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How Fantastic Negrito, Rexx Life Raj and Salami Rose Joe Louis Pivoted from Touring

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Bay Area artists Rexx Life Raj, Fantastic Negrito and Salami Rose Joe Louis (left to right) previously spent much of the year on tour. Since the pandemic started, they've all found creative and unexpected ways to pivot. ((Left and right: Nastia Voynovskaya, center: Lyle Owerko))

In any successful musician’s career, there comes a time when they think to themselves, OK, maybe I could really do this. Their day job starts to feel tedious after late nights of playing shows and recording in the studio, and slowly all that work begins to pay off with a growing fanbase and new opportunities.

After months—or years—of keeping up this juggling act, they finally take the plunge and decide to go into music full time. Then, of course, come more sacrifices. Streaming and album sales don’t earn much unless you’re über-famous. So for most artists, doing what they love professionally requires spending large parts of the year on tour.

But—cue record scratch—the pandemic upended that entire economy, and musicians have been essentially out of work for almost a year. While many are understandably struggling—creatively, financially and in terms of mental health—as the state of the world continues to resemble a dumpster fire, others have relished the opportunity to pause, recalibrate and find new directions.

To see how different artists are handling all these changes, I caught up with three Bay Area musicians who’ve taken different paths: Grammy-winning blues-rock singer Fantastic Negrito, rapper-producer Rexx Life Raj and Salami Rose Joe Louis bandleader Lindsay Olsen.

Up for a Grammy, Fantastic Negrito Focuses on Urban Farming

Fantastic Negrito’s music career hasn’t followed what anyone would call a linear path. As a teenager in the ’90s, he ran away from home and landed a major label deal at Interscope, only to be dropped by them after he survived a debilitating car crash. He thought his music career was over, but he rediscovered his passion and started busking on the streets of Oakland in his 40s. Winning the NPR Tiny Desk contest in 2015 brought him once again into the national spotlight. Fast forward to 2021, and he’s up for his third Grammy for his latest album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

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“My life has been rocked with challenges and obstacles all along the way since birth. It’s normal to have things to not go as planned,” says Fantastic Negrito when I ask about the past year.

That’s not to say handling them has been easy. He says he previously made about 80% of his income from live shows, and was getting ready to head on a tour across Europe, Asia and South America when shelter-in-place orders came down in the Bay Area and the concert industry effectively shut down.

“I woke up one morning like, ‘Hey, you don't have any money coming in,’” he says. “I have mouths to feed—I have children, I have animals, I have it all.”

But instead of panicking, he steeled himself: “We have to rise to the challenge. I believe that, and I come from a long line of people who have done that.”

With touring canceled, Fantastic Negrito got online and revamped his merch store. He also began to craft a digital rollout strategy for Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, which came out in July. A crowdsourced video for the lead single, “Chocolate Samurai,” captured the stir-crazy mood of the first pandemic summer with footage of fellow musicians, friends and fans singing along inside their houses, looking slightly frazzled as they chase their children, work out to pass the time and tend to never-ending piles of dishes.

“I really got involved digitally with the album online because I knew people needed music and they’d be at home—so they needed even more music,” he says.

The approach worked. Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? hit No. 1 on Billboard’s blues chart. And support came in other ways: a grant from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and a gig at their virtual festival.

“They were one of the people who compensated their artists fairly,” Fantastic Negrito says, adding that he’s had to turn down numerous asks to perform for free.

Last month, Fantastic Negrito treated his U.S. fans to a virtual concert, and livestreams for his listeners in Europe and South America are also in the works. He’s also received commissions from the Oakland Roots soccer team and the local beer company Ale Industries, and flew to Atlanta to work on an undisclosed television project.

The time away from touring has also given him space to work on two ideas he’s had brewing for a while: his newly announced, genre-less independent record label, Storefront Records, which he started to develop artists who “do not want to be famous,” and Revolution Plantation, his urban farm. He hopes to expand Revolution Plantation into an educational nonprofit that teaches horticultural skills to Oakland kids, particularly kids of color. Teaching them to grow their own food and empower themselves, he says, is his way of affirming that Black lives matter.

“After the marches happen, then what? After the slogans and the signs, then what? What is tangible? That’s the good thing about the pandemic, and everything that happened this year,” he says. “It made me think, what can I do?”

Rexx Life Raj Forays into Cannabis and Real Estate

Prior to the pandemic, Berkeley-raised artist Rexx Life Raj was unlocking the next level of his career as a rapper, songwriter and producer. He had a headlining tour under his belt, performed at taste-making festival Rolling Loud and collaborated with big names like Kehlani, Bas and Russ. 2020 was supposed to be even better: he was booked to play Outside Lands—a longtime goal of his—and was looking forward to his biggest year of touring yet.

Since the pandemic had other plans, Raj had to make some quick switches. “For me, it wasn’t like I pivoted. Everything I’m doing is stuff I’ve been doing—and now I have time and energy to focus on it,” he says.

