Buried in the dark riffs and blues licks that shaped Fantastic Negrito’s searing set on Sunday at The Meadows, one would expect to find hidden meanings and deep inspiration – he’s just that kind of a musician. What we didn’t expect, though, were his feelings of stage fright during that very performance, the tenacious testing process that helped build his repertoire, or the bigger picture he sees with the current political climate. Luckily for us, the sagacious, Grammy-winning singer/guitarist poured out his thoughts on those topics and more when we spoke to him after his festival show.
“I’m always intimidated,” he said unabashedly. “I have a lot of stage fright. Fucking terrible stage fright. It’s before – you don’t see me before. I feel terrified. When I step on the stage and hear the first note, it goes away. But I can’t eat beforehand. It’s terrible. So I did that show with no food. I just drank tea and had a piece of bread.” It was a surprising backstory to a performance that had seemed rock-solid, musically, and unshakably confident. But it was nice to hear that the nerves didn’t put a damper on his experience. “I loved today’s crowd,” he said genuinely. “You could feel it. They were surprised. They don’t know who I am a lot of the time. It’s like a first date.” As it turns out, he’s had a lot of first dates in terms of sharing his music with strangers, and it’s been an integral part of his creative process.
“When I went to start Fantastic Negrito four years ago, what I did is I took my guitar, and went outside to the donut shop and the pizza parlor and I just played – because I really wanted to connect with people,” he told us, referring to places in Oakland, California, where he grew up and is currently based. “It felt like I was at a period in my life where I wanted to make a contribution, and to make that connection. And I thought, if I have songs and I think they’re interesting and cool, why don’t I play them for people who don’t want to hear it? Because then I can see what’s going on with the song. You’ve gotta busk, because that’s how you can tell. I knew I was connecting with people – sometimes I had like 100-dollar tips, but I had things thrown at me too. I think they were throwing cans, but that’s okay! I was like, ‘I’m at a point in my life as an artist that this is what I want. I want the truth. I’m not gonna get into this anymore unless it’s real.’”
“I call my show ‘church without the religion,’” he explained. “Because when I was a younger artist, I was like ‘Take it.’ I want the best girls, I want the hot chicks, I want the money, the cars, the best drugs,” he laughed. “In my twenties, even into my thirties. I was just looking for something. And when I stopped looking for something and thought about, as an artist, what can I contribute? That changed the way that I saw things. When I go out, I’m contributing something to these people; this big crowd of wonderful people that are diverse, from every walk of life. And my job – along all their learnings and differences – my job is to unite them.”
“It’s a time when politicians are the opposite,” said Fantastic Negrito. “They look at the same crowd and divide them, saying ‘you’re a Christian, you’re a jew, they’re black…I don’t like them, they don’t like you, keep immigrants out.’ We’re in this weird phase. I think that it’s really the era of artists. It’s our time as photographers, journalists, painters, filmmakers, singers. Our golden era is happening right now, where we hold the last line of defense before the end zone of tyranny – you know? I really believe that. That’s what history will say. It’s so fucking real,” he said, repeating it again. “It’s so fucking real. What else is there?”
“I’m here to be the lightning rod of love, man. And companionship, and empathy – and to unify. Because we’re here to do that. The more you contribute, the better,” he said in an encouraging tone. “I like telling the truth. I’m very optimistic. I feel a lot of power in what I do. I feel a lot of power in this festival, and what other artists do, and what we’re bringing to the table. So, how can you not feel optimistic, being an artist? And being surrounded by great artists, and people who have a lot of enthusiasm. My advice is, surround yourself with people who empower and challenge you.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley