Phife Dawg: Read the Poignant Poems Rapper's Mother Wrote About Tribe Called Quest MC

In her new book, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor uses poetry, journal entries, letters and other archival items to grapple with the loss of her son, the great A Tribe Called Quest MC Phife Dawg.

The recently published Mama Phife Represents is described as a “patchwork quilt that follows the journey of a mother’s grieving heart” and a “hybrid book that recalls the death of a beloved son and follows his mother’s first two years of public and private mourning.” Along with original poems from Boyce-Taylor, the book includes drawings, emails, lyrics and notes that Phife — real name Malik Taylor — wrote to his parents starting at age eight.

The five poems from Mama Phife Represents excerpted here find Boyce-Taylor grappling with Phife’s death in terms that are often achingly descriptive and abstract, but also brutally honest and stark. “When Her Child Dies” and “Stone” offer a glimpse into the former category, while “When a House Lives Alone” captures the devastatingly banal task of packing up what Phife left behind. “Bali-Ethiopian Kitchen” finds Boyce-Taylor moving from fond memories to the frantic phone calls that followed her son’s death.

“I share our story in hopes that it may inspire you to keep healing, growing, and moving forward even after you’ve been through the worst news of your life,” Boyce-Taylor writes in the book’s intro. “It will take a lifetime for me to get over his loss, but I want you to learn from my story. When you’ve been given a life-threatening illness, you don’t have to curl up and die. You can rise above the challenges and keep moving. As Tribe said, ‘push it along, push it along.’”

When Her Child Dies

for Malik

A mother does not know her heart
will leap out of her chest

with such force
it will cause a rebellion

she does not know
that her hands will be numb for weeks

she does not know her sugar will rise

even though she has not eaten in two days
she will come to distrust her universe

her Black-Eyed Susans her Sweet Williams
the soil she loves to squish her toes in

sun hugging her aching shoulders
moon scurrying across her worn window sill

she will mistrust them all

when her child dies
friends will come daily with milk honey

cheese red wine spelt bread & ginger jam
she will not remember their touch

only their eyes glossed over with tears
she does not know

she will stop speaking to his father
and threaten to sue him

her hair will fall out in clumps
she will lose big spaces of memory

when her child dies
a woman will fight for her sanity

she will travel to Anguilla
beg Yemaya to bring him back

as the ocean swells
she will listen for his laughter

she will press her face in the damp earth
call his name

Malik
Malik
Malik Izaak.


Bali-Ethiopian Kitchen

Ceni my beloved calls the dark brown ground chicken
poop
she appeases me and has two glasses
of the wine that’s too dry for her palate

a woman speaks loudly about the roommate who keeps wearing her clothes and flirting with her man. We have just returned from picking up our “save the date invitations” for our ceremony. The printing place messed up and gave us the wrong size. They fix it by giving us a 50 percent discount and eighty postage stamps. We are thrilled. We have the world by its chin. We order champagne and make a toast to our future. We have been together twenty years. We are sweetly in love.

we make a second toast to our wedding
she calls it our “party”
I say “wedding”

how lovely it sounds rolling off my tongue.

Malik loved his wife and her son David
they loved him back

she gave him a kidney instead of a baby
we rejoiced at that new birth
a kidney baby

Outside on Fulton Street we hear tree chimes
we hear fire engines and happy people clapping inside Greenlight Books.
It’s the beginning of spring.

we arrive home tipsy              fall into each other’s arms
Ceni hands me the phone

eight missed calls from Deisha and Roots
my heart speeds up                 damn

I lay on the bed scared to touch the phone it rings
rings again
fear
fear grows

Cheryl are you up? It’s Deish.
Wake up. I need to talk to you.

 Cheryl, . . .Cheryl—

*

All the phones are ringing
even our land line

“Mom, Cheryl, it’s Jarobi.
The press is hounding us, what do you want to say?

Ceni looks at me, the rich tapestry of her face cracking
the wreckage of my body strewn across the room

Mom, I can’t reach Walt. Have you spoken to him yet?”

Robi, I can’t talk now

 
Mom, TMZ has called again. What do you want to say?

Say something sweet about my child

 

My son has died in California and I fear getting on the plane.

Stone

That first night after you left
I saw God’s face
and wept bitterly

The second night God offered
a prayer
I screamed that prayer away

The third night God reached
out his hand
I chewed on it until it became dust

On the fourth night
my tears became stone
that filled in for eyes

Six months later when they broke
my heart open there was not much
just cloves and blue leaves

 

When A House Lives Alone

for Walt & Malik

 

When a house lives alone
it is still filled with love
what remains goes unsettled in us

 

we pack up your bathroom
dad and I
I know you are laughing at us

this is what it has come too
mom and dad perfect strangers
packing up your house

there are bath towels
still tied with ribbons and store labels
two tubes of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste
fennel and baking soda      dried in the tube

when a house lives alone
beds go unmade for weeks     months even
rubber soles of expensive sneakers melt together
we throw them out

in that long weekend of solitary packing
dinner looks like five-minute couscous and salad
oatmeal and raisins
a lone glass of shiraz

the father puts more wood on the fireplace
turn pages in an old album
you in daycare            you at eight grade graduation
you with your first gold album
on your feet crisp Air Force 1’s

the mother makes peppermint tea
an altar of white sage and crystals
celebrate the fourth-year anniversary of her son’s death

four years later tears still flow
this morning the same haunting questions
Malik were you happy?
did you know how much we loved you?

we pause at the mantle
a picture of us three in a green wood frame
mother father son
time is so unkind

did he call my name in that hour?
what did he know for sure?
was he still dreaming about having a child

did the new album fill that space?
did he love me more than dad?
all I ever wanted was to be a good mother

that last night did he dream about his grandma?
was she at the gate to meet you
by now you must be out of pain

I blow a kiss to no one in particular
to weep until exhaustion
to fold with pain

to weep with joy that too is the question
to weep with joy that too is the answer

 

When Her Child Dies (2)

a mother does not know
that she will be grateful for anything

she will be grateful
that she raised him in church

grateful that he was not killed
in the back of a police cruiser

on the BART    London.   underground    NYC subway
grateful he was not killed

by knife   gun   machete   redneck   punk
home invasion   rope   tree trunk

when her child dies
she will be grateful

he did not end up on life support
in hospice care or Rikers Island

she does not know
a street will be named for him in his birth town of Queens

that murals will be painted in Paris Australia South Africa Chicago Trinidad

she will wear his pajamas to bed
cuddle the Minnie Mouse doll he bought at a London airport

and when she finds a gold chain on the sand in South beach
she will know he left it for her because she loves glitter
she will listen to his music over and over
she will tremble at his sass

she will know she is lucky
to still have his songs

she will gather white candles, and sage
she will sprinkle white rum and build him an altar

her tears will flow into the Nile
she will give him back to Shango to Oya

she will love herself Ibeji daughter
Ibeji mother more than she ever did before

© 2021 Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. Published in 2021 by Haymarket Books

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