went off the rails with that question, sorry.
Willis: I’ve accepted that I’m not the one who should be talking about what’s going on. I’m in my 30s. I’m the whitest guy in the world. I’ve been on the good side of most of this. You should be telling me what I should be asking.
Fantastic Negrito: You know, I feel like unity wins. I’m the old man on the porch, like, [growls] “Unity wins! We’ve gotta stick together!” And the young guys are all “fuck you.” But I believe that, man.
The left is so dysfunctional. We are dysfunctional with our subgroups. You’ve got the Black people, Black Lives Matter. You’ve got trans people. You’ve got liberal white people kind of confused. Like, “What do I do? I’m not a racist, but I better not say the wrong thing [because] then they’re going to call me racist.” We are dysfunctional.
Hey, I’m going to say it right now—and people can send me some more hate mail, because I get some and it actually helps me write songs: Donald Trump’s a good leader, actually. For all the wrong reasons! But let’s face it, he’s a good leader with a message for his people. He’s preaching this thing. It works. We don’t have that on our side. Man, on the right, when I’m on social media, he’s leading people to hate immigrants, to be afraid of Black people, xenophobia. “Make America Great Again.” Appealing to white supremacist and hate groups.
They’re very clear in their message. They’ve got it together. We need to learn from them and get a consensus. I see us on the left: We argue about every fucking thing. And we’re trying to force this ideology down each other’s throats, and then if you don’t accept it, people call you a name and we don’t have that consensus yet. And as an old guy, that worries me because we may be so dysfunctional to the point where these people are back in power. And they got power by unifying on a very horrible, evil, but effective message.
Gokhman: So maybe I’m jumping too far ahead, but what can we do and what can our readers do to turn these protests into something long-lasting and effective?
Fantastic Negrito: Brother, I’m glad you asked me. I’ve been waiting for that. I want all people, white people, peace-loving white people, come ask me. I’m going to tell you what you can do. Because you know what? You can do a lot. You know how much power each and every one of us has?
Every day that we wake up, we’re decision-makers. If every one of us says, “You know what, I’m gonna be honest to these people. You know what, I’m not gonna think of just myself. You know what, I’m gonna look this person in the eye. You know what, I’m gonna start a conversation with this person. You know what, I’m gonna live my life a little bit for other people and not just think about how everything should benefit me.” Because we are trained in this society to just be, like, “Me, me.” And now even more with social media it’s like [Negrito pulls out his phone and pretends to scroll through it], “Me, my account, my Facebook, my Twitter, my likes.”
It’s small; it’s not really that sexy. I’m sorry. There’s no matching jackets, no signs. [Laughing]: “Damnit, Negrito let ‘em down again.” But I believe in that. And I’m an oppressed person, I know I’m an oppressed person. I wrote the song, “The Suit That Won’t Come Off.” I wrote “The Nigga Song.” I know what it’s like to be Black. I know!
Living in Oakland, by the time I reached 50 my nerves are shot because white people are afraid of me. Of Black people. And we don’t want to talk about that. I’d love to see a town hall meeting where we just got it out. “Hey, when I see you guys, I’m fucking terrified.” That’d be great. And it’d be great for Black people to say how they feel, and Asian people to say how they feel.
I learned this shit from being married, bro. The toughest opposition in the world is being married and staying married. You got to communicate with that person or you don’t have shit. We want to have a country, a country is like a family. If you want to have that family, man, then you have to talk. You have to talk about the things you’re afraid to talk about. Then maybe the next time we see each other, we can look in each other’s eyes and there won’t be that fear.
But as a Black person, yeah, your [nerves are] fucking shot by the time you’re 50. That’s probably why we die earlier with hypertension and all these diseases. Because it is stressful all the time, being looked upon that way. Then we’ve gotta dig deeper, like, “OK, then why are we looked upon that way. Did we do anything to support some of that shit sometimes?” We have to talk about it. Because that’s what healing is. That’s what reconciliation is. That’s what forgiveness is. That’s what moving forward is if we want to be a family-slash-country, slash-society, slash-neighborhood.
People can’t keep living in fear. People can’t keep living in frustration. Because that’s all this shit is. People are like, “Will you condone the riots?” I’m like, “No, I won’t condone it.” I won’t because you know what, it’s anger. Will I support it? No, I don’t really support tearing up shit. I’m 52; I know it doesn’t work. It won’t work.
But I do know this: In a revolution, if you want to call it a revolution, everybody’s got different lanes. Some people are going to be in the streets. Some people are going to read some shit to enlighten themselves and become smarter. Some people are going to learn a little bit about our history and learn why white people didn’t pick cotton.
