Phife Dawg and Diabetes: The Disease Claims Another Life

Written by Cindy Pearlman

Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) was not someone who usually allowed a personal all-access pass into his life. One of the founding member of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, he was happy to put his emotions into lyrics.

But it ended there.

A few years ago, he told this reporter on a rainy day in Chicago that watching his life play out in his then new documentary movie, "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" made him think twice about revoking that pass.

Yes, there were tears. He didn’t expect them.

“I was cool at first. But I didn’t really think I could watch the movie,” Phife says. “The toughest part was watching the decline of the band and the decline of my health, which was the worst part." Phife was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, according to an obituary posted on CNN. 

“Man,” he fretted. “You have to be brazen to allow a documentary of your drama.”

The drama took a sad turn recently when Phife died on March 22 at age 45 from diabetes. His death serves as a wake-up call that diabetes type 1 and type 2 diabetes impacts millions of African American adults. Consider that African American adults are 80 percent more likely than white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.1

Another staggering stat: In 2013, Health and Human Services also found that African Americans were twice as likely to die of diabetes compared to non-Hispanic whites.2 Doctors warn that when diabetes goes undiagnosed or is not properly managed, it can lead to dire health issues, including blindness, limb amputation and kidney failure. The disease was a primary cause of kidney failure in 44 percent of new cases in 2011. In the blacks, the rate of kidney disease is three times higher than whites leading doctors to urge people to come in for tests.

Sounding the Diabetes Battle Cry for Black Americans

It's no coincidence that many African American icons and stars are going public about how the disease has hit home.

In 2013, Randy Jackson was he had type 2 diabetes after he sought out his doctor one winter when he couldn’t shake a cold and the flu. His doctor warned him that he couldn’t take type 2 diabetes lightly. “This is a deadly disease,” he says. “I was told you could develop heart disease or have a stroke.”

“The good news was my doctor told me that I could also learn how to manage diabetes,” Jackson says. “I chose to be healthy, or get my health back and manage the situation.”

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Black celebrities including “Blackish” star Anthony Anderson has also been upfront about his diabetes. He says extra weight he started packing on in college, plus less physical activity and burning the candle led to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis over a decade ago. “One night I drank five gallons of water in an hour and a half, and that’s when I knew I had to go to the doctor,” says Anderson who says exercise and medication, plus working with a nutritionist, changed his life.

If you see Anderson on his bike these days, it’s all because of his diabetes. He also joined a gym and got a trainer, and is now running three miles a day.

Celebs including Patti LaBelle, Sherri Shepherd, James Earl Jones, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Damon Dash are also reported to have the condition.

They’re helping spread the word by talking about how they manage diabetes with twice yearly A1c tests, home glucose level tests, exercise, weight loss and moving more all around. 

Phife talked about his condition in “Beats, Rhymes & Life.” “Like straight-up drugs, I’m just addicted to sugar,” he said.

A Kidney Transplant Promised Hope 

At the time of his documentary movie, his health was on the upswing. Phife had a kidney transplant and told this reporter that he was hopeful about the future.

“My wife gave me her kidney. I was on dialysis at the time waiting for a kidney. My father was going to be my donor, but he had his own health issues.

“One day my wife came home and said I’m going to do it,” he said. “At the time, I was losing weight rapidly. The only way you can get a kidney is to lose weight in order for the kidney not to be rejected,” he said. “I had lost the weight and began to look crazy. People were talking about what they think happened to me.
           
“Then my wife came home and said, ‘Boo, I’m a match,’” he said. “I was so out of it. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I asked her three or four times, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘I have a date for you to get your kidney,’” he recalled. “I just lost it and started bawling.”

Back then he called his health “a work in progress.” “I’m not perfect. I’m doing everything in my power to keep this kidney right,” he said. “It takes education and knowing what to eat. I try to stay away from the soda and sweet juices. I exercise and check my sugar three times a day.”

Four years later, he was reportedly on the waiting list for another new kidney when he succumbed to complications from kidney failure.

As for seeing the film celebrating his life, Phife laughed at the time. “I saw it with a crowd at Sundance, and I didn’t know it would hit me like that to see other people get into our story and my struggle to stay healthy. It felt so good to have the fans pulling for me to get my health in order.

“It was hard to keep the tears in when you know that so many are praying for you.”

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