An ultimate hustler

Fantastic Negrito’s White Jesus, Black Problems reviewed
By Ashley Marshall
Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto, August 1 2023.

Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto August 1 2023.

Fantastic Negrito
Axis Club, Toronto
August 1, 2023

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On August 1, 2023, the Axis Club in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood hosted a screening of White Jesus, Black Problems, a short film by Fantastic Negrito. The venue was small, with murals of iconic musicians painted on the wall to my right. Seats were arranged in rows on the floor of the venue, with a stage elevated above us, a bar to the left, and a merch table selling Negrito’s vinyl, t-shirts, and CDs. I got the Grandfather Courage “special limited-edition” record. The album had no cover art, just an all-white sheath.

Seeing my purchase this way made me smile because Fantastic Negrito is many things, not the least of which is an ultimate hustler.1Fantastic Negrito: the drug-dealing hustler who became Bernie Sanders' favourite bluesman | Music | The Guardian The shots in the film also make this clear. This film was made on a budget: the main character was played by Negrito’s drummer, the kid with the white face paint was played by Negrito’s nephew, the plantation owner was played by Negrito’s neighbour, and the white woman “Karening” about people of colour not belonging was played by his accountant. No permits. One camera. The entire cast was of people already on Negrito’s payroll or family tree. No new talent needed.

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Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto August 1, 2023.

Audiences sat in their seats, some of which were VIP, as the visuals played against the white screen on the stage’s farthest wall. This is the first film from the artist, whose medium is usually music. Negrito’s music has won three Grammy awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album for three consecutive albums: The Last Days of Oakland (2016), Please Don’t Be Dead (2019), and Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? (2020). Released in June 2022, White Jesus, Black Problems has the same Negrito baritone vocals, but with some cuts including funkier, more upbeat instrumentation; his most distinctive album to date.

The film is an autobiografictional account of Fantastic Negrito’s bloodline, starting with his seventh-generation interracial grandparents: a white Scottish woman named Elizabeth Gallimore who married an unnamed, enslaved Black man. During the film, Negrito gave his relative a name, referring to the enslaved man as “Grandfather Courage.

Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto, August 1 2023.
Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto August 1, 2023.

The film is absorbed as a musical. It has breaks in the plot that include full-length songs from Negrito’s album also titled White Jesus, Black Problems. There is Negrito’s bluesy voice, a vocal fry thick with Black chords, and a bassline that pumps with urgency. The distortion pairs perfectly with the frenzy that appears on the screen: running, entrapment, longing, dream sequences. Rich with the ethos that “obstacles become our fuel,” the film tells the dangerous story of interracial love forged on a plantation in Virginia.

The opening shot is of someone dressed in all silver, face covering and all, that I can only describe as afro-magical, or perhaps Astro-mystical. He is an elusive figure that seems to haunt audiences throughout the film, as he is there, and then not. Something like a trickster character, I interpret his work to tether us between time zones, as the story takes place between the 1750s and present day.

Perhaps this movement back to the past with whispers of today is meant to remind us that freedom is elusive, a constant struggle that takes two steps forward and one step back. Freedom here is not depicted as futuristic, but instead brings us back to a past where choices and conditions create the shapes we now recognize as culture and policy.

Several of the frames in the film are peppered with Fantastic Negrito and his band playing their music, detached from the scene. The artists are in cages, chicken coups, and other settings in the outdoors. This imagery serves to remind us that in his real life, he is a farmer. His practice reminds us that growing our own food, having our own relationships with the land is not a practice of slavery, but is a spiritual experience of being one with nature, and living outside of the consumerist grid. What can we make with our own two hands? What skills do we need but have lost? The entire experience brought many ancestral questions to the fore.

When the film was over, Fantastic Negrito, whose given name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz, took to the stage alongside his keyboardist to play an acoustic set of 12 songs from previous albums.

Negrito ended the night with pride and joy. Introducing “Virginia Soil,” he mentioned that this was the song that got him booed in Arizona. The Toronto crowd was predominantly white people, and one of them seized the opportunity to yell back “You won’t get booed here, this is Canada,” solidifying that he had thoroughly missed the point, and much of history.

There is a fascination to discover where our roots began, especially if those beginnings were cauterized by theft. Those who think they are “from Canada” continue to obfuscate the story, and further enrich a desire for the rest of us to unearth the truth. Blackness has roots. Sometimes it’s a connection to land, other times it is a thirst to know our blood.

The song “They Go Low” starts, with a chorus simply repeating “They go low/Low, low, low/They go low, low, low/They go low, low, low till they break you down.” I notice the silk scarf worn around Negrito’s neck, reminiscent of the nooses and metal affixed to enslaved necks. The silk has the added effect of reminding me of the famous respectability politics of Michelle Obama, as she popularized the phrase “When they go low, we go high.” Here Negrito leaves it as it should be: they go low. We will all experience varying degrees of feeling broken down, but no matter what, under capitalism, they go lower and lower, becoming more and more inhumane, all to attract the highest bidder.

Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto, August 1 2023.
Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto August 1, 2023.

The melody is somber, in tones of a people that are shaking their heads at the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of one people against another. Swing low, sweet chariot. Most times, higher isn’t better. If we are able to form community, united in our low treatment, there are infrapolitical maneuvers available to us for our liberation.

The visuals are supported by the narration offered in the music; the heart of the experience. The playful, almost jingle-sounding, “Nibbadip” begins as the scene depicts manual labour on Jones’s plantation, with these lovers stealing intimate moments. “He said, ‘Please, don’t sell me’/ ‘Cause I’m in love with a woman/Freedom’s in her eyes.” This part of the film gave me a numbing sense of ick. Love takes two, but all of the risk, all of the life-threatening burden seems to be placed on the Black man: knowing that the consequences include being sold, being hurt, being killed, he still chooses a white woman over himself.

Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto, August 1 2023.
Fantastic Negrito at The Axis Club Toronto August 1, 2023.

In contemporary context, this is seen from Black men who choose white women over their own culture, over their own women, because in prevailing misogynoir, there is a belief that if you are partnered with a white woman the Black man has transcended race, won’t have to deal with racism, because his partner has “freedom in her eyes.”

From what I have seen, nobody has more freedom in mind than Black women, Black non-binary people, whose love is often overlooked or seen as more challenging, more aggressive, more difficult, but never more worth it — for survival, understanding, family, happiness, love, comfort, care, success. If love happens to us, then that is beautiful. If love is a choice that people make based on beliefs and dynamics, and those choices leave Black men exposed to very dangerous consequences because they naively think hitching their wagons to whiteness is safer, easier, or more stylish, then I don’t have time for those ideologies.

Girl, we out here on our own/Then they dragged her into court/On May 4th, on a cloudy rainy day/Told her love’s against the law to my grandpa/In Amelia County VA.” This part of the story does not ring as radical. Instead, it reminds me of Emmitt Till, the innocent Black child who was lynched for presumably whistling at a white woman. He did not have any choice. How are we understanding “freedom” within metrics that are inherently and disproportionally against us?

We’ve all seen Get Out, a film Jordan Peele unapologetically remarked as a “documentary.2Get Out’ was a genre-bending hit. Here’s why it’s a remarkable Oscar contender. - The Washington Post” For White Jesus, Black Problems’ 2022 release, this theme, or trope, lacks nuance. Although based on historically true events and is meant to also be something of a documentary, the levity of “She gon’ get that (nibbadip)/ Oh, I want her (nibba-dippa-dibba-dip)” seems to miss the mark that there are ongoing, very material consequences for not having higher standards for ourselves at this point, for not loving Black women enough this late in the game. This ditty is not the song for this history, nor contemporary reality.

After the film screening, and after playing their acoustic set, Negrito remained on stage to engage in a Q&A with the audience. At this point, his hustle came full circle. The credits read that the story, executive producing, music, directing (in part) and “cast” were all by Negrito. Now sitting on stage, the multi-hyphenate artist becomes raconteur. The audience is dazzled, yet must decode which role he is playing to get us to buy more and more of his story.

“The year was 1759. Elizabeth Gallamore was presented by the Amelia County Court in Virginia as unlawfully cohabitating with a negro slave…and having several mulatto children” was written on the document Negrito recalled during the Q&A he read several times in the making of this film.

This is the script that sets up “Oh Betty,” the ballad nominated at the 65th Grammy awards for Best American Roots Performance. In the film audiences saw each of the lovers trapped in their own boxes, with smiles and longing looks. There is tension that it is actually the white woman who is evicted from the plantation: the “negro slave” is not sold after all—but of course not. It appears that she is now free, rummaging through the woods to find her lover and clandestinely give him food. “Oh, my sweet Betty/I can feel you laugh and cry, your tears, they clean me/You’re the only thing that feeds me/Oh Betty/You’ll be free in seven years while I’m still bleeding/I wonder if you’ll ever need me.” Their love brought her freedom and increased his suffering. Admitting that this is a “strange album,” Fantastic Negrito and his band play in a way that is at this point most familiar to their previous musical releases.

However, even the ending of this film – which depicts the start of Negrito’s family as he knows is – envelops stale narratives of Black people’s contact with whiteness. Have we ever needed white tears to clean us? This ballad of saviorism is a disappointing note to end on. The music and artistry of Fantastic Negrito is so distinctively Black, so proudly wrought from the conditions of survival to success, that such crescendos of romance being “free” seem exactly that: fantastic. In reality, Negrito uses Black rhythm and our Blues to sell us a package we have already rejected. He almost had me.

References

Ashley Marshall
Ashley Marshall's research critiques how power, economics, and politics influence social change.
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