White supremacy is just everywhere and it’s so pervasive. You guys may not see it, but for me as a parent, and having little children that have color, it’s everywhere. I don’t mean this in a way to offended anybody, but more white heroes? Shit, you guys can look at a person of color here. All white people aren’t superhuman. I mean, it’s presented to the world that way, and I get it. They won. They are going to control the narrative. But there comes a time when you’re going to have to pay the bill.
There comes a time when you’re stepping on people over and over and over again and you are benefiting from white privilege. I mean, you can’t help it. It’s not your fault. It’s probably good that you don’t have to think about all this shit that I have to think about. I’d love it, too. But if we have to get along strong, and last long, and really have that relationship, [we have to] talk about it.
And then on the other side, we’ve gotta stop calling you racist all the time. I almost want to give white people a hug sometimes, they’re so traumatized when I’m talking to them. They’re like, “I really want my coffee black—I mean…” We’re nervous.
Gokhman: I am.
Fantastic Negrito: Thank you! Thank you! I need to hear that shit.
Gokhman: With all that on your mind, and you think about this so often, how are you able to stay as positive as you are?
Fantastic Negrito: Here’s more “Shit Negrito Says.” I don’t really believe in this race thing that somebody made up. I don’t believe in it. It’s not really real to me, man. I traveled on six continents last year and people are generally good. People want to feed their children; people want to have healthcare. People want to be loved. People want to be respected. Treated with dignity. I can’t really buy the race thing. It just doesn’t interest me personally. Now, just because I don’t doesn’t mean other people can’t.
I can’t walk around thinking, “I’m Black, how can I not do some shit, how can I overcome all these obstacles?” I can’t live in that world. I have tools, thank God. I don’t know if there’s one, but she’s probably really pissed at me right now. I have some tools, man, and if the police pulled me over, thank God I have those tools.
Someone gave them to me. Someone took the time to teach me as a little Black boy. My father sat down with his accent, “And if police stop you, you must never argue with someone with a gun. If the police stop you, tell them ‘yes sir’ [or] they will blow your brains out.” This shit is in my head. “Say yes sir. Don’t let them have the power over you.” I’m fortunate.
I’ve had guns pulled on me when I was 14. I’ve been treated inhumane. I’ve been disrespected and hurt, but I know that I had the tools to make those cops, those powerful white people, feel at ease. In America, people like me; we’re trained to make white people feel comfortable. It’s a weird relationship, man.
I remember when I was writing The Last Days of Oakland, I wrote a skit called “What Do You Do.” The whole thing was about what do you do if the police stop you. And motherfuckers got mad at me! “Oh, man, you’re giving the police too much power.” Hey, man, the police have showed you over and over they have power—to take your life!
Willis: So, a lot of white people are trying to strike that balance of, “How do I speak up? How do I use my privilege and my voice without perpetuating this; stepping on Black people and making it so they can’t talk?” What advice would you give to these white people who are torn between, “Do I speak out on social media? Do I grab the mic or do I sit back and let someone else talk?”
Fantastic Negrito: I feel like this. We’re all different. Every human being’s different—different experiences, different beliefs, motivated by different things. And I think everyone has to do what they can do in their name. That’s what people have to do. And anything’s better than doing nothing. Doing nothing ain’t cool.
We must do what we can do, and we can do a lot. Even if it’s your attitude. You can do that and it is powerful. When you walk out on the street, what is the energy that you’re emitting to people? How are you going to respond the ignorance?
I think people feel powerless and that is completely the opposite, because we’re all these parts of this whole thing, and if all these parts feel powerless, we’re all powerless. But all if all these parts feel powerful, then it’s amazing.
As an African American, I am so happy, so pleased when other people can see my pain, my journey, my obstacles, and they can give a voice of support. That means so much to me. Your voice means so much and I want to listen to them and support them back. It’s not one-sided. Relationships are two sides, so we got to figure it out. And we’re going to do it by communicating. We’re communicating and it’s incredible.
Gokhman: I’m feeling more optimistic.
Fantastic Negrito: You should! I am too! Because you could be on the other side, but you’re not.
And if you’re a patriot; if you’re one of these patriot people, isn’t that good for America? Aren’t we a team? People gotta realize, the whole racist thing that’s been championed by the right— it doesn’t work! We’ve tried that over and over again and it doesn’t work. We’re a country of immigrants; we’re a country of diversity. That’s what made us exceptional. We have to embrace that.
Willis: I’m not optimistic in general but, man, you should start a support group. I haven’t felt this optimistic for years.
