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Fantastic Negrito's new music explores his 18th century ancestors' forbidden love

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

About a year into the pandemic, the Grammy-winning musician Fantastic Negrito found a mysterious email in his inbox.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANTASTIC NEGRITO SONG "REGISTER OF FREE NEGROES")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I got a message, and it was something like, I know your deep, dark family secrets.

CHANG: The sender claimed to be a relative of his and pointed him to genealogical records they had found.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I discovered these links from ancestry.com that basically changed my life forever.

CHANG: He followed the family tree back seven generations until he saw the name Elizabeth Gallimore (ph).

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: And as I read the document that came along with her name, it says - and I memorized this - Elizabeth Gallimore presented in Amelia County Court in 1759 for unlawfully cohabitating with a Negro slave belonging to Henry Jones.

CHANG: Gallimore was an indentured servant from Scotland, and she had fallen in love with an unnamed slave from a nearby plantation in Virginia. For Fantastic Negrito, it was a revelation that upended the way he thought about his family, his heritage and his own identity. It also prompted him to write an entire album about the love between Grandma Gallimore and Grandpa Courage. That's the name he gave to his enslaved grandfather. The album is called "White Jesus Black Problems."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY GO LOW")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) I seen a dead man walking. It was something that I seen before. And the song he was singing about a life that he wanted to live.

What inspired me was that this felt like a "Romeo And Juliet" story of two people, opposite sides of the spectrum of the world came together, defied the laws of the day and fell in love. And I thought, wow, this feels like me. I feel like I understand myself more now from the stories that I came from people that were outside of the box and defiant.

CHANG: So the - I mean, this story about Betty Gallimore and Courage - it's an incredible story. And I'm just curious, like, how did you decide, I want to tell this story through music? Like, did that idea come to you right away?

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I felt like it was a train coming. The train was going 100 miles an hour, and I thought, you either get on this train or this train runs you over. I just - I feel like I just got on the train and it took me everywhere. It took me musically.

Songs - I mean, I think I must have done, like, 50 songs, and they - it just - I stayed out of the way, let it be its weird, funky, eclectic, psychedelic beats - whatever it's going to be, man. That's - each song is a chapter in this story. And I didn't have to do much work because my seven generation grandparents did all the work. All I had to do was just be a conduit and let it happen.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, I want to talk about the different chapters. There's one song in particular I want to ask you about. It's called "Venomous Dogma."

(SOUNDBITE OF FANTASTIC NEGRITO SONG "VENOMOUS DOGMA")

CHANG: Can you just walk us through the way this song unfolds?

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I feel like "Venomous Dogma" - I remember writing that in about 10 minutes. And it was two different things happening, like this beautiful kind of psychedelic melody and then this hard, stomping, kind of Black roots blues anthem with a bunch of changes. And I thought of the beginning was - represented freedom...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VENOMOUS DOGMA")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) Drifting away, couldn't find a place to stay.

...Represented joy. Like, the - one of the basic fundamental, you know, essentials of humanity is that we are free. And then that freedom is interrupted...

(SOUNDBITE OF FANTASTIC NEGRITO SONG "VENOMOUS DOGMA")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: ...With indentured servitude and capture - slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VENOMOUS DOGMA")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) It be so lonely. It be so lonely.

So that song contrasts. I kept thinking on this record - contrast. It represented the beauty of freedom and the morbidity of enslavement and servitude and being captured.

CHANG: Well, I want to talk more about the love story between Betty and Courage.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: Yes.

CHANG: You mentioned earlier that you had found Grandma Gallimore's arrest record for, quote, "unlawfully cohabitating with a Negro slave." What did that feel like to learn that she was branded a criminal for being with the man she loved?

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: How did - you know, I felt very proud of her.

CHANG: Yeah.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I felt very proud to be a descendant of this little Scottish woman, as I have to imagine her in my mind. And I felt like, wow, again, like, I understand myself. Why do I take risks? Not that I took a risk - anything compared to them, but just artistically and with growing up and always not feeling quite like I fit in. And the first half of my life was in the whitest town in America. The second half as a kid was in the Blackest city in America - Oakland. So it was just, I really understood myself, and I felt extremely fortunate and proud to be a descendant of such a courageous, bombastic, incredible...

CHANG: Yeah.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: ...Union.

CHANG: Defiant union.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: Defiant - this is like a punk rock moment in the 17...

CHANG: (Laughter).

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: This - I was like, this is it. I was like, yeah, go ahead...

CHANG: Do it.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: ...Grandma and Grandpa. Do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH BETTY")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) So I said, I said, oh, Betty.

CHANG: When you were writing the song "Oh Betty"...

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: "Oh Betty."

CHANG: ...What did you imagine about the connection between Courage and Betty?

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: Well, what - I was trying to be the voice of Grandfather Courage in it and what he must have felt maybe when they - I imagine they separated them. And maybe he was insecure, as we can all be in love, especially the line that I wrote - you'll be free in seven years while I'm still bleeding. I wonder if you'll ever need me. And I thought that's a very human quality in a feeling of insecurity. Like, here's your white privilege, Betty. You'll be free. What are you going to do? And, well, she chose love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH BETTY")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) You'll be free in seven years while I'm still bleeding. I wonder if you'll ever need me.

And I thought, wow, this is a great way to - how can I honor that union and bring value in - to that union? I have a platform here, and I'm - they're going to know about you, Grandma and Grandpa. They're going to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANTASTIC NEGRITO SONG "HIGHEST BIDDER")

CHANG: How does the story of Grandma Gallimore and Grandpa Courage end? Like, what becomes of them?

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: Fantastic Negrito and NPR.

CHANG: (Laughter).

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: That's a good question. I can't figure - I wasn't able to figure that out. Only thing I could see was that there was a guy named George Gallimore, one of their kids - that's who I came from - and then ends up being my great-great-great-grandmother, Sarah Cousin (ph). She marries William Wheeler. They had - you know, maybe it doesn't end because I'm here and I have some kids, you know? I don't know why no one ever told me about this in my family. Maybe they didn't know.

CHANG: Well, now you're telling the world about it.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: I'm telling the world. Yeah, and I'm very proud of it. Maybe it's an opportunity for us to all talk. And that's a great thing about being an artist, that, man, you can just make anything happen, you know? And I can take all the punches that I'm going to take for the stories that I'd like to tell that are true, healing, beautiful love and tragic and unfortunate, but we made it. And I think we're going to make it, and that's what matters the most.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANTASTIC NEGRITO SONG "TRUDOO")

CHANG: Fantastic Negrito - his new album, "White Jesus Black Problems," is out now. Thank you so much for sharing this time with us.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUDOO")

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) Someday I hope you'll find me. I'm out here all alone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kathryn Fox