With the influence of my son, Chris Cornell, Sturgill Simpson and more
Fantastic Negrito is arguably one of today’s most inspiring artists. Music has guided him through the most challenging of times, ultimately landing him on the Grammy stage in 2017, with an award in hand for “Best Contemporary Blues Album”. But it’s his attitude that is perhaps the most admirable trait.
Here, Fantastic Negrito shares his journey of resilience, while paying tribute to some key people and places that have pushed him along the way — Chris Cornell, Sturgill Simpson, Oakland, California and his son.
Three Life Cylces:
When I was in my early 20’s I had this idea of being a big star. I moved from Oakland to Los Angeles with a plan to make a demo and get signed to a label. I made the demo and I got signed. I first had a management deal, it was Prince’s management company at the time. I went to the studio and that was the first time I was getting paid for doing music. I thought it was incredible. I then signed a million-dollar record deal with Jimmy Iovine’s, Interscope Records. It was a big deal in the press, but as soon as I signed it everything ended. I was a kid off the street. I thought I had arrived — people would love the music, my name would be up in lights everywhere, and there’d be parties and cars. I found out none of that was true nor would be my reality. It was a major downer. I was young and so naïve. I had about five years on Interscope just doing nothing. The record wasn’t going anywhere.
One night on Thanksgiving, I’m coming from a party in the Hollywood Hills. I picked up a girl and we were going to hang out. I’m driving down the street talking to her and “bam”, we crashed. I didn’t see it coming. The next thing I knew, I woke up and three weeks had passed. I had a full beard and weighed about 140 pounds. I couldn’t remember anything. It changed my life for the good.
I then got off the record label and decided I was going to do my own hustle. I started opening up these illegal nightclubs and doing all different kinds of music that I wanted to do. I had these incarnation artists like — Chocolate Butterfly, Blood Sugar, and me and this Japanese guy. I was putting out this music and it got into a lot of films and TV shows. It was a really fun time. I’d have these after-hours shows in clubs around LA that opened at midnight. That was round two — playing these afro punk shows. I was enjoying myself, but then I just hit a wall. I turned 40 and realized I wanted to have a kid. I thought, “Forget this music stuff, I’m done with it, I don’t really have anything to say anymore.”
I returned to Oakland and I sold all of my equipment except one little guitar that wasn’t worth anything. I put it under the orange loveseat in my son’s room around the time he was born. At this time, I was about five years retired from music and was growing marijuana plants. They reminded me of people. Here are these plants that start off so small. If you give them light and love and you nurture them, these roots start coming out of the bottom and they produce amazing for you. It was such a wonderful time learning from these plants. I thought there’s a way you can put this to people and get the same results.
One fateful day, the sun was shining in the room and my son was not in the best mood. I couldn’t get him to take a nap. I tried everything. Suddenly, my eye caught the guitar I left in his room. I picked it up, tuned it quickly and strummed a G major chord — I’ll never forget it. Once I played that chord the room changed. The sadness exploded into the biggest smile I had ever seen. In that moment I thought — “music.” I realized there was something to music that really communicates. My son knew nothing about what music was, but he was hearing that music resonate into his body and he’s going, “Wow, oh my God” in a way. It struck me that I was being taught again by my little boy.
It took me a couple years, but slowly I started walking back towards music. I actually didn’t know anything about groups like the Beatles. I then heard “Across the Universe” on TV and thought it would be such a great melody for a kid. I learned it and would play it for my son every night. That got me fascinated by the Beatles catalog and I ended up learning a lot more of their songs because I thought they were so great for kids. That brought me closer to being a musician again. During that time, my best friend suggested we get together. He joined me in my business and then suddenly got hired for the show Empire. Once he did, he encouraged me to now go do something in music. That was when I started Fantastic Negrito. It was my third incarnation. I wouldn’t be here without my son.
The Influence of Oakland:
Oakland was always in my blood. Its just such a different and diverse place with a rich history. There’s so much incredible music. It’s all over the place — from Sly Stone to Green Day to Metallica to E-40. That’s how I like it and all of it influenced me. I opened for Chris Cornell for about a year and now I’m on the road now with Sturgill Simpson, my music can go anywhere. It crosses barriers and that’s what I get from Oakland. There’s so much greatness that came before me. The bar is high and I love that. It’s fascinating place to live with a ton of culture.
As a kid, I wandered everywhere. I hung out with the punk rock kids, the breakdancers, the metal kids, the rich kids in the hills and the kids doing hip-hop. Many of them are still my friends now.
The Last Days of Oakland:
Things shifted after Tiny Desk in 2015. I won NPR Tiny Desk when I was touring. I was in New Orleans and for some reason the thought — The Last Days of Oakland, just popped into my head. I realized it would be so interesting to build a bridge between the old cities and the new. I remember the old days of DC, New Orleans and Oakland. We got a lot of good things out of that. Now it’s a new day and I think we can get the same things, but sometimes you have to say goodbye so you can move on and embrace the new. If you keep wanting yesterday, that’s a lot of suffering and you’ll never be happy. The Last Days of Oakland came from that. I want to make sure I contributed to something instead of complaining. When I was younger, all I did was want things — a record deal, success, to be a star. When I stopped wanting that and I got myself out playing on street corners, I started giving and contributing. That’s when everything changed and somehow that’s when you receive the most as well.
In terms of creating the album, The Last Days of Oakland, I felt like it should be an experience. When I think of my favorite albums, they are all journeys from start-to-finish. That’s what I wanted. Still I made sure I had my own flavor. It’s a little edgy, like me. It opens talking about the end of something and the beginning of something else, planting seeds and watching them grow, but it ends with gratitude. That’s the pop writer in me. There’s some grime and noise in between, but it was important to me to have it end with something beautiful. Three and half years ago I was playing on the streets. I knew that I needed to connect with people. I am nothing without you — it’s a theme that I talk about. I can’t do anything without people. I tried it alone and it didn’t work. I’m older and wiser, and I realize I couldn’t have made this record without all different types of people. People on the subway and at the train station, they gave me the pass first. They would tell me I’m good and encourage me to keep going. That’s who the record is for.
Wining a Grammy:
It all happened so fast. The first thing I did when I returned home and received my official Grammy was — I went out to the train station, put the Grammy out right in front me and just started to play. I was nothing without the people. I don’t want to be a celebrity. So, I went to the corner where I always played on — Lakeshore Bart station. I actually opened the Grammy there. When they sent it to me, I didn’t open until I got to the station. I have a video of me taking it out of the box on the street that I used to play on. I wanted to celebrate together. Keep the Grammy, the people are what matters. I felt like it was our Grammy and I wanted the love of the people. I left the Grammy on the ground while I just kept playing. I trust my people in Oakland. That’s when I had my moment. Right there in the train station. That’s when I started thinking about all I had persevered through. It was fantastic.
I was happy for me of course, but I was mostly happy for others. People were so excited. I’ve seen my kids be born, so nothing can top that. I thought the Grammy I thought would be so good for other people to learn from. I did this record with no label. I was just some middle-aged guy standing on the corner. You can be a middle-aged guy and it’s still not over. It’s never over. I did this being me. People told me I can’t operate under the name Fantastic Negrito, it was bad for marketing and white people won’t like to say Negrito. The Last Days of Oakland? That sounds terrible, what are you saying? I didn’t care. I heard all these things echo into the halls at the Grammy’s. I thought — “See, you have to believe in something. Even if people say no, you have to believe in it.” There are days where you are not sure if you can keep going and working at something, but you can. You can do it. Don’t give up and surround yourself with people who are going the same direction. Cut off the negative people who are just dead weight. I surrounded myself with people who were all in this “Let’s Dream” mindset. We were all in our 40’s. It felt crazy. But we did it — put out a record in our 40’s, win a Grammy, meet Chris Cornell, meet Sturgill Simpson.
The Impact of Chris Cornell:
When I first met Chris he said to me, “Man I saw you on Youtube, you were playing in the street, and I just stayed up all night watching your stuff.” Someone had sent him a link to Fantastic Negrito. Mutual parties connected us and my name surfaced as a potential tour opener on his “Higher Truth” tour. I was kind of hoping I would not get the gig because I thought I was too roots, blues and edgy to be paired with the Rock God, Chris Cornell. But credit to him, he thought if you listen to Soundgarden and strip it down, you can find roots music there too. He had the vision and just knew. He was right.
The first time I opened for Chris was in Oslo. I was nervous because people were sitting down. After my set, I went to the side of the stage and watched Chris. His body language taught me there was a way to do it, and then I realized I could do it. I can to play to people sitting down now because of Chris. He was my teacher in many ways. He was also my biggest supporter. The biggest lesson Chris Cornell taught me was that no matter what position you are in, being a loving, giving person was most important. Aside from him being one of the best vocalists rock music has ever had he was such a loving and giving person. He didn’t act like some big star. He’d come knock on my door each night and see how I was doing. I started calling him Christmas Cornell. Every time he would call me it would be something amazing. We went to Europe, I thanked him and told him how special it was. Then he’d call me and ask if I wanted to come open on the American run. After the third time, when he called to open for Temple of the Dog, I immediately thought — “Christmas Cornell”. I’m the only band that only opened for Temple of the Dog, it’s unbelievable and it was such an amazing experience. He’d always say, “you’re a force.” He had a heart of gold. I would go to shake his hand and he would hug me.
Touring with Sturgill Simpson:
It’s amazing. He’s such a nice guy. I think it’s the first time ever the country and blues Grammy winners have toured together. Sturgill is a brave artist and one hell of a guitar player. It’s so interesting to be a part of his crowd. You can see them saying, “Who is this tall black dude in the crazy pants?” By the second or third song, we’ve got them. It was just like touring with Chris Cornell. Sturgill Simpson did not care about genres, he just thought it was cool and it let’s put it out there. It’s incredible when an artist reaches out to another artist in support. It may not be what the audience is expecting or looking for, but you are going to expose them to it. My son again taught me this — the power of music. It transcends everything. An artist looks at a room and thinks about rocking everyone and getting each person on the same wavelength.
It’s such a vital time for artists. There are other tracks trying to lead us off cliffs. This is our time — artists, writers, producers, film-makers, this is it. The bell has rung — we need you now. There’s a lot of love in the world and we as artists have to show it.
Where I Am Now:
What made me overcome all my obstacles was one simple thing — gratitude. Whatever I was losing at the time, I would stop and say to myself, “At least I am here.” It would make me grateful for what I have — and that would be what I work with. When I lost my playing hand, I was just grateful I didn’t lose my whole hand. All that has happened to me in my life has been my teacher. It gave me wisdom and the ability to craft songs. Every day is a gift and every time you wake up it’s a clean slate. You have the chance to do something amazing. I was telling Sturgill Simpson today how grateful I was to be on this tour with him. I get to be with people who wouldn’t listen to me. I feel happy to be an artist at this time — to be able to contribute something when artists are really needed. We are on the frontline.
I am going to go back to Oakland and make another album. There’s a lot to write about.
Catch Fantastic Negrito on tour with Sturgill Simpson now
Check out the reissue of Fantastic Negrito’s Grammy winning album, The Last Days of Oakland.
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In collaboration with/produced by Jeff Gorra