Fantastic Negrito: Any way I can help, man, I’ll help. I always feel like my messages aren’t really that popular because I’m not demonizing anybody. I just don’t do it. I can’t do it. It’s not in me. I wish it was so I could be that dude, but I can’t be like that. I could see something on the right and I’m like, “Hey, that’s pretty good!” and get yelled out of the room.
I know I’ve said this everywhere, but I’m a recovering narcissist. So I’m constantly reevaluating myself and I’m looking at, “What did I do? Maybe it was me. Maybe I fucked up at that meeting. Oh my God, why did I say that?” I think that’s what you can do. It’s a hard thing to do, but to realize, “Man, that’s my ego, I’ve gotta stop that shit. Man, I gotta build, I gotta contribute. I got to do things that are positive, that are productive.” That is what is going to move the agenda forward. That’s gonna increase the peace, man.
That’s what makes me optimistic. If you got love in your heart and stay optimistic, man, that love is much bigger than you. You can lose everything. I learned that from being in a coma, helpless in a bed. If your heart is still big? Brother, you can move mountains. And that’s what we need. I don’t mean to sound like a hippie, but we need that shit, man. More positive shit. More loving shit. More supportive shit. More about productivity, about going somewhere, doing some shit. Then we’re good.
Gokhman: So, the better solution is to just take this energy and carry it to November and vote, right? You would take that over, say, sacking the White House and starting over again.
Fantastic Negrito: My deepest feelings on, say, the police system—let me speak on that. I feel like the police system as we know it needs to be deconstructed, destroyed, and then reconstructed so that police are like the police I see in Japan; like the people that I see in France, in Italy, in Germany. They’re actually beat officers, and they know you. They’re part of your community. They’re people you can go talk to. That’s what’s gonna help.
Are there gonna be horrible criminals? Of course. Criminals that need to be confronted and stopped and all that. But maybe this whole system helps create evil fucking people who want to rob. I used to be one of those kids, robbing and selling drugs and getting arrested. I was on that path. I was one of those kids. I was one of those kids that you should be afraid of. But I’m, thank God, what saved me is this universal, multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, layered, loving society and tribe in the Bay Area. That’s what saved me. A village with love in the heart saved me. They gave me something to believe in. And they helped me get a career again in my 40s.
The Bay Area’s so rich, so diverse, so multi-layered; we’re really different from the rest of the world. Take it from a person who’s traveled around the world for last five years nonstop. Really different. And we’ve really got to embrace that shit.
Gokhman: So this is the thing that we haven’t addressed at all: How did you feel or what did you feel when you watched that [George Floyd] video?
Fantastic Negrito: Human.
Human. I felt… even further, I felt pain as a human being. Not just seeing my Black brother being murdered, executed, by the very organization that says they serve and protect people, but, it’s easy to kill the ones we dehumanize. I also felt for those officers, in a way. Like, what leads you to this moment? … He’s a human being! I love science. Science tells you that that’s another human being. It’s a father, it’s somebody’s son, it’s somebody’s brother. It’s a citizen of this great fucking United States that we say is the greatest country in the world. That’s our citizen. That’s our brother and you’re murdering him. He’s treating him… you wouldn’t even treat a dog like that. Treating him like he’s nothing. Like he doesn’t matter. And if he doesn’t matter then you don’t matter, and none of this matters.
I know this guy’s a Trump supporter. All these people hardcore on the right, I wouldn’t say, “Hey, you’re all racist.” That’s too simple. But I would say the right is so corrupted by its refusal to acknowledge white supremacy, it is going to lead to its demise. They’ve damaged the brand of conservatism, in a way. They damaged it forever. This man believes so much in the false and fake ideology of white supremacism that he thinks that killing this person is going to make him a bigger and stronger person, and that he is not a human being.
I felt for our country, and I felt for the world. And I don’t have enough tears. I don’t have enough anguish. But I think my nervous system is shot from being 52 and being an African American in this country. It’s shot.
I’m not a quitter, though. I’m going to keep believing in the dream. I’m going to keep believing that it can happen. And I’m going to keep doing something about it through the power that I have— my music and my voice. And until they bury me, I’m going to keep up that fight.
Willis: Is there anything else you’d like to say? Anything else you’d like to tell our readers? The world in general? To tell us?
Fantastic Negrito: Yeah, I’d just like to say [to] everybody: This is a moment in, hopefully, a very long life that we’re all gonna lead. Let’s understand that there’ll be so many moments. There’ll be tragic moments, happy moments, there’ll be sick moments, there’ll be moments of health. And they’re just all moments, and that is the full spectrum of living. And if it doesn’t destroy us, as my grandmother said, “it’ll make us mo’ better,” more powerful, more stronger, more united, more together.