We spoke with Cheryl Boyce-Taylor about her new book Mama Phife Represents, her favorite music from Phife Dawg, the benefits of attending therapy, and more.
In poet and educator Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s newest book Mama Phife Represents, she not only recollects a lifetime spent with her son — founding A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg —she also harnesses self-restoration after a period of mourning.
The relationship between Cheryl Boyce-Taylor and Phife (born Malik Taylor) isn’t just a bond between mother and son, but a manifestation of their shared love of imagination through brevity. Through an archive of Phife’s personal sketches, journal entries and lyrics, Mama Phife Represents serves as an ode to Phife and words that were left unspoken during his life.
Boyce-Taylor shares that Phife’s presence is far from gone, whether she revisits his music videos, A Tribe Called Quest’s catalog, or preparing for his posthumous sophomore solo album, due to release this year. With Mama Phife Represents out in select stores today, we spoke with about the benefits of attending therapy, sound advice for Black parents, and being a vital part of her son’s legacy.
How has quarantine been for you in terms of your mental health?
Mostly [it’s been] good, but some days are harder than others. It’s been a time of reflection and a time of doing a lot of work. I’ve just written another book that will be out in September called We Are Not Wearing Helmets, and it’s a book of political poems. [The book] will also be honoring women writers like Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, and Audre Lorde. Just a number of poets who have influenced me — I feel like I’m walking on their shoulders.
When did you decide to write Mama Phife Represents, and what was the process?
After Malik passed away, I was losing a lot of memory. I couldn’t remember simple things [like] what day it was. I remember saying to my partner, “Was my brother at Malik’s funeral service?” I knew that I was just confused. So more than anything else, I told myself that I had to document this so I could remember it.
One of the things that I encountered was the big fear that I would forget about Malik. That was one of the emotional upheavals that I was dealing with. I began writing in a journal, and I was also in therapy working very hard to steady myself and get back on my feet. It was a coping skill although I could never forget my child. He was my only child. I had Malik when I was 19, so we kind of grew up together.
Do you remember some of the coping methods that you used in therapy?
One of the things my therapist helped me with was to center and meditate. I was going through a lot of physical pain at the time, so she would have me focus and then ask the body, “What is going on? Why is this happening? What do I need to do to clear [the pain]?” I’m spiritual, but I didn’t have a meditation practice — my poetry was my practice. I would write everything that was going on in my life.
I’ve always gone to therapy at different times, like [during] my divorce and when Malik moved away. I lost my mother ten years ago, and I had twins [when Malik was born]. [Malik] had a twin brother [Mikal] who only lived for eight hours. On some of my worst days, my therapist would help me get into a meditative state and call them close to me. One of my issues was that I didn’t know how to ask for help. I was brought up by a Caribbean woman who just kept everything inside.
Hanif Abdurraquib wrote about you in Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest. How did it feel to be acknowledged as an integral part of Malik’s legacy?
I felt very proud. I felt very happy that someone else was acknowledging it. I didn’t even know Hanif knew my work. I think he was at the Nuyorican [Poets] Cafe — because I read poetry in New York and all around the world — and he [wrote] about coming to one of the meetings and laying on the floor, listening and being really influenced by my work.
[Hanif] came to New York on the last leg of his tour. He read from his book and invited me to come and read with him. That was a wonderful experience. I felt deserving of that praise because I really worked hard for my writing career. It felt good all over.
Before Malik and Mikal were born, you and your ex-husband Walt agreed to let them be expressive with their thoughts and feelings. How else did you prepare to become a mother?
I didn’t. [laughs] I always wanted to be a good mother and a good partner but once I realized I was pregnant, it was not a planned pregnancy. [Walt and I] didn’t know a lot of things, honestly, but we knew that we did not want to raise Malik under the heavy authoritarian rules that some Caribbean parents have with their children.
We wanted him to be able to express himself and I needed to stop the type of punitive parenting — I grew up in the “children are seen and not heard” era. When adults came over, it was “Go outside! What are you doing sitting here?” Malik could sit between myself and my company when they first arrived, say hello, and see what he was doing. I wasn’t allowed that as a child, not much. I also knew that I wanted to expose him to art and poetry because my mother was the one who introduced me to poetry, and she had read poems to me at bedtime. So that was going to be an integral part of [Malik’s] life.
I had a small theatre company in Queens. We would go to Rikers Island, homeless shelters, women’s shelters, and read. I took Malik with me and he had to write something and read, too. He would play a lot and I would say, “You have to stop now and write a poem.”
When he was seven, my mother taught him [to recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s] “I Have a Dream” speech for an event they were having at church. He performed it and got a lot of praise from other members of the church. He liked that and realized [performing] was something that he could do. He had been writing and rapping all throughout his life.
Besides watching his songs and music videos, how can you tell when Malik’s spirit is present?
