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6 essential essays by groundbreaking cultural critic Greg Tate

  • Duncan Harrison / 08.12.21

Yesterday (7 December), the news broke that acclaimed journalist Greg Tate had died. He was 64.

Tate was a long-time critic for The Village Voice in New York City, and his essays often explored the emergent influence of hip-hop culture on the arts in America. His first book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America , collected 40 of these essays.

Tate was also a founder of the Black Rock Coalition , an organisation launched in 1985 with “the purpose of creating an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music.” He was a Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies and lectured at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Throughout his life and work, Tate believed in connecting the dots between art and the realities which surrounded it. In exploring this, he became a vital critical voice in contextualising Black music within its wider creative histories. His worldview will be sorely missed by artists, critics and fans around the world.

In the wake of his passing, we’re revisiting some of Tate’s finest works. If you haven’t read these, here are six pieces which should serve as an introduction to the man The Source magazine called “the Godfather of hip-hop journalism”.

greg tate essays

© Christian San Jose

To Pimp a Butterfly

Tate’s review of Kendrick Lamar’s historic 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly , for Rolling Stone .

greg tate essays

via The Village Voice

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke

A 1986 essay on “the coming age of the post-nationalist black aesthetic,” featured in Flyboy in the Buttermilk.

greg tate essays

Afropessimism and Its Discontents

Tate’s last published piece , from September. “A guide for the perplexed, the puzzled, and the politically confused” reflecting on Afropessimism by Frank B. Wilderson III.

Fantasea Azealia Banks

Azealia Banks, Fantasea (Self-Released Mixtape)

For SPIN , Tate’s review of Azealia Banks’ self-released debut mixtape.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982, Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk

Another piece archived in Flyboy : Tate examines the complicated career and impact of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

greg tate essays

Bad Brains: Hardcore of Darkness

A 1982 piece for The Village Voice on the “baddest hardcore band in the land, living or dead”.

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The Critic Who Convinced Me That Criticism Could Be Art

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Greg Tate published his first book, a collection of essays titled “Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” in 1992. It drew from his work at the  Village Voice , where he had initially been hired, in the late eighties, to help the alternative weekly cover black music. As he would wryly note years later, the opportunity was born of the paper’s unusual belief that “Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren’t strangers to those communities.” At the  Voice , Tate became known for the slangy erudition he brought to bear on a range of topics, not just hip-hop and jazz but also science fiction, literary theory, movies, city politics, and police brutality. His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon; they were stylishly jam-packed with names and reference points that shouldn’t have got along but did, a trans-everything collision of pop stars, filmmakers, subterranean graffiti artists, Ivory Tower theorists, and Tate’s personal buddies, who often came across as the wisest of the bunch.

By the time I learned about “Flyboy,” it was out of print. A friend lent it to me, and, for the first time in years, I contemplated theft. Most critics can recall the encounters with art that left them so entranced that—motivated by mystery, ecstasy, or something in between—they felt compelled to reckon with the experience through writing. And most critics can also recall the critical essays that convinced them that this form of writing could be as exhilarating as art. When I first read Tate, I had cycled through a few of the more obvious approaches to cultural criticism, from the twisty and gonzo to the arch and obscurantist. But, reading Tate, I was drawn to his sense of otherness; he wrote from a perspective that felt both inside and outside. The possibilities of that perspective struck me when I got to the piece in “Flyboy” about Don DeLillo. Tate admires DeLillo, but, in the essay, he muses playfully on the vast literary terrain available to the alienated white male writer.

For a generation of critics, Tate’s career has served as a reminder that diversity isn’t just about a splash of color in the group photo; it’s about the different ways that people see, feel, and move within the world. These differences can be imperceptible, depending on where your eye lingers as you scan the newsroom. What made Tate’s criticism special was his ability to theorize outward from his encounters with genius and his brushes with banality—to telescope between moments of artistic inspiration and the giant structures within which those moments were produced. “Flyboy 2,” published earlier this month by Duke University Press, largely consists, like its predecessor, of critical essays, interviews, profiles, and short riffs. But, a quarter of a century on, the question animating his work has come into sharper focus. What he’s been exploring through his criticism has been something “less quantifiable,” as he puts it, than culture, identity, or consciousness. What Tate wants to understand is “the way Black people ‘think,’ mentally, emotionally, physically,” and “how those ways of thinking and being inform our artistic choices.”

