The Tiny Desk Concert Contest Winner Is ...

Feb 12, 2015
Originally published on March 13, 2015 9:22 am

Today we're thrilled to announce that the winner of the Tiny Desk Concert Contest is Fantastic Negrito.

With a video shot in a freight elevator in Oakland behind a desk made of a steel slab and a work bench, this soulful character won our hearts. Xavier Dphrepaulezz is a singer from Oakland with a passion that felt undeniable. Though I watched thousands of videos, the moment I heard his voice and saw such conviction to his song I thought, "Wow, I think this guy could win." I wasn't alone: The other judges — Robin Hilton, Valerie June, Reggie Watts, John Congleton and Thao Nguyen — also found Fantastic Negrito and his band compelling.

In the past few days, we've learned more about this musician's life and story. It wasn't part of why we picked him, but it is amazing. You'll hear more in an interview with him on All Things Considered tonight, but here's a bit of that story, from the official Tiny Desk Concert Contest announcement:

Fantastic Negrito calls himself a musician reborn. As a young man, the Oakland singer taught himself to play just about every instrument he could get his hands on. But after making a record that failed to take off, he felt his confidence and artistry suffer; disenchanted with music, he simply quit. The years that followed brought major life changes: a near-deadly car accident and the resulting coma, intense rehabilitation, marriage and the birth of his son. Now, renewed creative energy has spawned the musical project that is Fantastic Negrito. He chose the name, he says, as "a celebration of blackness. The 'Fantastic' is self-explanatory; the 'Negrito' is a way to open blackness up to everyone, making it playful and international." Judges Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton, John Congleton, Valerie June, Reggie Watts and Thao Nguyen agreed that this soulful, unbridled performance, captured at a makeshift desk in an Oakland freight elevator, stood out from the crowd.

You can watch Fantastic Negrito's submission video here right now, and we'll have more from him soon. On a date in late February, this band will join us at NPR and perform a Tiny Desk Concert. We'll put that concert online around March 9. They'll then have the pleasure of playing as part of CouchTrippin' to Austin, a show put on by Lagunitas Brewing Co., which sponsored the contest.

Deciding on a winner wasn't easy. People put their hearts and souls, along with a desk of their choosing, into the nearly 7,000 submissions. Some did it to win, some did it for fun. What I loved most is that regardless of motivation, people got together to do something they may not have ever done, to create something unique and something they'll be able to share with friends and family forever. I think of all the desks dragged into nature, onto hilltops, into and around oceans, through offices and kitchens, classrooms and science labs. Friends gathered and made something memorable, and that's my favorite part of this, our very first Tiny Desk Concert Contest.

Thank you all for participating — my eyes were red not from watching all those videos but from tears of joy.

Congratulations to Fantastic Negrito, from Bob Boilen and all of us here around the Tiny Desk!

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Here at NPR headquarters in Washington, of course we bring you the news 24 hours a day. But this building is also home to one of the most interesting and smallest music venues in the world. It's a tiny desk.


T-PAIN: (singing) Buy you a drink. And I'm going to take you home with me.


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) When I was in the third grade, I thought that I was gay 'cause I could draw, my uncle was and I kept my room straight.


LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Something wicked this way comes, the likes of which you never known.


ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) It is made of pure steel. Oh, it's made of pure steel, now, isn't it?

GREENE: T-Pain, Macklemore, Lucinda Williams, St. Paul and the Broken Bones - all of them have performed Tiny Desk Concerts, right at an office desk that's upstairs. A couple months ago, our colleagues at NPR Music decided to look for some new talent. And they held a Tiny Desk Concert contest. In just a few minutes, we're going to tell you who won. But first, let's hear about the origin of the Tiny Desk Concert from the co-host of NPR's All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen. Hey, Bob.

BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: How are you doing?

GREENE: So start if you can by the origin. How did Tiny Desk begin?

BOILEN: The short story is a few of us from NPR Music went to see an artist, Laura Gibson, in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest. Laura is an unusual talent - an acquired taste, very quiet. And the room was so, so noisy and rude. We couldn't hear her. So Stephen Thompson, fellow NPR Music cohort, when she came off stage, says, we couldn't hear a word you sang. You ought to come to our desk and play. He was half joking, but I loved that idea. And so she did. She came and sang. I got some video recorders and a microphone. And the reaction to Laura and her music, which is odd and beautiful, was so strong.


LAURA GIBSON: (Singing) Up with the sunrise, you'll be staring out through the window on the day.

GREENE: I just want to paint a picture so people who haven't seen these videos know what this is like. It is at your desk.

