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The Legacy of A Tribe Called Quest: New York Times (2016)

I GREW up in the suburbs of Boston, where I was the top-ranked singles player on my prep school’s tennis team and obsessed with rap music by Run-DMC, LL Cool J and KRS-One. But I felt like I was eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation when I listened to them. Those guys were streetwise kings of the hood from mighty New York, urban jungle warriors so ultra masculine they were like comic book superheroes.

At that point in the mid-1980s, hip-hop promoted a narrow vision of blackness marked by bravado, machismo, egocentrism and, for most, a bodacious New Yorkness. I looked at hip-hop and wondered where I fit in. Until A Tribe Called Quest arrived on the scene.

The legendary hip-hop group lost a core member this week when the rapper Phife Dawg (born Malik Taylor) passed away from complications of diabetes. He was 45. The remaining members include the group’s leader, rapper Q-Tip, their DJ/producer, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, an occasional bandmate.

The rappers from Tribe were far from urban jungle warriors: They loved to read and wanted to smoke weed, not sell it. They wore their intellectualism lightly, but proudly, and they made hip-hop for people who were as interested in ideas as in rhymes. Questlove, the drummer for the Roots, told me that when he was a teenager, Tribe was critical to his seeing himself as someone who could be in hip-hop.

But more than that, Tribe was vital in helping to spread the Afrocentrism movement to a new, more mainstream generation of listeners.

In the early 1990s, when they started to release albums, I was in college in Atlanta. I majored in African and African-American studies and grew dreads, so naturally, I had a deep relationship with Tribe. Their 1990 debut album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” was steeped in Afrocentrism, as were many songs in later albums.

On the song “Excursions,” from their 1991 album “The Low End Theory,” Q-Tip says, “Listen to the rhyme, cuz its time to make gravy/ If it moves your booty, then shake, shake it baby/ All the way to Africa a.k.a. The Motherland.” They talked about philosophy and peace. On “Midnight Marauders,” which they released two years later, they named a song “Steve Biko,” after the revolutionary black South African anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody. They proudly wore dreadlocks and dashikis. They were part of the Native Tongues, a loose collective of rappers bound by their Afrocentrism that included De La Soul, Queen Latifah and the Jungle Brothers.

Phife rhymed less often about Afrocentrism than Q-Tip, but both were more philosophical and humble than their contemporaries from Southern California like Snoop Dogg and Eazy-E. On “Buggin’ Out” from “The Low End Theory,” Phife rhymes, “I never walk the streets, think it’s all about me/ Even though deep in my heart, it really could be.”

A Tribe Called Quest were mellow evangelists for Afrocentrism. They made it cool, without ever seeming pushy or preachy about it. And it wasn’t some marketing tool; they were genuinely interested in it. Although the Afrocentricity movement began decades earlier, they helped to make it more accessible. When I moved to Brooklyn in the mid-1990s, I saw Afrocentricity’s influence everywhere, from African-themed restaurants to the clothing designer Moshood to the bold Afros and long dreads and cowrie shells I saw every day on every block. This is the context in which A Tribe Called Quest emerged and flourished.

Black people embraced Afrocentrism because they needed it. For many, being unable to trace our lineage was and remains spiritually painful. In the journey to America, black people lost their connection to Africa and thus the link to their history. Afrocentrism sought to give that back. It inspired black people to travel to the continent, read about it, put on kente cloth, wear their hair natural and celebrate Kwanzaa.

Afrocentrism shaped my identity. It taught me to think of Africa as my homeland, and to feel a spiritual and familial connection among black and brown people throughout the world, the global diaspora. It taught me to be proud of Africa. It portrayed Africa as beautiful and inspirational, to counteract the images of Africa that Americans received from the media, which were usually tragic.

Afrocentrism was an African-American attempt to make sense of life in this country and merge a sense of Africanness into an American lifestyle. It was a major part of the hip-hop movement at a time when gangsta rap got all the headlines. Tribe’s embrace of its ideology helped to spread it. Getting to know Tribe ultimately meant getting to know myself.

In time, Afrocentrism was seized by Madison Avenue as a marketing tool and a gimmicky way of trying to sell things to black consumers, as if putting red, black and green on the bag makes the French fries inside more authentic. But for those like me who took Afrocentrism to heart, it mattered.

A Tribe Called Quest helped open the door to Afrocentrism for many, just as they helped open the door to hip-hop for me and many others. Lots of different sorts of people are able to succeed in hip-hop now: a superblerd (black nerd) like Questlove; a self-proclaimed Oreo like Childish Gambino; an intellectual like Talib Kweli; a tormented skater-punk like Tyler the Creator; a fashion designer/rapper like Kanye West. We can thank Phife and A Tribe Called Quest for helping to inspire them, and us.