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Self-Taught Musician Battled Back From Coma to Win a Grammy

How Blues Musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz, aka Fantastic Negrito, found his unique sound

Fantastic Negrito performs during 2019 Lollapalooza day three at Grant Park

Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Xavier Dphrepaulezz, aka Fantastic Negrito, 52

What's the secret to surviving? That's simple. Never give up. I should be dead from a hundred different situations, but here I am. The crack cocaine epidemic, guns, bouncing around from one home to another, violence, shattered bones—you name it, I fought back from it.

I remember coming out of the coma and not being able to distinguish between dreams and reality. I asked the nurse, am I OK? The nurse said no. My heart started sinking. But within five minutes, I began to rebound. I remember moving my toes and thinking, OK, this is how I'm going to come back. One step at a time.

Fantastic Negrito in hospital bed after car accident.

John Mosely / Ken Weinstein / Big Hassle Media

The Fall: Rising out of foster care to gain early acclaim as a blues musician, the artist suffered a near-fatal car crash in 1999 that put him in a coma, killed his record contracts and sidelined him for years.

The Comeback: He strummed and sang his way to winning Grammys for best contemporary blues album in 2017 and 2019.

My dad had me when he was 63. And I think that had a lot to do with my mentality, because I was raised by a guy who was born in 1905, and back then there were just no excuses. He had problems, but he gave me that fighter instinct. Growing up in Massachusetts until I was 12, then Berkeley and Oakland, California, I was the eighth of 15 children. I was in foster care by the time I was 13. My best friend was murdered running around with the wrong kids. I ended up on the ground one day with someone holding a 9-millimeter pistol to my head. But I somehow always knew there would be a way out.

Relationships are what make you. I made friends as a runaway at age 12, and those are still my closest friendships. There's a guy I know named Malcolm Spellman; we've been friends for 40 years. We've done everything together since the projects. He's a television writer and producer now, but he was there when I was in the car accident and when I reinvented myself a few times after that. You need that grounding influence.

If you have that ground beneath you, you can resurrect yourself. Like, with me and music. I taught myself music as a kid. I snuck into classrooms at UC Berkeley to learn as much as I could. I saved myself, song by song. But then after the crash, I had to do it all over again. My hand didn't work. My guitar-playing hand! I can't move it at the wrist, and I can't really move my fingers. I actually had to stop playing with my fingers, and now I play with my entire hand. I call it the claw. I went from fine playing to sort of attacking the instrument. It's very rugged, but it improved my sound.

Sometimes you have to shift from perfection to feeling. After the accident, I stopped focusing on getting everything exactly right and started focusing on the spirit of what I was doing. That's when my playing really changed. One of the great musical minds of all time spoke about this. Miles Davis said, “Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the mother-effer who plays it is 80 percent.” That's it. Great art comes from feeling. Not from robots. It comes from being knocked down and getting up again. It's why so much great music comes from African Americans. Whose journey was more challenging than African Americans'?

Life sucks at times, but it's also beautiful. Life is someone stealing your life savings. Life is falling in love. Life is scrambling to make a dollar. Life is winning Grammys. No matter if it's good or bad, you have to try to learn and grow from it all. You can't let setbacks set you back. All you can do is say, “Hey, what are the things that I can do, not the things that I can't do.”

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