In “Flyboy 2,” Tate’s excursions into this territory are more collaborative than they were in his earlier criticism. This becomes most explicit in a conversation with the late composer and bandleader Butch Morris, famous for “conducting” large, improvised jazz ensembles. The two discuss collective creativity, and Tate wonders aloud, “Are we talking chaos or democracy here?” The question resonates with his own approach to writing. He’s always allowed himself to come across as wide-eyed, mystified, and curious during his interviews; in so doing, he has elicited unusually insightful commentary from his interlocutors. A 1990 conversation with Ice Cube, who was then at the height of his powers, lays bare hip-hop’s theatricality, its blockbuster instinct for performance and play. (When Tate asks what responsibility Cube has to his audience, the rapper says, “My only responsibility is making funky records.” But Tate presses him, calling him out for his contradictions and trying to convince him of his power.) A mid-nineties interview with the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis turns on the tension between jazz’s old-school interest in virtuosity and the coarser rebellion of the hip-hop generation. “When this fad is gone, it’s gonna be back to the blues,” Marsalis says, “always has been and always will be.” But Tate, again, pushes back, pointing out the “tone and texture” of rap, the “soulful properties” that guide sampling. Eventually, Marsalis budges, ever so slightly.

Both of these pieces, among the oldest in the collection, help to establish jazz and hip-hop as part of the same continuum of expression—and they help ground Tate’s contention that black art is a centuries-long strategy for “erasing the erasure.” Drawing such connections across time and space is crucial for Tate. In successive paragraphs on the artist Kara Walker, Tate compares her to Art Spiegelman and then to Michael Jordan. The grace and mutant flexibility of the dancer Storyboard P calls to his mind the minimalist composer Terry Riley. Elsewhere, Tate draws on conversations with a friend to trace an improbable musical lineage. “My buddy Craig Street and I used to joke that the only people we knew who liked Joni Mitchell were Black people,” he writes, before positing that her style anticipated hip-hop. In another essay, about the painter Kehinde Wiley, famed for rendering young black and brown men in the hyper-naturalistic style of heroic portraiture, Tate writes:

Black masculinity is already context. Already a fiction and an ethnographic narrative. Already the shortest distance between two points and the hypotenuse of a square. Already a moonshot, a roll of the dice, the luck of the draw, the pick of the litter. Last hired, first fired, only standing president to be called out by his name like so; ‘uppity tar baby.’ Rich nigra, poor nigra, White House-ensconced nigra still just a nigra.

Tate’s perspective feels especially vital when he writes about an artist like Wiley, who inherited hip-hop’s disdain for masters and then turned it into something else. In contrast, Tate’s own relationship to hip-hop has become more distant, as the music and the business around it have become inextricable. People should hate Eminem, Tate writes in a 2004 essay, not because he’s white but “because he gets paid by the industry to be whimsical and personal”—a freedom that is rarely extended to rappers who aren’t white. Tate constantly maintains an awareness of the ways that even the most intimate and ephemeral creations can be monetized: a particular attitude, a way of standing. Tate has a keen sense for the way that both artists and communities discern where they fit in the world, and what is expected of them, and then either go along for the ride or carefully plot their escapes. This is why his obituaries for Amiri Baraka, Richard Pryor, and Michael Jackson, all collected in “Flyboy 2,” radiate such an acute sympathy.

