The Lament of The Funky Diabetic: Using Phife Dawg's Passing To Encourage Better Health Practices in Black Communities


When I logged on Twitter at 5 AM on March 23rd, I saw hashtags and tweets about Phife Dawg. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I sat in shock looking at my screen, barely breathing, then the tears started to flow. Those tears flowed off and on for that entire day.

I never met Phife and I wasn’t the biggest fan of his, but I liked the work and energy that he put out into the universe. So, why did I cry like my best friend or close family member died? I realized that it was almost like one of them did because of how Phife transitioned.

The Five Foot Assassin passed away from a long battle with diabetes.

Diabetes is a serious disease that has affected the black community in a serious way. According to the American Diabetes Association, blacks are twice as likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. There are higher risks of diabetics in the black community experiencing vision loss, amputation, and kidney failure. I’ve seen this happen in my family: one of my parents and both of my grandmothers are diabetics and have battled with these risks. I’m sure that there are more people from my family that have had the disease also, and I’m sure that you, the reader, knows someone with the disease. We’re all affected by this lifelong disease.

I’ve noticed that much of the conversation around The Funky Diabetic’s passing has been around his work with the Tribe. That’s not a bad thing, but I feel like we’ve limited our conversation around Phife to one aspect of his life. We haven’t talked enough about his solo career, his business endeavors, his work in sports, and most importantly, his long battle with diabetes and how important it is to take better care of ourselves.

My hope is that black artists will use Phife’s passing as a catalyst to do more in encouraging better health choices, specifically in black communities.

Phife Dawg’s posthumous release, “Nutshell” (produced by J Dilla), was released on Tuesday and his label is donating some of the proceeds to the American Diabetic Association and the National Kidney Foundation. That’s a good start, but I truly believe that more can be done. It would be nice to see artists put together their money and donate to those organizations in a big way. Even a foundation in Phife’s honor that provides resources and financial support to individuals who can’t pay their hospital bills or pay for their medicine would be cool. But, I think that even more can be done. 

A few of the problems that people deal with in controlling diabetes -- and even in prevention -- is poor diet and lack of exercise. If a collective of artists could come together to provide funding and/or actively lead initiatives in their home towns or communities for better health, the change would be even better.

Outside of violent crime, one of the leading causes of death for black people is poor health choices, especially with substance abuse, exercise, and food, and that's mainly because of our environment and our upbringing. Most of our urban communities are food deserts, so a lot of us resort to junk foods from our neighborhood corner stores and takeouts. Even if we are close to stores, we pick out highly processed foods instead of fruits and vegetables. When we do eat vegetables, we cook them so much that we start to remove the nutrients because that’s what we have learned from our families, which is where a lot of our bad health habits come from. Plus, we don’t move nearly as enough as we need to. Not only can those things take a toll on our physical health, but it can take a toll on our mental health. Health screenings, farmer’s markets in food deserts (that allow the use of food stamps or other government supplemental support), nutrition courses, and more (or even updated) safe spaces for recreational activities that can get everyone moving are important tools to invest back into our communities to aggressively help with those health problems.

I’m sure there are going to be artists that think that this isn’t their responsibility, but it is. It’s the responsibility of a person with resources to give back to their community so that the people in their community can raise up from the problems that they have. Imagine how healthy our communities can be with the proper knowledge of food preparation, consumption, and overall health practices. Imagine how motivated young people in the hood would be if someone who made it out of those circumstances came back and helped their community. It's cool that we have artists like The L.O.X.'s Jadakiss and Styles P that are providing healthy options to the Bronx with their juice bar,  Juices For Life, but there aren’t many black music creatives providing these healthy alternatives...or at least openly.

I’m sure that Phife wouldn’t want me to lament over his transition, but it hurts me because the way that Phife transitioned could easily happen to any of my family members or friends. As a music community, especially in the hip-hop community, it’s so important that Phife’s health problems and their prevalence in our community are addressed and worked on, with black music creatives helping out in that change. We’re losing our family, friends, and to some, our favorite artists, to something that can be managed with resources that some of us can gain access to.

I hope that we can honor Phife not only with quoting his witty one-liners, but by doing our part to manage and eventually eradicate the health issues that took him -- and many others before him -- from this physical realm.

Make sure to support Phife’s family and the ADA and NKF by purchasing “Nutshell” on iTunes.