When he realised his life of guns, knives and hustling was getting too dangerous, Fantastic Negrito grew his sideburns long and gatecrashed music school
You wanna hear my robbery tactics? says the rangy 48-year-old sitting opposite me in a Soho ramen house. Id make friends with the kid that was not that popular. Id go to his house. Id find a house key and secretly make a copy. Then Id find out the schedule of the family. Then, when they were gone, Id make my move. I was that kind of robber.
Ask Xavier Dphrepaulezz (its pronounced dee-FREP-ah-lez) about any of his past lives including his teenage years of petty crime while in foster care and he has a way of taking you to the heart of the action. His story is, by any criteria, extraordinary, and the enjoyment he derives from sharing it is infectious.
The singer, who describes himself as a lifelong hustler, landed in London this morning for the first time in a decade. Last time he was here, long before his current incarnation as Fantastic Negrito, he was briefly the blue-haired frontman of Blood Sugar X, a manic Cali-funk-punk collective in the tradition of bands like Bad Brains and Fishbone. Ten years earlier, he was simply Xavier, peddling innocuous MTV funk before a car crash put him in a coma for three weeks and laid his pop star aspirations to waste. Far from distancing himself from all these personas, Dphrepaulezz places his phone on the table and Googles them for you, lest you imagine he has anything to hide.
After half a lifetime spent chasing a break, Dphrepaulezzs luck turned when he stopped trying. To start with, there was the DIY video for his song Lost in a Crowd, which last year saw off more than 7,000 allcomers to win the National Public Radio (NPR) Tiny Desk competition. He was railroaded into submitting the song by the other members of Blackball Universe, the Californian arts cooperative he co-founded to create a structure of mutual support among struggling black artists. Dphrepaulezzs prize was the chance to follow in the footsteps of Adele and Florence and the Machine and record a concert for NPR.
One person who connected with Dphrepaulezzs urgent blues epistles was Bernie Sanders. Its easy to see why a man running for the Democratic presidential nomination on a leftwing ticket might seize on, say, a song called Working Poor. When Sanders heard it, he enlisted Dphrepaulezz to play at events around the primaries in New Hampshire and Nevada. On the day we meet, the singer will be beamed across the US, thanks to a performance in Foxs music industry drama Empire. Thats Fantastic Negrito you can also hear on Ron Perlmans Amazon series Hand of God: the shows theme song is the battle-weary testifying of An Honest Man.
Dphrepaulezz seems as much a bemused onlooker as a participant in the events of his life. The first time he heard any of the blues records that inform Fantastic Negritos debut album, The Last Days of Oakland, their concerns seemed a world away from his own. Aged eight, Dphrepaulezz was visiting relatives in south Virginia. The music playing in their house bore as little relevance to his life as the classical-pop records favoured by his father a half-Somalian, half-Caribbean restaurateur born in 1905. Until the age of 12, home for Dphrepaulezz and his 14 siblings was rural Massachusetts. My dad was a strict Muslim. He had a lot of rules, he recalls. You probably have to be strict, I suggest, if youre raising 15 kids. Well, he shoots back, he wasnt strict when he was making them.
When the family moved to California in 1979, setting up home across the bay from San Francisco in Oakland, they were in effect releasing him into the wild. Gang-controlled drug-dealing had brought the city to the brink of lawlessness. Confronted by this explosion of counterculture hip-hop, thrash metal and punk all meeting in one location Dphrepaulezz made new friends, left home and didnt come back.
We were all selling drugs, man. We all carried pistols. There was a crack epidemic. Mostly, I was small-time. I was the kind of kid who would sell fake weed, shit like that. Sometimes I would use tea. What was it that the Beatles would smoke from a pipe in order to try and get high? Typhoid? Typhoo tea? Thats the shit!