The pieces in the new book cluster around the early aughts, and then there’s a bit of a gap until the twenty-tens. This in-between period was when I first met Tate. He had agreed to talk to me about a piece I was writing on the Black Rock Coalition, an organization he co-founded in the eighties. Every now and then, I would see him around Manhattan or Brooklyn. He was making music—he had started a free-jazz big band inspired by Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic called Burnt Sugar. He played a little guitar, but his main job was conducting all the loose energies onstage, the way Butch Morris used to do. I remember going to a few shows just after 9/11 and finding comfort in this weird, futuristic, improvised America. At these performances, there were singers, horns, a cello, and more guitars than seemed strictly necessary. I remember turntables and drums, too, and Vijay Iyer, a future MacArthur genius, on piano. Was it chaos or democracy? At the center of the stage, dressed in a white suit, there was the critic, making art with his hands.

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How Nostalgia Drives the Music Industry

By Patricia Marx

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  • Print length 288 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Touchstone
  • Publication date September 26, 2015
  • Dimensions 6 x 1 x 8.75 inches
  • ISBN-10 1501136976
  • ISBN-13 978-1501136979
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Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Touchstone; Reprint edition (September 26, 2015)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1501136976
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1501136979
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 10.4 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6 x 1 x 8.75 inches
  • #3,247 in African American Demographic Studies (Books)

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Greg Tate: making connections between politics and metaphysics

Greg Tate: the flyboy goes back to the future

From Michael Jackson’s nose to the righteousness of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tate has been analysing culture for over 30 mind-expanding years. He talks philosophy, Afrofuturism, and how black artists defy boundaries

I n his 1987 Village Voice essay I’m White! What’s Wrong with Michael Jackson , Greg Tate wrote there was “proof that God don’t like ugly” since “the title of Michael’s new LP, Bad accurately describes the contents in standard English”. The searing critique was not just about the music, but about Jackson’s new appearance, unveiled on the album’s cover and in the Martin Scorsese-directed video. There was Jackson with a narrow pointy nose and pale skin, a look Tate unforgettably described as “decolorized flesh – a buppy version of Dorian Gray, a blaxploitation nightmare that offers this moral: stop, the face you save may be your own”.

Still, as much as he disliked Bad for being “as songless as Thriller is songful”, Tate’s essay is also a backhanded love letter to what is still the bestselling album of all time . “No amount of disgust for Jackson’s even newer face (cleft in the chin) takes anything away from Thriller,” Tate wrote. “Thriller is a record that doesn’t even know how to stop giving pleasure.”

Tate and Jackson were the same age, and in 1987 the critic – as adept at exploring the black experience in America in an essay as Jackson was at exploring it in a song – had recently been hired as a staff writer for the Voice by legendary rock critic Robert Christgau after contributing for a few years. “Digging into our black nationalist bag,” as he put it, Tate wrote angrily about Jackson, but not without the sympathy of context: “Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war – another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.”

Michael Jackson in his Bad years: “a buppy version of Dorian Gray”

Two decades later, a few years after leaving the Voice as a staff writer, Tate returned to write The Man in Our Mirror , the definitive Michael Jackson obituary. “The absolute irony of all the jokes and speculation about Michael trying to turn into a European woman is that after James Brown, his music (and his dancing) represent the epitome – one of the mightiest peaks – of what we call black music,” Tate declared. “Anyone whose racial-litmus-test challenge to Michael came with a rhythm-and-blues battle royale event would have gotten their ass royally waxed.”

This masterful essay is anthologized in Tate’s new book Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader , a collection of Tate’s writings on black artists from John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix to Spike Lee and Kara Walker. In it, Tate reflects not just the breadth and depth of his range, but also the richness of his dialogue with fellow black writers. During his tenure at the Voice, the likes of Thulani Davis , Stanley Crouch , Ta-Nehisi Coates , Hilton Als , Joan Morgan and Nelson George passed through, and he writes in the introduction that the “Voice meant I could be me, be free and not what somebody’s style manual said I had to be”.

The title of Tate’s first book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America , is a playful ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose ability to foreground black people in a world which wants to erase them made his “work not just ingenious, but righteous and profound”. Tate briefly met Basquiat just one time in person, when legendary graffiti artist and hip-hop prime mover “Fab Five Freddy invited me to a party over at his house” in the mid-80s.

