A Gritty Little Something on the New York Street
March 25, 2016 | by Zinzi Clemmons
Remembering Phife Dawg—a family perspective.
I lived in New York for the first time for the summer of 2006, between my junior and senior years of college. I was in love with words. I’d started writing, but I needed a job, so I entered book publishing. Two days a week, I read manuscripts in the magnificent but decaying Flatiron Building; at night, I worked the coat check at a white-tablecloth restaurant on Union Square for spending money (the perfect gig, as in the summer I had few customers, and spent most of my time reading). After my shifts at the restaurant, I took the 5 train uptown to Harlem with the typical collection of bleary-eyed late-night workers and drunk revelers, where I slept on a cot in the living room of my aunt’s two-bedroom apartment.
The apartment was modest but warmly decorated in pinks, oranges, and turquoises—colors that undoubtedly reminded her of Trinidad, her island home. Our sleeping arrangement mirrored that of my great-grandmother’s house. She’d lived till she was ninety-eight: a former caretaker who’d immigrated from a rural part of the island, she’d saved enough money to buy a semidetached three-bedroom house in Jamaica, Queens.
As several family members and friends before and after her did, my aunt, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, had stayed with my great-grandmother to get on her feet in America. She married young, had a child, and, after an amicable divorce, started dating women—a shock to our family of devout Seventh Day Adventists. When I was younger, my parents, in a typical move of the time, never discussed her sexuality. I only knew that she had many female friends, and after a while, sometimes they would be gone from her life in a way that was unusual for just friends. In that apartment, she finally gave me a name for what she was, speaking to me openly about her life like I was an equal, capable enough to understand and not to judge.
On the wall of the apartment hung a portrait of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who was her son and my cousin. She told me that when visitors came by, they would uniformly exclaim how much they loved him. Why do you have a picture of him? they’d ask, before dropping one of his verses, and she would answer with pride, He’s my son, her perfect white smile beaming.
My aunt taught me many things that summer about how to live on my own terms. Our third roommate was her mother, my great-aunt and Malik’s beloved grandmother, whom my aunt had taken in after she could no longer care for herself. She confided in me about the pressures, as a Caribbean woman, of taking care of one’s mother, which I’d later recall when my own mother fell ill, and I, at twenty-six, decided, as she had, to sacrifice my own independence and to care for her until she died, an experience that later inspired my first novel.
My aunt fought against the pressures of being a black woman. Beyond just choosing to live her life openly, she was a prolific spoken-word and written poet, and over that summer she invited me to readings at her house upstate, which served as a retreat for other poets—mainly women of color, whom she welcomed for celebrations and chances to stay and write. I watched her recite her poetry, laced with the same patois that would sometimes inflect Malik’s verses. “Living mad phat like an oversized mampy,” Malik rhymed in “Award Tour.” His accent strikes me as so familiar that every time I listen, it feels like my great-grandmother and great-aunt—both dead for several years—are speaking directly to me.
My aunt passed her independent spirit on to her son, who pursued one of the most risky, pie-in-the-sky career paths imaginable—to become a rapper—and somehow managed to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. To our family, whose ascent up the rungs of success began with my great-grandmother’s two-bedroom home in the middle-class section of Jamaica and continued with college degrees and upper-middle-class homes in the suburbs—at the time, my family thought he was crazy. After so much struggle, it seemed like he was choosing to step off the ladder.
Artistic influence is an nebulous thing, often overstated, especially in instances like these. In my case, though, Malik’s influence on me, as with his mother’s, was incredibly direct. They gave me an example that, when my family discouraged me from pursuing art, I could point to as a refutation. Where we came from—where God was so important, where people just didn’t do things like that—it was important. One of the things I remember my father telling me vividly, after Award Tour dropped and Malik’s fame was no longer fleeting, was how he’d chastised Malik for not having gone to college. I could point to his success as a strong possibility that my father had been wrong. And when I told my aunt that I wanted to be a writer, she supported me unequivocally.
Her lesson was one that she dictated by example: dogged perseverance. It surfaced in one of Malik’s lines: “I never half step cause I’m not a half stepper.” As the story goes, when Malik told my aunt that he wanted to be a rapper, she told him that he should do it, but only if he went after it with everything he had.
The outpouring of love since Malik’s death earlier this week is proof of his influence, and several pieces have tried to quantify it. Tribe’s legacy has been in increased attention to lyricism (including Malik’s own irreverent humor), the sampling of jazz and soul in hip-hop (Kanye West owes much to them), and their embrace of Afrocentrism. They’ve inspired an entire generation of “black weirdos”—people, like myself, who don’t seem to conform to the stereotypes offered up by popular culture. This is also proof of Malik’s fearlessness: He could have been a commercial rapper, could have gone for the money by embracing a gangster pose and singing about the rougher side of his life in Queens. It was there. But he chose to speak to the entirety of his experience, whether it exposed him as soft (“not to come across as a thug or a hood”), short (“the height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck”), or, at times, unsuccessful with the ladies (“used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue / It’s not like honey dip would wanna get with me”).
As often happens after a famous rapper’s demise, there will be an attempt to elevate his work by associating it with traditional writing. People will compliment him by calling him a poet. This is something that strikes to the heart of what I believe personally. The line between poet and rapper is heavily politicized, as the “performance poet” label often is. It’s a line defined by its proximity to whiteness, and therefore, to utter bullshit. I am the type of writer that, to older generations and by most metrics, is seen as more respectable, because my artistic forebears, my industry, and my readers are largely white. In his 2010 review of Jay-Z’s Decoded for The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh wrote of Jay-Z, “Sure, he’s a poet—and, while we’re at it, a singer and percussionist, too. But why should any of these titles be more impressive than ‘rapper’?”
If, at the end of my career, I could have one fraction of Malik’s influence, I would consider myself incredibly successful. The legacy of my family has been written: to date, we have one famous rapper, a marvelous poet, and one novelist (me). I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Zinzi Clemmons is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, What We Lose, is forthcoming from Viking.