Dphrepaulezzs saving grace was that, even as a teenage drug-dealer, he avoided ingesting anything heavier than weed. This period, spent pinballing between foster families, seems to have hardened his political outlook. As long as we have have predatory capitalism, he says, well have guns, because the gun industry loves to make money out of guns. They dont care if children die. What concerns them is profit.
Dphrepaulezz rarely gets emotional when going over these distant memories. But the death of Prince is another matter. His Dirty Mind album changed everything for me, he says, momentarily faltering. Someone told me he was self-taught and that opened the door for me. I was 18 and getting into trouble. I was thinking, What can I do thats safe? So I started teaching myself how to play.
His method was nothing if not ingenious. He grew long sideburns and pretended to be a student at the University of Berkeley. Taking the 40-minute bus ride north every day, he would head for its music rooms, copying students as they practised their scales. By day, he was not quite a student; by night, he was not quite a gangster. The realisation that he was small-time came when he and his friends bought some firearms from a gang, who returned to their house, held Dphrepaulezz at knifepoint and took the rest of their money. The next day I got out. I hitchhiked to LA with $100 and a keyboard.
There, Dphrepaulezz was surprised to find that a decade of hustling had been the perfect music business apprenticeship. A deal with Princes former manager was followed in 1993 by a $1m deal with Interscope, which he almost instantly regretted. Released in 1996, Xaviers passable debut album The X-Factor pleased neither himself nor his hit-hungry paymasters. Three years of limbo ensued, which were broken one Thanksgiving evening. Dphrepaulezzs car was hit by a drunk driver who ran a red light. I fishtailed and rolled over four lanes of traffic. The first thing he remembers after waking up three weeks later was the sensation of having a beard not that he could lift his arms to feel it. The accident had broken both his arms and his legs, leaving his strumming hand mangled.
Far from sending him into freefall, Dphrepaulezz says the crash released him. Interscope terminated his contract and Dphrepaulezz reverted to the only other thing he knew: the hustle. Noticing that the only nightclubbing opportunities in LA involved $20 for parking, $20 to get in, and at least $20 when youre in, I converted the warehouse where I lived in South Central into an illegal nightclub. I knocked down a few walls and built a bar that looked kind of like a pimps-from-outer-space thing. Velvet movie theatre seats. A hot tub on the roof. Nude body painting.
When Club Bingo wasnt paying host to a clientele that included Alicia Silverstone, Mike Tyson and Eric Bent, its creator was working under a bewildering array of alter egos among them Chocolate Butterfly, Me and This Japanese Guy and the aforementioned Blood Sugar X and licensing material to film and TV shows.
When he and his Japanese partner had a son, he stopped looking for further incarnations, sold all of his equipment except for one guitar, moved back to Oakland and bought himself a smallholding with no greater plan than to supplement his publishing royalties by growing medical marijuana and eating homegrown corn, tomatoes and freshly laid eggs.
Five years had elapsed since he last played his guitar. His fingers were still crooked from the accident, but he had just enough mobility to play a G chord for his son in an attempt to stop him from crying. His entire face changed, recalls the proud father. He learned the Beatles Across the Universe and played it to him every night for a year.
With that came a slew of new songs, informed this time by the blues records that had bewildered him on that childhood vacation in Virginia. In the middle of the conflict between me myself and lies / I saw people die for nothing / I sold coke to hungry eyes, went his first song, Night Turned to Day. Together with Malcolm Spellman, his longtime Oakland friend who would go on to write Empire, Dphrepaulezz threw his publishing royalties into the Oakland art gallery, label and creative space that became their Blackball Universe cooperative. Within strolling distance is the Blues Walk of Fame, which commemorates musicians who passed through the city in its pre-gentrification days. Black roots music is part of our story here, says Dphrepaulezz. Our art comes from their struggle. You think of that and you stay humble.
