White Jesus Black Problems (Spotify Link)
2022, Storefront Records. Producer: Xavier Dphrepaulezz
In My Collection: Spotify & Vinyl, 2022.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: White Jesus Black Problems, by Fantastic Negrito, is an amazing blues/soul/funk/rock record guaranteed to make you dance and groove. If I told you upfront that it’s also a history lesson, a love story, and a view into contemporary American society, you might not want to listen. But don’t worry! Fantastic Negrito can write and sing in a million styles and make them all his own. His supporting band is comfortable on a slow jam or a bluesy swing or an R&B soul workout, among others. Don’t let the fact that you might learn and feel some things scare you off – you’ll like this record!
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
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I recently had the pleasure of visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It was amazing. My family and I spent over 4 hours there, and we still didn’t see everything we wanted to see. (PRO TIP: Be sure to start in the basement, which is called “The Concourse Level.” I wish someone had given us that tip!) It is a breathtaking, horrible, moving, exhilarating, educational, powerful experience. All at the same time! What I liked best was the unvarnished[ref]Perhaps “un-whitewashed?”[/ref] history on display.
Although students in backwards-ass Texas probably won’t be allowed to take a trip there, since it might upset some pansy-assed white parents, the museum delves deeply into the long history of the African slave trade and its many repercussions that continue to reverberate today, around the world, and particularly in America. The history lesson is difficult and profoundly sad, but there are uplifting stories told, as well. Overall, the theme of the museum is the miracle of the human spirit and how it persists. A copy of Fantastic Negrito’s White Jesus Black Problems would fit perfectly in its galleries.
Fantastic Negrito is the stage name of Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, a Black, 54-year-old Oakland man, originally from western Massachusetts, who recently won three consecutive GrammyⓇ awards for Contemporary Blues albums. (He has an amazing life story.) Sometime around the last win, for 2020’s wonderful Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, Dphrepaulezz found out an interesting tidbit about his family’s history. He is not, as he’d always believed, 100% black. He actually had a white ancestor[ref]Until the African slave trade, there was no notion of “whiteness” or “blackness.” It’s a made-up distinction, as evidenced by the differing laws in slave states as to what constitutes a “negro.”[/ref].
Given American history, it’s not unusual for Black people to have white ancestors, oftentimes due to the rape of an enslaved woman. However in Dphrepaulezz’s case, it was different: his 7x great-grandmother was a white Scottish indentured servant who was arrested in 1750s Virginia for being “married” to an enslaved Black man. He was so moved and fascinated by their love story that he wrote an entire album about it, White Jesus Black Problems. It may be the best record of the year.
It’s not a Rock Opera or a Musical. It doesn’t tell a narrative story, but it conveys the feelings and emotions of a forbidden love story set against the white supremacist history[ref](White) people often chafe at this description, since it conjures images of skinheads and little weenie dudes in mustaches wearing glorified boy scout uniforms. However, the “Founding Fathers” built America on the idea that White men are superior to all other people (i.e. “supreme”), and that is an indisputable fact that .[/ref] of The United States. Dphrepaulezz has the songwriting skills, and he and his band deliver a performance, to tell this story with a fullness of fun and funk, and a depth of emotion making it a satisfying listen whether or not you know (or care about) the backstory. Fantastic Negrito also made a film for the album, a collection of music videos that help to tell the story.
The album opens with a sort of gospel choir that is just one section of a multi-part song called “Venomous Dogma” that serves as a sort of Prelude.
The song sets up the two lovers’ personae, with orchestral sounds and reverie for the servant woman and pounding laments for the enslaved man. At 3:00 he sings “I know that there’s pressure in the world,” and that seems a bit understated considering the events. But the songs on the album don’t always tell a narrative story, and “Venomous Dogma” weaves contemporary images (standing in line for Air Jordans, police on a stakeout) into the mix. The statement “things are just the same/ as they were 30 years ago today” reflects the legacy of his ancestors’ political and personal environments. It’s a pastiche of a song full of electric piano bursts and bluesy guitar, and Dphrepaulezz certainly shows his vocal chops throughout.