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in 1983.

Tate meets me in a coffee shop in New York’s West Village, colorfully dressed a straw hat, salmon shirt and shorts, and bright yellow shoes. Carrying a guitar and equipment for a gig later that day with his band Burnt Sugar Archestra , his broad smile and warm eyes make him seem like a youngin’ who just “first fell in love with the Village”, as he did in the 1980s after going to Howard.

Tate’s first story for the Voice as a freelancer was about jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. His first cover was about Nigerian singer King Sunny Adé . Right from the start his prose was entirely free of cliches. Even now, Tate is constantly forming new idiomatic expressions which are perplexing in their ability to be simultaneously original and yet feel as familiar as something your auntie might have told you as a child.

For instance, Tate writes of Outkast that “hip-hop is now the Kmart of the American id, where our dark and unconscious shit turns into shinola [and] we need its democratic ideals to be messy”. He described Andre 3000 as “latest link in a lengthy chain of supersoulful African American eccentrics stretching from Charley Patton and Jelly Roll Morton to Andre’s guiding light in eclectic negritude, Prince. All folk who wielded weirdness like a scalpel, albeit one that carves order out of the cosmic slop of their free-associative funky imaginations.”

Andre 3000 in 2004: ‘electric negritude’

Our talk turns to philosophy and the book Nomadology: the War Machine by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari comes up, which Tate admired for its “sense of cultural solidarity expressed without necessarily being dependent upon property or a standing army”, of understanding “that one’s sense of power is being able to improvise existence with whatever is at hand”. But Tate’s real philosophical influences were jazz musicians, black female literary writers ( Toni Morrison , Alice Walker , Thulani Davis , Ai and Ntozake Shange ) and “a number of black male writers who were working in experimental fiction and poetry” ( Ishmael Reed , Clarence Major , Charles Wright , Calvin Hernton ).

“There were all these artists working in interdisciplinary ways,” Tate tells me, making “a link between an experimental black literature and experimental black music [like] Miles Davis and Art Ensemble of Chicago ”. These figures, Tate says, helped to foster “the whole notion of being a black artist as being a person without boundaries, being a person who was making these connections between politics and metaphysics.”

Interviewed in the 1992 essay Black to the Future in which Mark Dery coins the term Afrofuturism (a way of thinking about race as a technology in relation to culture, science and metaphysics), Tate is seen as a godfather of that school of black thought. But while he is deeply interested in how Afrofuturism and its converse, Afropessimism, “reveal the precarious position of blackness within western society and the recurring sense of danger mediated by a will to progress,” he finds the term Afrofuturism a little “corny”.

The choreographer Bill T Jones, another artist Tate examines.

“My comrade in arms, [ cinematographer ] Arthur Jafa, we always thought of ‘black science fiction’,” he explains. “The thing was, when we said it, it didn’t just reference literature or films. It was just life. We would just be walking around the streets in Washington, and we’d see things and say: ‘Now, that’s black science fiction right there.’”

The fact that Flyboy 2 is published by the academic Duke University Press reflects how black popular culture studies are being taken seriously in the academy, and how “blackademic” professors such as Brittany Cooper and Marc Lamont Hill can write about Prince , presidential politics or prisons alike. Black writers who flow between these subjects owe a debt to “oldhead” Tate, who has been making black prose philosophically portable between different spheres long before black Twitter did.

Indeed, from his early music reviews in the 80s to his essay Top 10 Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Were Down to Occupy Wall Street Plus Four More , Tate has helped foster a shift in how blackness is seen in the world. He’s also been asserting for decades that “Our Black lives, creative acts, political plots, and trans-African legacies been mattering here for a good long while” in every domain.