But to really understand why Dphrepaulezz is now succeeding, you have to see him in action. A few days later, at Londons Rough Trade East, near the end of an electrifying performance, he plays Lost in the Crowd. As his clawed hand plays the last chord, he loosens his neck tie, leans into the mic and revisits its inception. My collective calls me a narcissist, he tells the crowd. They were like, Will you stop writing about yourself? Go look at people! Look around! Arent people interesting to you? So they sent me off to Berkeley, San Francisco, and told me to watch people for a day. Just sit and watch. So thats what I did. And thats what this song is.
Its surely no surprise that Dphrepaulezz sees his own values reflected in those of Sanders. It was the collective power of a wider group that launched Fantastic Negrito on to the world, while the predatory capitalism against which he rails almost claimed him before he reached adulthood. Back at the ramen house, he tries one more time to make sense of the past few years. I thought my story was over. But that was when I realised I finally had a story to tell and it seems to remind people of their own story.
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The novelist on Trumps America and publishing the book of his life at 70
When Paul Auster was 14, a boy just inches away from him was struck by lightning and killed. Its something Ive never got over, he tells me. He was at summer camp: there we were, nearly 20 of us caught in an electric storm in the woods. Someone said we should get to a clearing, and to get there we had to crawl, single file, under a barbed wire fence. As the boy immediately in front of me was going under, lightning struck the fence. I was closer to him than you are to me now; my head was right near his feet.
Auster didnt realise the boy had died instantly. So I dragged him into the clearing. And for an hour, as we were pounded by intense rain, and attacked by lightning spears, I was holding on to the boys tongue so he didnt swallow it. Two or three other kids nearby had also been struck and were moaning; it was like a war scene. Little by little, the boys face was turning blue; his eyes were half open, half shut, the whites were showing. It took Auster a little while to absorb that, had the strike occurred just a few seconds later, it would have been him. Ive always been haunted by what happened, the utter randomness of it, he says. I think it was the most important day of my life.
A similar incident occurs in Austers new novel, 4321. Archie Ferguson, a 13-year-old full of promise, enthralled by The Catcher in the Rye and his first kisses, runs under a tree during a storm at summer camp. When lightning strikes, he is killed by a falling branch: as his inert body lay on the water-soaked ground thunder continued to crack, and from one end of the earth to the other, the gods were silent.
But this is the fate of only one of four Archie Fergusons in the novel. Austers fiction has always explored the moments in which lives, thanks to chance and circumstance, take different directions, and in 4321 this idea is presented in its purest form. The novel begins with the birth of Ferguson on 3 March 1947 to Stanley, who runs a furniture-appliance store in Newark, New Jersey, and Rose, who works for a photographer. What follows is four versions of Fergusons story. The four Archies have the same starting point the same parents, the same bodies, and the same genetic material but, as they gallop through childhood and adolescence, they take divergent paths. Each Ferguson lives in a different New Jersey town and has a different configuration of family and friends. As their stories unfold in rotating chapters, they become increasingly distinct people: the influence is felt of money, or the lack of it; divorce; education, and all the other factors that shape early lives. Auster presents four lovingly detailed portrayals of the intensity of youth of awkwardness and frustration, but also of passion for books, films, sport, politics and sex.
All the Archies are bursting with intelligence, and all are aspiring writers. All fall for the captivating Amy Schneiderman, though each relationship plays out in a different way. One Ferguson has a car crash and loses fingers; one is bisexual; one has a friend who dies suddenly; one lives in a garret in Paris rather than going to university; the father of one dies in a fire. It will already be clear that some of the four lives are shorter than others: after the storm in the camp, four Archies becomes three and, as the reader looks ahead, the title of the book takes on a more definite meaning.
As far as I know, no one has ever written a novel with this form, Auster says. Talking in his Brooklyn townhouse, we try to think of comparisons: I come up with Kate Atkinsons Life After Life; he mentions a film by Krzysztof Kielowski. But neither are exactly right. At first, I didnt know how many Fergusons I wanted to have, he continues, I just knew that it was an idea I have been puzzling over all my life. What he is driving at is not only the role of contingency and the unexpected, but the what ifs that haunt us, the imaginary lives we hold in our minds and that run parallel to our actual existence. How might things have turned out had I gone to a different school, or had I not run into the person I married? These are the shadows of our other possible lives (and deaths). It is a very powerful notion, Auster believes, and it drove me through the writing of the novel.
