When I was junior in high school, a new hip hop album was released by a group called A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) entitled “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”. My then boyfriend had bought the new ATCQ cassette tape and he dubbed it for me. I loved that album so much that I played the tape over and over again until the audio started sounding funny.
They were part of a crew called the Native Tongues, who I was really feeling back then (and even still now). The Native Tongues were a group of hip hop artist known for their positive-minded, good-natured Afrocentric lyrics. They also pioneered the use of eclectic sampling and jazz-influenced beats. They were different and more fun than the standard hip hop groups up until that time. I felt that I could relate to them the most out of all the other hip hop groups/crews at the time. They were young, black and seemed to have fun together. Their lyrics didn’t focus on the ill realities of the inner city and as a carefree high schooler, that was more my speed. Relatability has always been important to me. They even had female emcees in the crew — one of which grew up close to where I lived.
As I matured and started to identify more with my Haitian culture, I still loved hip hop but was very aware that Haitian-Americans were not represented in the genre – not publicly anyway. I was a sophomore in college when I heard the first real Haitian hip-hop reference…and it came from none other than Phife Dawg, a member of a Tribe Called Quest.
It was one line, but it was such a big deal for us fans who were Haitian. He said “I love ’em black, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian, name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation…”. We were all so hyped to have been shout out by such an amazing, mainstream group. Phife is Trinidadian, so he could have very well shout out his own country, or instead said “Jamaican” which was a more common Caribbean country that would also rhyme with “Nation”…but he didn’t; He said “Haitian”!! I love how he SAW us..and loved us — so much so that he put it in his rhyme. When people acknowledge you, you feel empowered. Thanks to Phife, Haitians were no longer invisible in hip hop. That small gesture…to be seen, named, and publicly acknowledged was such huge deal to me. My love for ATCQ was already deep, but it deepened after that.
I was saddened to learn that Malik Taylor, also known as Phife Dawg passed away recently. I would have liked to thank him for that shout out. I wonder if he knew how much we appreciated that line.