Kara Walker: a universe of black magic

While philosophy is explored in essays on visual artists (Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker), choreographers (Bill T Jones), comics (Richard Pryor) and musical artists (Björk, Azealia, Miles, Gil and Michael), Tate’s existential exploration really lies in the deployment of his language and vernacular. His linguistic phrasing is relentlessly his own, delightfully challenging readers to think in new ways. And his language choices are inclined, as he puts it, to “incite a riot among those copydesks and style-book fetishists who pretend that lowercasing Black is sensible and not white-power jockeying taken to the grammatical level.”

But though he is associated with jazz, soul and all things Black, there is nothing remotely limited in the scope of his new book. “Race, generally equated with politics, is really in the American context a branch of metaphysics, aesthetics, and anthropology,” he writes in his introduction, “representing a far broader body of concerns where you can readily leapfrog between sex, death, religion, criminality, linguistics, music, genetics, athletics, fashion, medicine, you name it, in the name of African liberation and self- determination.” Whether you are new to his work or a longtime reader, the universe of Black magic lovingly curated in Flyboy 2 will do your soul good.

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Appreciation: Critic Greg Tate taught a generation how to listen to, love and write about Black music

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Greg Tate wrote about race in a way that expressed a profound, sixth-dimensional love for African American life. His music criticism moved like music. He was someone who believed in telling those around him that their work and lives mattered. And now, in the wake of his sudden death this week at age 64, many who knew him are telling one another how much his work mattered to them.

On Tuesday night in Harlem, the Apollo Theater marquee cried: “Honoring the life of GREG TATE, writer, musician and producer.” From Los Angeles, actor and playwright Roger Guenveur Smith eulogized Tate as “a universal negro improvement association/unto his own damn self.”

“What a sadness,” said James Fugate, co-owner of Black-owned Eso Won Books in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood. “Boy, that just ...” He breathed a deep sigh. “The last two years have given us too much sad news.”

With Tate, there was the voice, and there was the voice.

The writing voice was the one that made him a lodestar for so many aspiring cultural critics.

In his work for the Village Voice and in collections of essays like the groundbreaking “ Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America ” (1992) and “ Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture ” (2003), Tate explored the way artists such as Public Enemy, Miles Davis, William Gibson, De La Soul and Samuel Delaney have shaped our era.

He mixed up forms of rhetoric — the stump speech, the rap, the Stanley Crouch rant, the sermon, the 4 a.m. shout — placing them in the frame of his strong, original voice. In the late 1980s, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, a union of bands and listeners dedicated to the notion that Elvis was not the king of rock ’n’ roll and that Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee and Billy Preston had yet to get their proper due. Running through his work is this message: The stuff you love was shaped, if not designed, by African Americans.

On Tuesday, the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb tweeted, “Hard to explain the impact that Flyboy in the Buttermilk had on a whole generation of young writers and critics who read every page of it like scripture. It’s still a clinic on literary brilliance.”

A man in a yellow scarf, purple sports coat and orange skip cap.

In person, there was a different kind of voice: the warm, supportive one he offered hundreds of writers who looked up to him as a model. Kimberly Mack is an associate professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio. She’s writing a book about the BIPOC and white female writers who helped invent rock criticism; the one after that is about the Black rock band Living Colour’s breakthrough album, “Time’s Up.”

In 2002, Mack was getting her master’s in fine arts at Antioch University in Los Angeles, and her program required her to select a mentor to whom she would send work and get feedback from. Out of the blue, she reached out to Tate in New York, and he said, “Sure.”

The program was supposed to last about half a year, but Mack kept sending writing samples to Tate and talking with him on the phone, and Tate kept weighing in, for years.

“He took me seriously, probably before I deserved to be taken seriously,” said Mack. “Meeting him at the very beginning of my journey and having somebody of that stature willing to read my work — he made me feel like this was possible.”

Tate spoke quiet and low, and a lot of white writers found it intimidating. “Greg knew how to be the loudest person in the room without saying a word,” said journalist, podcast host and former Vibe magazine editor Danyel Smith. “His energy was an old-school Black male cool that can be intimidating. But for me and some of my Black colleagues, it wasn’t intimidating, it was enriching. It was what we aspired to be.”