4321 is published to coincide with Austers 70th birthday. He regards it as the biggest book of my life and not just because, at 900 pages, its three times as long as any of his other 16 novels (its an elephant, he admits, but I hope its a sprinting elephant). In terms of his reputation, he is convinced, it is going to dominate everything. I feel Ive waited my whole life to write this book. Ive been building up to it all these years.
Its writing became urgent to him. I stayed downstairs in my bunker the basement of his brownstone and worked almost seven days a week. I wanted to live to finish it. He pauses to suck on an e-cigarette: two years ago he abandoned the small cigars he had always chain-smoked, and which have given him his much admired raspy voice (like a piece of sandpaper scraping over a dry roof shingle he has said). I started the book at 66, which is the year my father dropped dead of a heart attack. And once I passed that boundary, I began to live in a very creepy world. Ive settled into it now, but early on, there was a thought of sudden death in my head.
Auster has been a starry presence on the international literary scene for decades, ever since his New York Trilogy in the mid-1980s established him as fashionable writer who could deliver pacy plots with a dash of existentialism and literary theory. The first novel in the trilogy, City of Glass, features a writer, Quinn, who is mistaken for a private eye called Paul Auster: it is a postmodern tale of urban alienation, summed up by an editor as Kafka goes gumshoe. With his black clothes and expertise in French poetry, his love of baseball and Samuel Beckett, Auster offered a stylish and accessible intellectualism, East Coast meets Left Bank. He became the best example of an avant-garde writer who had found a mainstream audience.
Venerated in France and a bestselling novelist in the rest of Europe, he was less celebrated in his home country, though this changed when, in the mid-90s, he made, with Wayne Wang, the voguish film Smoke, and was involved in other movies. More attention then began to be paid to his delicate, thoughtful works of autobiography, and to such novels as The Music of Chance with its desolate solitary male, hardboiled thrills and its swerve into fable and absurdism. He published frequently, and began to amass a body of work distinctive in its themes and playfulness with form (the nesting of texts within texts, self-referentiality, and so on). His close literary friends Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and also JM Coetzee, with whom he has published an exchange of letters are from the premier league, and he is married to the writer Siri Hustvedt. The couple Auster soulful and sunken eyed, Hustvedt blonde and elegant were once asked to appear in a Gap advert as the embodiment of metropolitan literary cool. These days, Auster is more of an old-timer, a Brooklyn institution, but his stature is unquestioned.
He has also been unafraid to make his voice heard politically, as a member of literatures left-leaning establishment, and its hard at this moment to avoid the subject of Americas new president: Its all Im thinking about right now. Auster has in the past stood against the Iraq war and George W Bush, and he got into a public spat with the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoan over imprisoned writers. On the eve of the recent American election, he described himself as on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Donald Trumps message of Make America Great Again was, he argued, really Make America White Again Ive never been in more despair about who we are and where were going.
In the wake of Trumps victory, he says, I feel utterly astonished that we could have come to this. I find his election the most appalling thing Ive seen in politics in my life. The Russians hacking the Democratic party is almost like a declaration of war, without bullets. Ive been struggling ever since Trump won to work out how to live my life in the years ahead, he says. And he has decided to act: I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years to become president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but Ive never wanted to take on the full burden. Ill start early in 2018. Im going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I dont think I can live with myself.
In 4321 the young Fergusons react to landmark events of 1960s US history: the civil rights movement and JF Kennedys assassination, the Vietnam war and the student protests at Columbia University in 1968. I ask Auster if there any connections to be made between then and now. Tumultuous as those times were, they werent as depressing as whats going on today, he reflects. How little has changed in American life since then. Race is still a very big problem. Stupid foreign policy decisions are still being made. And the country is just as divided now as it was then. It seems as though America has always been split between the people who believe in the individual above everything else, and those people who believe were responsible for one another.
