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A Conversation with Oakland’s Own Fantastic Negrito

Musician Fantastic Negrito’s recent rise to fame includies having won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, performing at major music festival Outside Lands, and appearing on Empire—to name just a few of his feats. His latest is album is the soundtrack to OMCA exhibition, Oakland, I Want You to Know… We spoke to Fantastic about how he thinks artists can be a bridge between the old Oakland and the new.

Oakland-based musician Fantastic Negrito has had a long history in The Town before his recent rise to fame. In just the past two years, he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, performed at major music festival Outside Lands, and appeared on the hit TV show Empire—to name just a few of his feats. He’s fresh off the European leg of his 2016 tour to promote his new album The Last Days of Oakland, which also is the soundtrack for current Oakland Museum of California exhibition Oakland, I want you to know... Last week, Fantastic debuted a new short music film for song In the Pines, a remake of the classic Lead Belly song from his new album. The film, by director Rashidi Natara Harper, features the story of an Oakland woman whose 12-year-old son is lost to a police shooting. We spoke to Fantastic about the film, his album, and how he thinks artists can be a bridge between the old Oakland and the new.
Evelyn Orantes: For readers who maybe aren’t already familiar with your work, can you tell us, in a few words, who you are and what you do?

Fantastic Negrito: There’s only one Fantastic Negrito in the world. I am an artist of Black roots, blues-based music, from Oakland, California, and I’ve got a lot on my mind.

EO: You just premiered the new video for the song In the Pines online. How did the story in this film come about and what it was like to work on it?

FN: I was always a huge fan of that song. I was moved to take [Lead Belly’s song] In the Pines and restructure it a little bit to speak on the issue of gun violence, and specifically, the strongest people in the world, who, to me, are mothers. These women uphold the fabric of society when it’s being shredded.

I personally experienced my 14-year-old brother, my 16-year-old cousin, and a best friend of mine that I grew up with all losing their lives to gun violence, right here in the Bay Area. Those are just the very personal people to me, but countless numbers of young men and a few young women have lost their lives this way, and who’s there to pick up the pieces? It’s these strong, resilient women, mothers. So when I have the artistic opportunity and the platform, I try to address gun violence.

I thought it would make a great video, so I hooked up with Rashidi Harper and I explained what the song meant to me, what was my intention in rewriting it, and whom I was trying to honor. It’s a story that needs to be told. It’s uncomfortable for people and I know everyone doesn’t want to hear about it, but that’s the job of artists. We speak for the people with no voices. In this case, it’s mothers, every day, mothers that hold it all together.

EO: Can you say a little bit about why this song makes sense at this time, and why it was also part of your album The Last Days of Oakland?

FN: It was a no-brainer to have that song on the album. Gun violence is a part of Oakland, past and present. The street that I was busking on three years ago; there was a kid that was murdered there. I came off tour, and I saw the flowers and the candles. This stuff happens. And there’s the countless police shootings of people of color. As a child, I had my father inform me when I was five or six, “This is what you’re gonna have to deal with one day.” And I grew up and I dealt with it. He gave me the tools to deal with it. I hope in The Last Days of Oakland and In the Pines that I am helping young people develop tools, and that I am honoring the voices of these countless mothers who I’ve seen personally deal with this horrific circumstance. It’s a shame and a stain on the greatest country in the world. It’s unacceptable, and we should do everything in our power to rectify it, especially if we love this country.

EO: Gun violence on In the Pines is one of the aspects of the Oakland lived experience, but can you talk a little bit about what you were hoping to communicate with the overall album The Last Days of Oakland? What are some of the messages you hope people will take from this album?

FN: I like to think of myself as a bridge, being old enough to have been raised in the old Oakland, but now being a contributing artist in the new Oakland. As I say on the album, there’s good in the new Oakland, there’s good in the old Oakland. Tech, that’s great, that’s jobs, but there’s also culture. Why is it a cool city? Someone had to make it cool. We need to be very aware of those people, and aware of the history. You can’t lose your culture just because you’re bringing in new jobs and bars and coffee shops and restaurants. It has to remain a place that’s affordable for artists and everyday working people, like my song The Working Poor says. You work long hours and multiple jobs just to pay a landlord. It’s not a high quality of life. Again, it’s disgraceful in the eyes of the world. When I’m playing in Europe, they ask me, “Man, what’s going on in the States?” with a very worried look on their face. People do look at us as leaders, whether we like it or not. So I want to be a bridge.

EO: That’s how we’ve represented your contribution to the exhibition Oakland, I want you to know… you’re an embodiment of the voice of Oakland and community. I’ve gotta tell you—people have really enjoyed and felt your contribution. Your album is the soundtrack of the exhibition and it gets people talking. It’s an embrace for people that are trying to grapple with all these really hard issues. There’s sorrow in how things are changing, but there’s an element of hope too.

FN: Exactly. When I wrote the album, I thought of hope. Listen, the end of something means the beginning of something. The end of old Oakland, you can’t keep living in that past; that’s gone. That was beautiful, it was amazing, it was an explosion of culture and enrichment and art and music. That particular part is gone. Now we can have another explosion, but it’s going to be different. It’s not going to be Too $hort. It’s not going to be Tower of Power. It’s not going to be Sly Stone. It’s not going to be Tony! Toni! Toné! It’s not gonna be E-40, a true innovator, a genius like E-40. It’s going to be something else, and we have to get our mind around that. Let’s build something new, together, all of us. We’re going to do it.

EO: What do you think Oakland flavor is today?

FN: I think we still have those echoes from the past. The spirit is still progressive politics. It’s still taking chances, being daring, being original, all those things. That to me is what the Bay Area is. That’s what being a bridge is—pointing people in that direction so that they don’t get lost. So they don’t think that Oakland is an “I hella love Oakland” t- shirt. Oakland is the beauty, the diversity, the openness, the resilience, the courage. That’s the Bay Area to me—one of the greatest tribes that ever lived. It’ll go down in history, but we gotta work at it. You can’t just be great on auto-pilot, you gotta work at being great.

EO: How would you complete the sentence “Oakland, I want you to know…”?

FN: Oakland, I want you to know that I love you. It’s that simple.

Oakland, I want you to know… is on view through October 30, 2016. 

The opinions expressed in the zine and video do not necessarily reflect those of the Oakland Museum of California, its staff, Board of Directors, or other affiliated parties.