A band onstage, with a guitarist, drummer and horn section.

In the 1970s, alternative weeklies were like pirate radio stations in many big cities, featuring critical voices and subjects that local newspapers wouldn’t go anywhere near. New York’s Village Voice had more outrageous, courageous and heretofore unheard voices than anywhere else.

Tate came to the Voice around the same I did, in the early 1980s. A lot was going on: New York was being remade by the three-headed beast of hip-hop: breakdancing, graffiti and rapping. There was a new art underground — Tate wrote stunningly about Jean-Michel Basquiat — and a new Black cinema, with Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers and more. In a hiccup of time, Tate was a great voice of New York opinion-making.

The writing has so thoroughly influenced criticism of the last few decades that it’s easy to forget the controversy Tate courted at the start. An outraged white writer at the Voice ghost-wrote a mocking parody of Tate from the point of view of a white ethnic New Yorker beaming pride for, I believe it was, Tony Bennett. The music editor published it — why not?

Tate was a pop-culture nerd, throwing references to Jack Kirby, “Dhalgren” and Malcolm X into his reviews. He was an early chronicler of hip-hop, and he wrote about rock bands and gnarly noise and free jazz, about Bob Dylan and King Sunny Adé. His spirit was welcoming, yet challenging — he could be difficult, and he struck a confrontational posture. “I would read him, and I didn’t even know the bands he was talking about,” laughs Smith. She encountered his work on a newsstand in Oakland, where every week the new Voice came to town. “You had to run and ask somebody who was it he was talking about,” says Smith. “I didn’t really care, because the lessons were in the sentences.”

Tate was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1957. His parents, Florence and Charles Tate, were civil-rights activists, and Florence was a pioneering Black journalist for the Dayton Daily News. (Her posthumous memoir, “ Sometimes Farmgirls Become Revolutionaries, ” was recently published.) Tate moved to Washington, D.C., when he was about 12. In addition to the Village Voice, he wrote for Vibe, Rolling Stone and the Nation.

In recent decades, Tate, a talented guitar player, had formed the free-thinking groove ensemble Burnt Sugar, a global consortium of the like-minded that was sometimes a big band and other times a sleek combo.

Having articulated race-conscious humanist values in his writing and built up a global community of peers, readers and collaborators, he now lived a bit nomadically among them, continuing to write, definitely still mentoring, playing music that radiated his collective vision, teaching, curating — being Greg Tate.

The voice remained resonant. “I always tell the same story. It never gets any different,” says Smith. When she became music editor at Vibe and was editing Tate, she took him out to lunch to pick his brain. “I’ve got a lot of questions. I’m trying to be the tough girl,” she said.

And then she just asked him: “How do you do it?” She meant, basically, how did he do everything he did — wrap a poison dart at killer cops in a learned movie review or connect Kool & the Gang to jazz greats of the 1930s and to white rock of the 1960s. “And why is it so poetic when you do?” Smith had questions. “And he was looking at me like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ He said, ‘There’s really nothing to it. You just have to get old.’” She was in her 20s, he was then in his 30s. “That’s it, sis. Let go of the anxiety — you just have to get old.”

“He said it then and it’s true now,” says Smith. “If you stay in the game and listen to music, pay attention, it is true.”

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Considering Greg Tate’s transformative impact on cultural criticism

The writer, musician and professor, who died earlier this month, wrote some of the most influential and creative art criticism of the past half-century.

Greg Tate on a panel at the 2008 Pop Conference Photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia

Greg Tate on a panel at the 2008 Pop Conference Photo by Joe Mabel , via Wikimedia

The renowned cultural critic, musician and producer Greg Tate died on 7 December at age 64, leaving behind an expansive body of work that touched on almost every cultural topic one could imagine including art, literature, music and more. His writings on hip hop and art in particular were incredibly influential and became models for his approach as a writer and journalist. Mixing elements of poetry with razor-sharp observations and omnivorous references, Tate helped create a new kind of criticism that profoundly changed the field from the inside out.

