First Phife Dawg and Then Prince; It's Time to Have a Frank Talk About Black Men's Health

Rapper Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest performs at H2O Music Festival at Los Angeles Historical Park on Aug. 17, 2013.
Chelsea Lauren/WireImage

I’m done with 2016.

We’ve lost Phife Dawg and Prince—just to name two this year. Many of my musical heroes, whose sounds were the ambient noise of my childhood, are gone. We now live in a world where Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross and Prince are dead.


No matter how hard I try, I seem unable to suppress the thought that it did not have to happen. These men did not have to die. We treat death as though it were a phantom lurking in the darkness whose presence is omnipotent and its power unending. While there is some truth as it relates to the inevitability of death (for, indeed, it is the common denominator of us all), it is the age and circumstances surrounding those who have died of late that most gives me pause.

Phife Dawg was 47 when he died of complications stemming from diabetes. There is disagreement surrounding the type of diabetes with which he struggled—some sources say Type 1, while others say Type 2—but his self-professed addiction to sweets could not have helped his condition. Prince was 57 when he died. According to the autopsy report, the musician died from a fentanyl overdose. The report comes amid rumors that the Artist developed an addiction to painkillers after hip surgery.


Prince's death, much like his life, is an enigma, but there are lessons to be learned about the seriousness of self-medicating and the widely held belief among black men that we should tough it out when it comes to pain. According to a 2015 Kaiser Foundation poll, whites were most likely to report a "personal connection" to prescription-painkiller abuse, at 63 percent, followed by African Americans at 44 percent—meaning that “they either know someone who has taken a painkiller that wasn’t prescribed to them; have been addicted to painkillers themselves or know someone who has; or know someone who died from an overdose.”

I don't know what external or internal pain Prince felt, but I know that his death was preventable, and I also know that we choose, at times, to suffer in silence. We categorically avoid visiting the doctor. We historically have chosen to avoid symptoms, ignore warning signs and numb pain. If Prince developed an addiction to pain medication, then I, like many others who appreciated his genius, simply wanted him to consult with a physician and seek medical care. If Phife Dawg's self-professed addiction to sweets prematurely ended his life, then I wanted him to put the sweets down.


And as we mourn the loss of both men, we must also come to terms with the fact that they died so early. To put it simply: It did not have to be this way.

There are those who will rebuff this claim. Some will state that God took them home because he needed another angel—but I protest. God didn’t need another rapper in heaven. God didn’t need a room decorated purple and therefore called up Prince to get the job done. Those claims go against the fundamental theological beliefs of most major Western traditions as they relate to God’s omnipotence, omniscience and expressed nature. So let’s stop with the empty platitudes that make us feel better and keep us from dealing with the ugly truth at the heart of these tragedies. We are not powerless before the fatalistic forces of the universe. We are not pawns of the divine.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average black man lives five years less than the average white man. Further, the American Diabetes Association reports that 26 million Americans are living with diabetes; of that number, 4.9 million are African American. Over 13 percent of African Americans over the age of 20 have been diagnosed with diabetes, and we are 1.7 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed.

Further, things are not much better when we examine (pdf) rates of cardiovascular disease among our population. According to the American Heart Association, “in 2009, CVD caused the deaths of 46,334 black men.” In addition, the “2009 overall death rate from CVD was 236.1” per 100,000 people, but for black men, the death rate was 387. Part of this is because of hypertension. African Americans have the highest rates of hypertension in the world. While a genetic sensitivity to salt may be the reason this “silent killer” tends to afflict us at an earlier age, these numbers show us that part of fighting for black lives is talking about black health.


Full disclosure: I’m no poster child for health. I don’t approach this from the position of superiority that has gained currency in the past few years. I don’t post pictures of my food prep on Facebook (because there is none), and I don’t check in to the gym to let people know I’ve been there (because most likely I have not). This is as much for me as it is for those who are reading. Nevertheless, it needs to be said clearly and unequivocally: Black men, we need to do better.

As we come to the end of Men’s Health Month, let’s be intentional about those things uniquely facing our community. Diabetes, hypertension and the obesity that so often causes them can be managed. Death from the aforementioned health issues is not something over which we are helpless. I think it's appropriate to celebrate the genius of Phife Dawg and Prince while using their lives as inspiration for making better health choices. Let us march in the street to raise awareness for black lives while we go to the gym to protect black health.


Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.

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