Oakland on the Precipice: A Video Postcard with Fantastic Negrito

The East Bay has a long history of inspiring musicians like Too Short, Tupac Shakur, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Metallica, along with birthing the Black Panthers, the Free Speech Movement, and the East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club. It's that diverse and eclectic mix of artistry, culture and history that has drawn so many artists to the area, and that's kept black roots musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz, a.k.a. Fantastic Negrito, grounded in his hometown of Oakland. (His music label-turned-artist collective Blackball Universe operates from nondescript offices in Jack London's warehouse district.)

Fantastic Negrito's new album is The Last Days of Oakland, the title attesting to the reality that the city he was born and raised in is fast becoming unrecognizable. Oakland has lost 10 percent of its African American population in the last 10 years, capping a continual, steady decline, with African Americans making up 47% of the population in 1980; 44 % in 1990; 35% in 2000; and 27.3% in 2010. When the city passed a 90-day moratorium on rent increases this year, leaders estimated one in four Oakland residents were at risk of being displaced.

The changes are undeniable, but Dphrepaulezz, 48, cautions that the tumultuous shift should be met with calm -- advice that only a man who’s had a nine-millimeter gun pointed at his head and who’s survived a near-fatal car accident could perhaps heed. “If we panic," says Dphrepaulezz, "that’s when we get into trouble."

A new album from Oakland bluesman Fantastic Negrito's new album
Fantastic Negrito's new album. (Photo: Courtesy of Blackball Universe)

At a recent Oakland First Friday event, KQED Arts’ cameras captured Fantastic Negrito’s free record release party for The Last Days of Oakland. Coming off a 43-city tour across four continents, Dphrepaulezz called Oakland "the greatest tribe of people ever," and between spirited performances of new songs like "Working Poor" and "Hump Thru the Winter," shouted to the crowd: “Keep money in Oakland!"

“We have to be creative, and it’s the creative community and artists who need to get into the fray and choose who we’re going to be in this new Oakland,” adds Dphrepaulezz.

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From the Bonfire Makers political theatre collective to photographers participating in the Oakland Fence Project, featured in the above video, other artists are using the cultural space to amplify the voices of longtime Oakland residents.

"Nobody is going to hear it otherwise," says the Bonfire Makers' Phil Wong, with determination. "People are just going to go and open another bar."

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