Remembering Phife Dawg as Only His Mother Could

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s memoir ‘Mama Phife Represents’ is a stunning work of elegy just when we need it most

Shamira Ibrahim


Rapper Phife Dawg holding a microphone on stage, wearing a blue baseball cap and matching track jacket
Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest performs at H2O Music Festival on August 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Chelsea Lauren/WireImage/Getty Images

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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.