“Highest Bidder” has a rumbling, funky groove, and Dphrepaulezz uses his falsetto to great effect. The chorus succinctly expresses the disparities inherent in late-stage capitalism: “Everything goes/to the highest bidder.” (Including humans, in 1750s Virginia.) Again, there are nifty guitars by long-time collaborator Masa Kohama, particularly in the breakdown (1:53). “Mayor of Wasteland” is the first of a few interstitial vignettes throughout the record.
Up next is the beautiful “They Go Low,” a weirdly uplifting, yet sadly devastating song.
It’s a slow, mournful song in which Dphrepaulezz reviews some of the characters in his neighborhood, and their sad lives. From the young, face-tattooed Black gang-banger to the angry, old White man, America’s legacy of slavery is manifested. The churning, gospel-like “they go low” chorus emits a feeling of shared indignation, and becomes a sort of rallying message. It’s an unusual song, and one of my favorites on White Jesus Black Problems.
My MOST favorite song on the album is “Nibbadip,” a blast of neo-soul that just begs to be a hit.
First of all, this is just a bright, bouncy song with big hooks and and a soulful groove. It starts out sounding like classic Motown, with a catchy, whistling little organ curlicue tacked onto the scatted title. It’s a song that doesn’t invite you to dance, but grabs you by the shoulders and forces it on you. The lyrics tell the story of his grandparents’ forbidden love, and in the context (enslaved man, indentured servant woman) include a beautiful description of love: “freedom’s in her eyes.” This song has been on repeat at my house all summer and fall, and if flows right into another song that fills in more of the story. “Oh Betty.”
The enslaved man narrating “Oh, Betty” expresses the predicament of being in love with someone who’s free – or will be in seven years, anyway. This song may be the closest to the “contemporary blues” genre in which Fantastic Negrito has won all those GrammysⓇ, a straightforward swinging march that’s got some nice little guitar licks throughout. Dphrepaulezz’s falsetto is firing, and Lionel LJ Holman’s organ whirls behind it. It’s followed by another vignette, the disturbing “You Don’t Belong Here,” which I’m sure sounds familiar to most Black Americans, and anyone who remembers the Summer of Karen a few years back. “Man With No Name” is another bluesy groove sung from his great grandfather’s perspective, with nice backing vocals.
Up next is the sad, powerful “You Better Have a Gun.”
“You better have a gun/ Living in the land of God …” succinctly sums up the gross hypocrisy of modern America. So many ‘good Christians’ that you need to arm yourself. This one’s also bluesy, and the interplay of the instruments is fantastic throughout, and in particular, drummer James Small shines in subtle, brilliant ways. Dphrepaulezz doesn’t hang on the blues for too long, though, as the Country/Funk/Chant amalgam “Trudoo” demonstrates.
First of all, the guitar intro is cool – an acoustic riff, joined by an electric chop and then at 0:17 a furious run. This song, while repetitive and mechanical, has over time become one of my favorites. The chorus, “Help me now I’m drownin’ in the river …,” is great, and the song’s theme of searching for a love to save one’s self is deeply touching. The guitar throughout, by Kohama, is a treat. “In My Head” is a gospel-tinged jam with a spacey, psychedelic breakdown that’s a bit slight, but does swing. “Register of Free Negroes” is an interlude about perseverance and escape that’s more profound than its 1:20 length would indicate.
The country-gospel-tinged “Virginia Soil” is an uplifting song that perfectly closes out White Jesus Black Problems.
“Freedom will come/ I know one day I’m sure that freedom will come.” The freedom promised in the Constitution wasn’t granted so much as pulled, piece-by-piece, from the clenched fist of White men for two and a half centuries. (A fist that is clenching more tightly now.) But the song’s meaning also includes the freedom found in love, the “freedom in her eyes.”
White Jesus Black Problems has many levels. The songs are catchy and fun and make a body want to move. The story is a glimpse at the past, and the power that love can hold, and the lyrics express the timeless desire of humans to be allowed to be a human. Many of us haven’t had to navigate that situation, and confronting that fact is eye-opening, indeed. Overall, it’s an excellent piece of art that belongs in a museum.
“Mayor of Wasteland“
“They Go Low“
“You Don’t Belong Here“
“Man With No Name“
“You Better Have a Gun“
“In My Head“
“Register of Free Negroes“