While the worlds of art and music criticism can often feel incredibly insular and impenetrable, Tate created expansive space for himself and others through his powerful interrogations of culture, race, gender and other pressing issues in America. Through his inclusive, historically rooted approach to writing he had an enormous influence on a generation of artists, scholars, musicians and critics.

After finishing a degree in journalism at Howard University, Tate moved to New York City in 1982, a year after he began writing for The Village Voice as a freelancer. He joined the publication in a full-time capacity in 1987. What started off as reviews for the Voice quickly evolved into pieces of cultural criticism that became emblematic of his style and helped shape Tate’s career as a critic, expert on Black music and art, and professor. The work he produced during this period would give way to larger projects that would fuel his career over the ensuing decades.

Tate’s writing critically engaged cultural theory and was infused with many nuanced takes on various musical and artistic movements. His writing style was complex yet approachable, animated and filled with references that were centered in a larger historical exploration of Black culture and beyond. Hua Hsu, a staff writer at the New Yorker, described Tate’s writing this way in a 2016 essay : “His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chatted like a salon. They were stylishly jam-packed with names and reference points that shouldn’t have gotten along but did.” Tate’s writing was honest, complex and visionary. It pushed and educated readers while also showing people that criticism could and should be so much more creative than it often is.

Tate’s 1989 Village Voice article “ Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: The Crisis of the Black Artist in White America ” sought to unpack the larger racial complexities intertwined with the late artist’s career and impact on the art world and beyond. Tate also considered Basquiat’s place within art history as the most successful artist of colour at that time and how other critics were trying to place him in a particular category rather than engaging with his work and life holistically. Tate rightfully checked them and helped to situate Basquiat’s career within the Black lived experience while also addressing his distinct complexities as a person and artist.

Three years later Tate published Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, a volume containing over 40 essays (including the Basquiat article) that remains one of his most important and influential works. The essays collected therein showcase the breadth and depth of Tate’s genius while also encapsulating many of the larger themes and formal motifs of his writing. The book had an indelible impact on the field of criticism and quickly became required reading in many university art and cultural studies programmes.

In subsequent decades Tate was a regular contributor to numerous publications including the New York Times , Rolling Stone and others. He also taught at Yale University, Columbia University, Brown University and Williams College. Over the course of four decades he helped to shape the field through his pedagogy and shift the landscape of cultural criticism for generations to come.

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Greg Tate, Influential Black Cultural Critic, Dies at 64

His writing for The Village Voice and other publications helped elevate hip-hop and street art to the same planes as jazz and Abstract Expressionism.

greg tate essays

By Clay Risen

Greg Tate, a journalist and critic whose articles for The Village Voice, Rolling Stone and other publications starting in the 1980s helped elevate hip-hop and street art to the same plane as jazz and Abstract Expressionism, died on Tuesday in New York City. He was 64.

His daughter, Chinara Tate, confirmed the death. No cause was given.

Mr. Tate exploded onto the New York cultural scene in the early 1980s, soon after graduating from Howard University, when he began contributing freelance music reviews to The Voice. Although he didn’t join the weekly newspaper’s staff until 1987, he almost immediately became its pre-eminent writer on Black music and art, and by extension one of the city’s leading cultural critics.

New York at the time was an ebullient chaos of cultures, its downtown scene populated by street artists, struggling writers, disco D.J.s and punk rockers living in cheap apartments and crowding into clubs like Paradise Garage and CBGB. The Village Voice was their bible, and Mr. Tate was very often their guide.

His tastes varied widely, as did his style; his whirlwind sentences might string together pop culture, French literary theory and the latest slang. He was equally at home discussing Chuck D or assessing the latest work of the theorist Edward Said , all deployed with a casual candor that left readers wanting more.

