In the summer of 2010, I moved to New York, the city of my birth. After moving away as a baby, I spent most of my adolescence in Los Angeles, which is where I heard A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got)” for the first time. It only took one listen for me to become a voracious Tribe fan, which, ultimately, started a love affair that led me to Native Tongues and The Roots, two rap crews I cherish to this day. Despite the impact Tribe’s music has had on my life, however, I never anticipated that one day, many years later, Phife Dawg would unknowingly save me from the darkest hours of my adult life.
My love for hip-hop, forged as a teenager, eventually blossomed into my driving passion in life, and in college, I decided I wanted to write about it—professionally. I dabbled while I was still in L.A., but always knew I wanted to move back to New York City, the place where it all began. Since the site of hip-hop’s genesis was also the site of my own, I took that as a sign I was meant to return home and so I began making moves. I applied to a graduate school program at Fordham University in the Bronx, I was accepted and it was a wrap. I left Los Angeles soon thereafter and moved to the Boogie Down, which immediately felt like home.
Immediately, I threw myself into my schoolwork, mostly because I had no choice. Inadvertently, I had registered for twice the normal course load, meaning I would obtain my master’s degree in just two semesters. As such, my social life wasn’t exactly in peak shape. Nevertheless, I did manage to meet a guy—we’ll call him David—one early fall night at a dive bar on the Lower East Side. Within a week, we were speaking on a daily basis, and he quickly became the person with whom I spent most of my free time. I had yet to develop a solid identity or sense of independence in New York, so his being a born-and-bred Manhattanite was intoxicating to my West Coast sensibilities. I fell hard, though in hindsight I realize I was confusing love with a need for companionship.
Just as winter’s cold fingers began to envelop the city, I unexpectedly and accidentally got pregnant. An unwanted, unplanned pregnancy isn’t something any woman pursues or desires, even if they are an ostensibly full-grown adult in their early-to-mid 20s. As a result, I found myself in a troubling situation without any familiar surroundings—quite literally. Carrying and having a child was not a part of my life plan at the time, and so I braced for what was likely going to be a very difficult and very painful experience.
That winter, NY was greeted by a blizzard monstrous enough to bring the city that never sleeps to a screeching halt. It was miserable, especially for a Los Angeles girl who had only flirted with snow on trips to Mammoth and Big Bear. In the days leading up to the storm, I was juggling an equally monstrous amount of schoolwork, which included 15-page papers for all five of my classes, all due the same week of December. Far more pressing than fulfilling the requirements on my syllabus, however, was making the decision to have an abortion.
I have always been fiercely independent, perhaps even stubbornly so, but my mental state began to suffer. Moving across the country by myself wasn’t a big deal, nor was I particularly shaken by the thought of having the abortion. But I could not ignore the confluence of hardships in my path, and they all piled on to such a degree that I began to lose my sense of self. Once it became clear that I could not rely on David for any emotional support (he once kicked me out of his apartment for crying), I became a series of clichés. I gained 10 pounds, vague quotes about brokenheartedness and betrayal populated my Facebook page, and I listened to Adele on a loop.
Despite the nauseating sadness, I knew at that time I wasn’t fit to bring a life into the world, and so I trudged by myself from 227th St to Downtown Brooklyn, where I opted to undergo a medical abortion. This involved taking pills that would induce the termination of my pregnancy in the privacy of my own home. I opted to go this route because a surgical abortion requires the patient be picked up and taken home by somebody, and I had no somebody to speak of.
For three days, my body underwent the very scary ordeal. The physical pain I could handle, but what inched me closer and closer to depression was the loneliness. David never came to check on me. He never even called. In fact, he would eventually tell me he ignored me purposely, just to see how I would handle it. Any support system I had did not live in the city, and so I spent this time completely alone. Coupled with the collective 75 pages I had to write and the impending blizzard, my life felt as bleak as the icy and deserted streets around me.
As the storm came and went, I spiraled into the most desolate days of my adult life. A bone-deep sense of isolation prevented me from enjoying life, despite having successfully finished my first semester of graduate school and physically rebounding from the abortion. A man that I loved had abandoned me completely and my heart was broken. That was the pain I found insufferable. I wasn’t feeling heartache over not being pregnant anymore. What caused the agony was the fact that someone with whom I had been so vulnerable had acted in such a cruel fashion. That was the pain which choked me and followed me around like a dementor. It was inescapable.
The snow eventually melted, but my spirit was frozen—until Phife Dawg broke the ice.
After spending two weeks cooped up in my apartment, I ventured back into the outside world but keeping my eyes glued to the ground the whole time. After well over a half-day of aimlessly walking the streets and navigating the subways in a zombie-like state, I found myself on the A train to Brooklyn, completely unaware of my surroundings while I literally sobbed in the back of a train car. Being out in the world only seemed to exacerbate my depression, as it forced me to realize that I was no longer taking pleasure in the little things: cute kids on the subway, the “Showtime!” dancers, or the world-class people-watching New York City provides.
I felt pathetic and was sick of people awkwardly staring at me while I cried into my Triple Goose jacket. For reasons still unknown, I opted to get off the train at the Fulton St stop, where the borders of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights collide. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I exited the subway and walked up the stairs to street level. As I looked up and surveyed my new surroundings, there it was—a storefront sign so large and in my face, I couldn’t ignore it.
“Holy shit,” I thought to myself. “This is Seaman’s Furniture.”
Instantly, my mind made the connection to Phife Dawg’s lyrics from “Electric Relaxation” (“Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman's Furniture”), which produced a sizeable smile. In that moment, Phife had not only gifted me with a moment’s reprieve from what was surely a depressive episode, but he forged within me a newly found (even if cheeky) appreciation for my new hometown. Within weeks, I had similar experiences when I passed a Carvel ice cream shop (as Phife raps on “8 Million Stories,” “I went to Carvel to get a milkshake”), and when I went to a random house party on Linden Boulevard (I immediately began channeling Phife’s “Linden Boulevard, represent, represent” from “Steve Biko”).
Eventually, winter turned to spring, and by the time I finished school, I was once again engaged with my surroundings. At the time, my encounter with the notorious furniture store seemed anecdotal at best—just a random, funny moment that happened one day.
Nearly two years later, though, I came to fully realize the importance of that momentary connection. That year, I volunteered at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and watched as headliner Busta Rhymes surprised the crowd with a reunion of Leaders Of The New School and A Tribe Called Quest. Side-by-side, the groups performed “Scenario,” the first time every single participant on the record performed together in years.
When Phife hit the stage, I began to cry, but this time, it was inescapable joy and not dread or sorrow that I was feeling. Seeing him in person for the first time crystallized not just how much his music meant to me, but also his significant presence in my emotional recovery. In some ways, he was my de facto guide to New York City and the guiding light to rediscovering the excitement I felt when re-starting the first chapter of my journey.
It’s been a year since Phife Diggy died, but not a day has passed in which I don’t thank him for bringing me back to life.
Art Credit: Dirty Larry