What does Fantastic Negrito (Xavier Dphrepaulezz), a three-time consecutive Grammy Winner, do for an encore? He makes White Jesus Black Problems his most career-defining album to date, chronicling an amazing real-life story from 270 years ago, elements of which are still painfully relevant today. The title would have you thinking that this is a militant protest album, and the artist has certainly delivered his fair share of caustic rants in his work, including this one. However, the theme points more toward the triumph of love and perseverance. The cliché “love wins” is the essence of this project, which results in both an audio and visual album. Watching and listening to both creates quite a searing, provocative impact.
The multi-media work is based on the true story of Negrito’s seventh-generation white Scottish grandmother (Grandma Gallamore), an indentured servant, living in a common-law marriage with his seventh-generation African American enslaved grandfather (Grandfather Courage); in open defiance of the racist, separatist, laws of 1750s colonial Virginia. Written, recorded, and filmed in Oakland, much of the film was shot on his urban farm, Revolution Plantation, the prevailing love story also touches on themes that still ring incisively true today, almost three hundred years later when grappling with racism, caste culture, capitalism, and the inherent human need for freedom at almost any cost. Dualities could well be a theme too. The sound is clearly Negrito’s, sometimes infectious and at other times harsh and disorienting. Reconciling the vintage with the experimental, it’s a challenging listen that touches on funk, R&B, faint touches of blues, and visceral energetic performances, very much heightened by watching the film.
Having unearthed all this genealogical material, Negrito in a little more than a year wrote nearly fifty tracks, eventually culling them down to thirteen songs, including the interludes. He recorded the songs live in the studio for the first time ever with his drummer, James (StickNasty) Small, who does a superb job of playing Grandfather Courage in the film. Negrito then layered in an array of synths, other electronics, and assists from collaborators like bassist Cornelius Mims, guitarist Mas Kohama, keyboardist LJ Holoman, and cellist Mia Pixley. Even Dom Flemons appears on banjo on one track. The primary vintage instrument is an old Yamaha transistor organ from the’60s.
The story basically unfolds chronologically. The opening “Venomous Dogma” both musically and visually begins like something out of sci-fi with synths and choir-like vocals symbolizing the joy and freedom the two eventual lovers must have felt in their respective homelands before coming to into servant/slavery status in Virginia. About halfway through the music explodes into violent angst, with screeching guitars, field hollers, and the reality of captivity. African rhythms. chanting, and insistent beats mark the caustic “Highest Bidder” (‘everything-even human dignity goes to the highest bidder”). “The Mayor of Wasteland” poses questions about compassion and accountability, setting up “They Go Low,” one of the infectious tunes but with lyrics that decry man’s limitless cruelty. “Nibbadip” brings a more joyous vibe through the three female background singers with lyrics pulled directly from Gallamore’s arrest record for “unlawfully cohabitating with a negro slave.”
Now we’re back to the duality – love on one hand, power, greed, and caste-rule on the other. The couple is fighting vigorous to escape the system which is both confining and crushing. In this light, Negrito sings “Betty,” about his grandfather – “He’s toiling in captivity and the only light at the end of this dark hallway is his love, Betty Gallamore, and he won’t give up on her. So that’s Grandpa Courage reaching out and singing that ballad.” The interlude “You Don’t Belong Here” is a series of all-too-common racist rants while “Man With No Name” channels a James Brown-like vocal in an impassioned will to survive and rise above the system. Musically “You Better Have a Gun” is softer but the message itself is clear – love can survive even the most brutal violence. “Trudoo” begins as a blues and morphs into a gleeful expression of freedom. The whirling, spinning “In My Head’ takes on a bit more understanding when viewing the film as it follows Negrito’s narrative that the best music has come from the oppressed. “Register of Free Negroes” is a hand-clapping, celebratory interlude, leading to the closing “Virginia Soil,” a ballad nodding to the black and white ancestors that paved the way – “I’m gonna dance so freedom will come,” imbued by Flemons’ banjo and Pixie’s cello amongst the usual mix of guitars, keys, and that Farfisa organ.
Like his previous work, this is sure to land Negrito awards., Often it sounds like something other than blues but in terms of theme, it couldn’t be more direct -out of pain and suffering comes a determination to overcome hardship. He’s urging us to take the positive aspects of his story to inspire our own activism.