Auster has spent much of the last decade thinking about his childhood and the America he grew up in. When in his 50s, and after suffering his first bouts of ill health, he wrote a series of novels that centred on debilitated men (Timbuktu, The Book of Illusions, Oracle Night) and the presence of the dead in the thoughts of the living. During his 60s, however, Auster has gone back in time. (He has often mentioned a line from the poet George Oppen about growing old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy.) His 13th novel, Invisible, featured a student at Columbia in the late 60s when Auster studied there. And the authors two recent fragments of autobiography, Winter Journal and Report from the Interior, are lyrical attempts to recall the sensations and thought patterns of his childhood self. I think those two books laid the groundwork for this novel, he says. Without having dwelt in that land of long ago, I dont think 4321 would have occurred to me.
Ferguson, as Auster did, begins his teenage years in 1960: I wanted to give a sense of what it felt like to grow up then, the writer says: the new novel is a story of human development and I worked hard thinking about the different stages of a young persons life. His mothers name was Rose, Ferguson 1s story begins, and when he was big enough to tie his shoes and stop wetting the bed, he was going to marry her. 4321 is intent on conveying the way Archie, in all his incarnations, is formed both by personal drives and public events. The day Kennedy is shot is also the day Ferguson 1 has sex with Amy for the first time: they watch the coverage for hours on TV and then tumble into bed. (Any conjuring of a teenagers life has to engage with the obsessive thinking about sex Auster recalls that its hard to get another thought in your head.)
History unfolds: one Ferguson reports that in Alabama state troopers have attacked civil rights demonstrators in Selma, and that the Vietnam draft quotas have been doubled. A stepfather arrives on the scene, sport takes centre stage, cars are driven for the first time, Candide is devoured, Lyndon Johnsons record is assessed. All the Fergusons are in a state of plasticity, on the way to being formed. They are all notably precocious, sensitive, likable and right-thinking: Auster wants to capture the nature of the havoc roiling inside Archie, the contradictory muddle of hard, unforgiving judgments and raging contempt for big-dollar American greed, combined with an overall gentleness of spirit his good-boy rectitude and out-of-step clumsiness with his own heart.
Austers urge to convey youthful intensity in 4321 has induced him to change his style (in the past his work has been criticised for being too formulaic). He describes it as the most realistic novel Ive written The structure has a speculative feel to it, but its very down to earth. There is nothing noirish about the book, there are no borrowings from genre fiction, and there is no evidence either of what used to be his trademark minimalism: 4321 not only teems with detail but is written in long, breathless sentences some spilling over pages.
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The fashion designer Rachel Roy may have outed herself as Beyoncé’s two-timing nemesis ‘Becky,’ but the history of Jay and Damon Dash exes dates all the way back to Aaliyah. “>
Rachel Roy kicked the Beyhive. What transpired was worse than the end of My Girl.
Lets back up a few steps. On Saturday night, Beyonc premiered her surreal, stunning visual poem Lemonade, a Malick-esque cinematic companion piece to her album of the same name. Equal parts vein-opening confession, Black Lives Matter manifesto, and celebration of black womanhood, the film piqued tabloid theorists interest with its myriad references to Queen Beys marital strife.
On the track Anger, she stalks about a parking lot screaming, If you try this shit again, youre gon lose your wife, before spiking her wedding ring at the camera. In Apathy, she starts things off with a mock eulogy for her marriage (Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks), before dropping a cryptic clue about the identity of the other woman: He better call Becky with the good hair.
So, hours after Lemonade dropped, the fashion designer Rachel Roy posted the following photo to Instagram along with the caption: Good hair dont care, but we will take good lighting, for selfies, or self truths, always. live in the light #nodramaqueens.
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