BOILEN: Yeah, it's my working desk.

GREENE: You're working. The big stars will come. People will gather up there at your desk. But a lot of our colleagues are sort of still around at other desks doing their work. And that's sort of part of the gig.

BOILEN: Right, and the artists who come, big and small, are two feet from, you know, the All Songs intern or the NPR crowd of producers and writers and editors.

GREENE: All part of the charm.

BOILEN: And part of the scare, too. In fact, Valerie June, who performed a Tiny Desk - she can tell you how scary it is.

GREENE: I think on the line with us right now - Valerie, are you there?

VALERIE JUNE: I am. I'm here. Good morning.

GREENE: Good morning to you. So is it scary to perform at Bob's desk?

JUNE: It's very scary. It's more scary than performing in front of a thousand people in Paris at La Cigale.

GREENE: Really? Why?

JUNE: Yeah, because you're there with this intimate setting, and they're looking right into your eyes. And you're so close to them. It's almost - the Tiny Desk is really a tiny desk. And you know that they are up on their music. They're very well educated when it comes to what's happening in the music world today. I'm nervous now even thinking back to it.


GREENE: Well, who knew? I always thought that it might be a more casual experience. But well, the reason that we're revisiting all of this is because the project spawned a contest that has given not just big stars but everybody a chance, Bob, to play in your workspace. Tell us a little bit about the contest.

BOILEN: The idea was that we wanted people out there - we have a creative audience. We wanted them to get a chance to play behind the desk. And we wanted them to make one song, and the challenge, the contest, was to write and perform an original song behind a desk of their choosing.

GREENE: Broad definition.

BOILEN: That's right. And so we got people who performed in bedrooms and a garage and a field. People performed on a mountain in the snow. They dragged desks into the snow.

GREENE: Love it.

BOILEN: In an ocean, in a subway, in a swimming pool. We had four bands actually perform in mayors' offices around the country.

GREENE: Just surprising the mayors, saying, excuse me, can I just use your office, Mr. Mayor, for a few minutes?

BOILEN: We had one band move a desk in place with a forklift.


GREENE: That's amazing. Well, why do this? Why open it up to sort of a broader group of potential musicians?

BOILEN: A - because there's a ton of talent out there that we would never see otherwise. And also just to get people to do something they'd never do. This is the beauty of what happened. And in the almost 7,000 videos - entries that we got - you can see the community and the love and the passion that people played their music with. And it's just beautiful. Winner or not, everybody sort of got something out of this who participated.

GREENE: Well, it's a contest, so there did have to be a winner. And, Valerie, you were one of the judges. What exactly were you looking for?

JUNE: Well, for me, I was looking for originality, when it comes to the music that the artist was creating. And then my number one goal was to find an artist who had raw emotion because if music doesn't move you and make you want to feel something in some way, then I don't know. It's not worth my time and energy. And so I feel like the winner really did a really great job with it.

GREENE: OK, and let's get to the winner. I mean, this is a big moment. We're revealing the winner on Morning Edition and also at the NPR Music music website. Bob, you want to drum roll or something before you...

BOILEN: On the desk, or course.

GREENE: On the desk, of course. Give it to us. Who is it?

BOILEN: The winner is an Oakland-based musician known as Fantastic Negrito. His name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz. He performed in a freight elevator. The desk was made up of a steel plate with a sawhorse. He performed with three other musicians. It was quite a remarkable - it just leapt right off the screen.


BOILEN: The moment I saw this video in the thousands I saw, he was one where I thought, hmm, this guy could be a winner.


FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) Well we travel, and we travel trying to find it. But I know that neither one of us, no, neither one of us can survive it.

GREENE: I don't want to give too much away because I know that he's actually going to be on All Things Considered, our sister program, this afternoon - but just a little taste of his story that impressed you so much?

BOILEN: I mean, here's a fellow who actually was - long ago, made a record in the '90s that, you know, didn't go anywhere. He got disenchanted with music. His life went in many different directions - and then a car accident and a coma, out of coma, he has a child and finds new meaning in making music. And this Fantastic Negrito project is a result of all of that. And it shows.

JUNE: When you see Fantastic Negrito performing, you'll see what we mean when we're talking about raw emotion and the soul and the feeling that it's about. It's just really, really powerful.

GREENE: All right. Well, Fantastic Negrito is the winner of the Tiny Desk Concert contest. Bob Boilen is here in the studio with me. Valerie June, one of the judges and a performer herself, is on the line as well. Thank you both.

BOILEN: You're welcome.

JUNE: Thank you.

GREENE: And you can find out how our winner came up with that provocative name for his band at our website It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.