The death at 45 of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest shines a glaring spotlight on blacks’ vulnerability to diabetes, the condition he battled for decades, and which ultimately claimed his life.
African American adults are “80 percent more likely” than white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, which also found in 2013 that African Americans were twice as likely as to die from the disease.
Black celebrities reported to have the condition include Blackish star Anthony Anderson; singer, Patti LaBelle; actress Sherri Shepherd; former American Idol judge Randy Jackson; Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin; Grammy winner Chaka Khan; entrepreneur Damon Dash; NBA legend Dominique Wilkins; and actress and former Miss America Vanessa Williams. Eating healthy, getting fit, taking proper medications, tracking glucose levels, and getting a twice yearly A1c test to track glucose levels over time are believed to be among the best ways to control the disease.
Taylor made his long-running battle with Type 2 diabetes public in the 1993 song “Oh My God,” rapping, “When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” His condition was aggravated, by an uncontrolled sweet tooth, he admitted in Beats, Rhymes and Life, a 2011 documentary about the history of Tribe, where Taylor said: “Like straight-up drugs. I’m just addicted to sugar.”
Unchecked, diabetes can lead to dire health outcomes, including blindness, limb amputation, and kidney failure. The disease was a primary cause of kidney failure in 44 percent of new cases in 2011, with blacks suffering from kidney failure at a rate three times higher than whites.
Taylor’s condition worsened to the point that he received a kidney transplant from his wife in 2008, while still in his 30s. An All Hip Hop article from that year reported that Taylor was first diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, and went on dialysis in 2000, during which time he had difficulty performing and dropped considerable weight.
It’s a strain on me as far as going where I want to go, doing what I want to do,” he told Diabetes Forecast. “When I was on dialysis the first time, my stepson was playing basketball [and] I couldn’t practice with him. I wanted to go out and run with him and things of that nature, but I didn’t feel good.”
Though his prospects appeared to look up with the new kidney, four years later he was reportedly back on the waiting list for yet another one, and then on March 22 he succumbed to complications from diabetes.
Taylor initially formed A Tribe Called Quest with high school classmate Q-Tip in 1985. The group later grew with the addition of Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, releasing five albums together between 1990 and 1998, and in 2015 reissuing their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm to mark its 25th anniversary. They also reunited on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to perform that album’s chart topping single, “Can I Kick It?”
Diabetes affects how your body uses blood sugar, a source of fuel for the cells in muscles, tissues and the brain. People with diabetes have a glut of glucose in their blood. Type 1 is considered to be a more severe form of the disease, where the person is dependent upon insulin to control it. It’s sometimes called “juvenile” diabetes, because it typically develops during childhood or teen years. The most common form, Type 2, is non-insulin dependent diabetes, and usually develops after 35. While those who have it are able to produce some of their own insulin, it’s usually not enough. Often, Type 2 occurs in people who are overweight and/or sedentary. There’s also prediabetes, where blood sugar is high, but hasn’t yet developed into type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes, which can occur during a pregnancy.