That meant getting his footing in two industries with high potential for growth: cannabis and real estate. Along with the release of his EP California Poppy 2 in late 2020, he developed a soon-to-be-released marijuana strain of the same name with the help of friends from Humboldt company Permanent Holiday, who walked him through the proper permitting process and inner workings of the biz.

Though business-minded, Raj places a lot of importance on advocacy. He hopes to expand his cannabis business to include an incubator for other Black and brown entrepreneurs—especially those who, like him, come from communities impacted by mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. “I have a few homies who’ve been in jail for weed, and it’s crazy to me that there’s a whole sector of people who profit off the same crops,” he says. “My biggest thing with this weed strain is I’m going to build a platform and an infrastructure for POC to learn about the cannabis business.”

As for his real estate ventures, Raj is just getting started. He and a handful of friends from his alma mater, Boise State University, recently formed an LLC and are getting ready to pool their money to purchase their first investment property.

“My biggest thing has always been is, rap is my passion and I’m getting paid from it, but it’s also a vehicle to open other doors,” says Raj. “I learned that from playing football [in college].”

Even while keeping busy with these projects, Raj has remained focused on his music career. He’s part of the inaugural #YouTubeBlackVoices cohort, a new grant program that funds projects by up-and-coming Black creators. Since it was announced, he released a music video for “Bounty,” an incisive and witty commentary on trying to succeed in an unfair system.

Speaking of which, giving back to the community has been a central focus of Raj over the past year. He got his hands dirty—literally—planting a community garden with the mutual aid collective People’s Programs, and collaborated with sneaker company Finish Line to donate $20,000 to the arts organization Endeavors Oakland and youth nonprofit Fam 1st Family Foundation. He also took on speaking engagements with UC Berkeley and the Oakland Unified School District.

“I think that’s always been something that was big in my heart, to find a way to give back,” says Raj, whose father was involved with the Black Panthers. “I always look at myself like I’m blessed. ... In the pandemic things are going so well for me, but if you look out into the world it’s just crazy.”

Salami Rose Joe Louis Learns to Score Films

By day, Lindsay Olsen was a technician in a chemical oceanography lab. At night, she toiled away on her sci-fi-inspired brand of experimental, jazzy electronic pop. After years of playing in other people’s bands and performing her solo project at house shows, she went on to tour with Toro y Moi and signed a three-album deal with Brainfeeder, Flying Lotus’ label, in 2019.

Newfound success was equal parts thrilling and challenging for Olsen, who performs as Salami Rose Joe Louis and with her improvisational outfit, the Science Band. “I’m such an introverted person and I felt like playing so many shows all the time the previous year—I really was exercising muscles that come really hard to me,” she says.

She had plans to go on a West Coast tour and was booked for an ongoing weekly residency at Starline Social Club. But when the pandemic hit, she first found herself grateful for what she thought would be a temporary break from life on the road. But quickly, the reality set in that California’s shelter-in-place orders wouldn’t just last for a few weeks, as some of us had optimistically predicted.

Soon came the stress of soon-to-be-due bills. “I think as bandleader I felt a lot of responsibility, too, for being a portion of income for all these musicians I care about,” she says.

As the weeks went on and her savings account shrank, she began applying to freelance gigs to score commercials and short films. It felt like a natural fit: much of Olsen’s work as Salami Rose Joe Louis was quite cinematic already. In her albums, she’s told stories of humans surviving environmental collapses, traveling through interstellar portals and meeting otherworldly beings.

After teaming up with a sound company in Los Angeles, Olsen composed soundtracks for several soon-to-be-released commercials. One of her scores appeared in Intersection for the Arts’ Loud Cinema screening at Fort Mason Flix, which invited contemporary musicians to imagine new sounds for experimental short films from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

Although she enjoys playing live, she says, “I think my happiest self is just at home making music.”

With film scoring, she discovered a new purpose. “This is what I want to do for a living,” she says, adding that her ultimate goal is to compose for feature-length films.

For her, film scoring presented an exciting new set of challenges. “How do you create the emotions? How do you tell the story?” she asks. “You just have so much power and responsibility making the music, because you’re really creating the mood.”

Olsen has also been using the extra downtime away from touring to learn new skills. She took an online mixing class with the Berkelee College of Music, and is currently taking piano lessons and learning clarinet. She misses her band, but she and her frequent collaborators Cheflee and Eli Maliwan have stayed in close contact, sharing their solo work and offering each other feedback.

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Though Olsen doesn’t want the next stage of her career to consist entirely of touring, she did have one experience during the pandemic that reminded her of the magic of playing live. At the Good Faith Gallery in San Diego, she performed inside an art installation as one COVID pod at a time watched her from outside the building, through a rolled-up garage door. “It was so nice for play for people, and then they had a nice, private experience. I was like, ‘Oh man, there’s still ways to connect and play,’” she says. “You just have to do it for less people and be far away.”