By C.J. Hirschfield October 8, 2022
Xavier. Amin. Andrew. Blood Sugar X. Oakland’s Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter, born Xavier Dphrepaulezz and now known as Fantastic Negrito has had many names, and even more lives. The new documentary Fantastic Negrito: Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, which has its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, traces his remarkable and unlikely journey, telling the story in chronological order, interspersed with song tracks and jam sessions that feature his unique blues/R&B/roots music. It all comes together beautifully.
It’s a whole lot of years to cover, and co-directors Francisco Nunez Capriles and Yvan Iturriaga do a fine job letting the articulate and thoughtful Negrito narrate his own story, with the help of family, and especially his lifelong friends, who’ve gone with him to hell and back.
And it’s a quite a story. With 13 siblings, and born to devout Sunni Muslim parents, Negrito was the only Black kid growing up in his rural Massachusetts town. “I wanted to be the hero, because I was always the zero,” he says. Negrito was 12 in 1980 when the family moved to Oakland, where he left them and his emotionally abusive father. Describing the city as “the blackest place on earth,” Negrito says he felt like an alien landing. He loved it.
The film makes effective use of historical footage, dramatic re-enactments, and family photographs to convey the feel of the times. Nearly all of the location filming was done in Oakland, and communicates the city’s energy and grit.
Negrito found himself homeless, eating out of garbage cans and then enduring often abusive foster care and group homes until he was adopted by a UC Berkeley employee, about whom he says “that family changed my life.” It was by sneaking into the university’s practice rooms that he discovered his love of music.
But the story doesn’t happily end here. What follows is an introduction to drugs in high school, and then dealing, and then a near-death experience involving a gun to his head that drives him to a move to Los Angeles, in the single-minded pursuit of fame. Negrito excels in putting his story into a racial and cultural context. With the gift of age and hindsight, he offers his thoughtful observations on how celebrity, guns, drugs and mental health often go hand in hand.
A turning point for Negrito was a horrific car accident that left him in a coma for three weeks, where he had to “relearn everything.”
Negrito then tries out many different roles, both music and non-music related, and ultimately returns to Oakland. Having rediscovered Black roots music after re-connecting with family in the South, he starts performing “not to make money, just to put it out.” At BART stations, street fairs, the then 44-year old found fame just when he wasn’t looking for it: as the Grand Prize winner of NPR’s first Tiny Desk music competition.
The hugely talented Negrito is also a very charismatic and thoughtful man, whose unbelievable success story serves as a testament to self-reflection, growth and resilience.
I fail every day,” he says. “But then: Deep breath. Reset. Refresh.”
The Mill Valley Film Festival runs from October 6-16. will play in-person October 15 and October 16 with director-producers Yvan Iturriaga and Francisco Núñez Capriles expected to appear in person. It will also be available streaming at home through October 16. Purchase tickets and more info.
Fantastic Negrito talks about making the very personal album.
“Sunshine” from the album
Many more videos and performances on Fantastic Negrito’s channel.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”