It was strange to me when I saw Fantastic Negrito on an episode of Empire. “Actually real, good music on Empire?! No freakin’ way.” But there he was, getting down with Jamal on the show. It was serendipitous that he was one of the three featured artists at the Grammy Songwriter’s Summit I was attending in my hometown just a few weeks after finishing the spring semester. The other two artists were interesting enough, but it was Fantastic Negrito who really captured my ear, my eye, and who I was utterly enchanted by. Each artist introduced themselves in song, and when he hit the stage, I knew I was witnessing something special.
Mystifying, his voice soared over us while he plucked a simple blues/rock riff on his guitar. He jerked about while singing, as though his song was moving him as much as it was the crowd. His jarring lyrics contained more honesty that maybe the audience was ready for, but if being an artist is about leaving your truth on the stage, Negrito is certainly an artist. He talked about his mistakes, his stumbles in relationships, and about being selfish, singing, “Yeah, I want everything you’ve got for no reason.” He was a vision of imperfection turned masterpiece, a representation of the Oakland I’ve always known and loved. With our city (and the surrounding cities) going through sweeping change via gentrification and Fantastic Negrito’s upcoming album aptly entitled The Last Days of Oakland, he’s unafraid to share a bigger truth: All around the country, we’re losing the neighborhoods and communities we’ve built, loved and cultivated to opportunism and greed.
Traditionally, black rock, rhythm, and blues have been musical documentations of black struggle. Negrito’s music harkens back to that sound, bringing the message forward to relate to current struggles. Personally, he shared having a bad record deal as a younger man, losing everything and then leaving music. A tragic car accident that damaged his playing hand and the birth of his son would be his rebirth to music, this time on his own terms. His music is sometimes self-deprecating, many times critical of society, and always thoughtful. It doesn’t shy away from loss — even the loss of an entire city. From Oakland to Brooklyn, his brutally honest music should give all of us being pushed out of ‘redeveloped’ areas hope because it is a reflection of a man who lost himself and is now seemingly losing his town. If he can find himself again, in the worst of circumstances, maybe we can find the cities we once knew. Fantastic Negrito made me feel like I could find Oakland again, and that maybe it could live.