He’s present all the time and I have this little thing — it’s so corny but I love it. Whenever I’m just thinking about him, I’ll look up and the clock says 11:20, which is his birthday.
That happens so often, and my daughter-in-law [Deisha] has a [similar experience] with the time. I think [she sees] the date that they met, but I so believe in that now. [laughs]
I heard that when you see repetitive times that means you’ve gained higher consciousness.
I’ll ask Malik for dreams to come and hang out with me. It doesn’t always happen, but I like when it happens. In the beginning, after he left, I would feel so refreshed — I would feel like it was a visit. I still miss him so much, but he has grown a space in my body [and] in my consciousness. In other words, my heart has expanded even more to hold him. That allows me to feel like he’s not far. I’m also a lucky woman because I can hear his music. Sometimes I go on the internet or his Instagram page and see all his antics. I’m lucky to have that and his fans have kept his memory so alive. He has an album coming out [in the] spring, the Harvard Hip-Hop Archives did a video on him. So work keeps happening.
Do you have a favorite song or album by Malik?
I think my favorite album is Midnight Marauders but then, that last album [We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service] — they sit side-by-side. It was so political and I love his in-your-face-attitude. I love his lyrics, I love his boldness, I love his mannerism — that’s what I wanted for him.
In the book, you were transparent about times when you weren’t communicating with Malik. Do you feel like that distance was necessary for your relationship to strengthen?
No, I regret those times. A lot of that time was when I was going through my divorce. When Malik was 14 or 15, changing and getting his own independence, parents and children sometimes go through a tug-of-war. I wish I would have handled that better. I wish I had been more open, more understanding, slower to anger — I wish I had paid more attention during that time.
What would you have done differently?
When his dad and I were breaking up, I would have gone to family therapy. Once his dad left the house, I tried to get [Malik] into therapy and he just refused because he was refusing everything then. That was his way of fighting back at us. It was ninth grade and he had gone away to boarding school. So, had we gone to therapy as a family, I feel like he would probably continue going after the divorce, and it would have been easier on him. That was my guilt for a long time that I hadn’t handled that properly. I tried to talk to him, and I know for sure that I made up to him for all of that time.
Once, when he was very sick, I said to him, “You have to talk to me. You have to reach out and tell me what you need, because [during] this period, I am the best parent I have ever been. I am here, call me.” Part of it was youth [and] not knowing exactly [that] when you choose parenthood, you have to be present in all areas of your children’s life. Even when you don’t like them and they don’t like you.
How did becoming a mother change you in terms of womanhood?
I found out it was such a huge responsibility. I found out right away because Malik and his brother were premature — he was two pounds and fifteen ounces, and [Mikal] was four pounds and one ounce. [Malik] immediately needed my care — he was in an incubator for three-and-a-half months in the hospital. He was born in Queens at Mary Immaculate Hospital, and he was there in an incubator for almost three months — he had kidney issues when he was born.
Finally, they transferred him to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and I had to travel every day because I just needed to be by him. I was so afraid that something would happen to him, and I was thrown into motherhood very seriously. In the ’70s, it was the mother’s whole job to help. I thank God for my mother because she was the co-parent. Walt is a Trinidadian man, so those men didn’t really cook, clean, or take care of a baby. I admire the men now that are involved with their children.
Throughout the book, you speak about using sage, crystals, candles and certain herbs to cleanse your living space. What do these materials represent in your culture?
It wasn’t exactly culture — it was different women’s groups that I was involved in. I remember when I studied with Ntozake Shange. She said, “I burn sage and I clear out my house in order to write.” These were writing rituals, healing rituals. It wasn’t Caribbean — my mother would actually frown upon it and say, “What kind of voodoo ting is that?” [laughs] My mother was also a Seventh-day Adventist, which is a very strict religion. I’m not religious but I’m spiritual — my poetry is my religion. I also went to a therapist and she would use crystals for healing.
Do you remember what crystals she would use?
A clear quartz. She would also have me use a rose quartz to heal the heart, send love in the world, and to have it returned. So, precious stones, I believe in them. I believe they have healing powers and spiritual powers.
I put my rose quartz outside and it actually fell into an underground hole, so I have to get a new one.
You know what that means — the earth needed it more than you! [laughs]
What is your advice to Black mothers who are raising young men?
To be patient, to be honest and open with them. Encourage them to talk, encourage them to share their feelings. This is for sons or daughters, really. Help them to know that they are brave, and that no one can take away your dreams from you. Expose them to art and beauty and fashion — all these things that we think are taboo.
One of the biggest things is to let them cry if they need to. I think that’s one of the hardest things that we have taught our boys — is that they shouldn’t cry. So they get angry and they get harder as they hurt. Introduce them to therapy if that’s what’s needed. Have the father involved, whether you’re a couple or not — I think we have underestimated that too much as a society. You have to be mature about it and choose that child first.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae