When Fantastic Negrito heard he won NPR's Tiny Desk Concert he was shocked.
”I had a temperature of 103 that day, so it gave me something to smile about," said the Oakland-based blues artist in an phone interview. "I didn’t think I had a shot at all. I thought what I did was a little different and pretty raw, and the more that I saw the other NPR contestants I thought, 'oh they really nailed it,' and they really are the NPR esthetic and I wasn’t. I didn’t think I had any shot.”
He didn't even want to enter the national song contest. He said he was really busy and didn't think it would be worth the effort -- but the other members of his artist collective pressured him to enter something.
“I was tired, it was the night before the deadline. We didn’t have a camera person… we shot it all on just an iPad."
That video was chosen out of thousands of videos as the winner.
“The performance was very honest and very raw. I always think people are not interested in that,” said Negrito, “As confident as I am, I’m terribly insecure.”
It was only after selecting the video that NPR Music learned of this performers incredible backstory. He is one of 15 children, and was raised in a conservative muslim household. When he was 12 his family moved to Oakland where he was exposed to a variety of music. He picked up every instrument he could get his hands on and, at the age of 20 went down to Los Angeles to make it in the music business.
Things fell apart in the big city, leaving him distrusting of the music business. “I was a kid coming straight out of Oakland… stuff is real here in this city. When I got into the music business I couldn’t believe how unreal things where. I was just a street kid so it didn’t make sense to me to carry on the way people were carrying on," he said. “I kind of just lost myself.”
In 2000 Negrito was in a terrible car accident, leaving him a coma for three weeks and badly maiming his body. His hands were so terribly destroyed he couldn't play music anymore and gave up on music entirely for five years.
“I had a son… he was one and a half years old and I couldn’t really get him to take a nap. At that point I had sold all the gear I had. I had no interest in music or song, I didn’t even want to talk about it," Negrito said. "I had one guitar left and it was an acoustic, cheap guitar. I picked it up and I remember playing an open G and the expression on his face was so powerful and so moving. He had never heard music before - you know that live music and that person playing an instrument right there. And I had been not exposing him to that because of my own battles, my own demons with music. It was a slow walk when I started walking back toward playing again. A couple years later I came up with the idea of Fantastic Negrito, right here in Oakland California and the collective I started.”
With all the tragedy Negrito says he's just tried to keep walking toward the light.
“It’s all a journey. Everything that happens along the way in life… you know you could spend three weeks in a coma and become maimed the way I did and pick another route," Negrito said. "With art you have to get toward the truth, the source, because that’s what makes your music or art powerful. It doesn’t matter if you've been shot nine times or been run over by a car, I think what makes music connects with people is you’re walking toward the truth, toward the light - and that’s powerful. I think that’s a journey…
My brother was killed when he was 14 - how was I gonna deal with that? I could’ve dealt with that a lot of ways, but I made it powerful - and that comes out through the music."
Winning the Tiny Desk Concert Contest made a difference in Negrito's life as an artist.
“It’s changed my life completely, NPR shined a light on me and now a great number of people are exposed to what I’m doing… it’s given me an audience I just didn’t have before," he said. "I was playing on street corners, that was my thing. I'd go out and play on the corner, play in the train station - that was my favorite thing to do to. I thought it was the best way to test out the songs. Let’s see if people either throw things at me or give me money and both things happened."
Now he's playing an official SXSW showcase in Austin, TX and sharing his music with thousands of people online. His Tiny Desk Concert audition video has been viewed more than 100,000 times.
“I don’t have a label and I debuted at number seven on the blues billboard charts. I think the power of social media and people can make the decision. People believing in something and give it some legs and make it happen.”