Originally published for LEVEL on January 4, 2021.
More so than other years, 2020 has been encapsulated by grief. Confinement borne of an unforeseen pandemic has forced most of the world to wallow in the depth of its losses and empowered this anguish to strangle us in its isolating grip until it knows most of us by name. Poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, however, has been walking this path of grief for years — ever since her beloved son, A Tribe Called Quest’s Malik Izaak “Phife Dawg” Taylor, lost his long fight with diabetes in 2016.
Taylor speaks grief’s language. She has an intimate familiarity with how the waves of emotion can crescendo into maddening heights, giving way to the empty ache left behind. That closeness gives way to clarity in her newest book: Mama Phife Represents, a delicate latticework of remembrance out this week that explores the days following Phife’s passing in print, photo, and sketch. In doing so, it finds a way to reexamine and reshape how we honor our beloveds in both life and death.
The practice of elegy — rooted in the ancient Greek word elegos, meaning “mournful song” — is a time-honored classical tradition, commonly served in the form of the elegiac couplet. It’s the framework in which English Renaissance poet Ben Jonson laments the loss of his first son, the means by which American great Walt Whitman honors Abraham Lincoln in the oft-referenced “O Captain! My Captain!” But conventions are made to be broken, and the mother of the Funky Diabetic, whose group made its indelible impact in hip-hop with transcendent, unorthodox projects such as People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, delivers nothing less than an offering that honors her familial legacy. The book moves between couplets and freeform prose, pivoting to anecdotes, lyrics, and dreams with an ease and musicality that transport you between the worlds of Malik the man and Phife Dawg the persona—the universes of Linden Boulevard, the superstardom of Tribe, and the cultural anchor that remained in their homeland of Trinidad and Tobago.Continue reading