He quickly graduated from reviews to cultural criticism. Among his most famous articles was “ Cult-Nats Meet Freaky Deke ,” an incisive attempt, published in The Voice in 1986, to find a middle ground between the austere aesthetics of Black nationalist intellectualism and the emancipatory pandemonium of artists like James Brown.

Mr. Tate could be both generous and exacting: He praised Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as one of the best albums ever made but called the follow-up, “Bad,” one of the worst. He eviscerated Jackson’s “ blanched skin and disfigured African features ” as the sad, inevitable result of white America’s ongoing appropriation of Black culture.

“Jackson was the under-weaned creation of two Black working-class traditions,” Mr. Tate wrote in The Voice in 1987: “That of boys being forced to bypass childhood along the fast track to manhood, and that of rhythm and blues auctioning off the race’s passion for song, dance, sex and spectacle.”

But he was less interested in castigation than in celebration and exploration. A single, clear thread ran through all his work: a belief that Black culture was fresh and innovative but at the same time deeply rooted in history, and that its disparate forms could be understood as emanations from a common heritage.

“I marvel at hip-hop for the same reasons I marvel at Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X and Michael Jordan: a lust for that wanton and wily thing called swing and an ardor for Black artists who make virtuosic use of African-American vernacular,” he wrote in The New York Times in 1994.

Mr. Tate’s first book, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America,” was published in 1992. A compendium of his articles from The Voice, it catalyzed a generation of young writers of color with its vivid language, easy erudition and kaleidoscopic range.

“His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon,” one of those young critics, Hua Hsu, wrote in 2016 in The New Yorker , where he is now a staff writer. “They were stylishly jam-packed with names and reference points that shouldn’t have got along but did.”

Some critics like to remain aloof from their subjects; not Mr. Tate. He palled around with the rapper Fab Five Freddy and the guitarist Vernon Reid, a founder of the band Living Colour, and he went out of his way to promote rising young Black artists, especially women.

After a series of meetings in 1985 to discuss the racial disparities in New York’s music scene, he joined Mr. Reid and several others to form the Black Rock Coalition , which promotes Black musicians. Mr. Tate wrote the group’s manifesto.

“Rock and roll,” he wrote, “like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music, and we are its heirs. We, too, claim the right of creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations, irrespective of genre.”

He wrote as both a music fan and a musician; he played guitar, and in 1999 he formed Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, a genre-blending band of indeterminate size. Anywhere from 12 to 40 members might be onstage at a time, with Mr. Tate often playing the role of conductor.

He left The Voice in 2005, became a visiting professor at Brown and Columbia and wrote a series of books, including a sequel to “Flyboy” and a critical assessment of Jimi Hendrix. Both the pace and the style of his writing slowed down and became more deliberate as he shifted his attention to visual art and national politics.

“When you’re younger, it’s all about expressionism, it’s all about trying to make as much noise as possible,” he told The L.A. Review of Books in 2018 . “You realize, after a while, your thoughts are incendiary enough; the language doesn’t have to also be on fire all the time.”

Gregory Stephen Tate was born on Oct. 14, 1957, in Dayton, Ohio. Both his parents, Charles and Florence (Grinner) Tate, were active in the city’s civil rights movement as members of the Congress of Racial Equality, and their home served as a gathering place for fellow organizers.

On weekends, as the family cleaned the house, his father would play jazz albums and his mother would play recordings of speeches by Malcolm X, followed by Nina Simone.

Mr. Tate’s omnivorous nature emerged early on. His family moved to Washington when he was 13, and among their new friends was the playwright and poet Thulani Davis. In an interview, she remembered Greg coming to her apartment to listen to records and grilling her about music, art and literature. He read Amiri Baraka and Rolling Stone in equal measure.

“When he discovered a new sound or set of ideas,” Ms. Davis said, “he would listen to or read them obsessively.”

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Tate is survived by a brother, Brian; a sister, Geri Augusto; and a grandson, Nile.

He studied journalism and film at Howard, where he also hosted a radio show and began trying his hand at music criticism. Eventually Ms. Davis recommended that he submit something to Robert Christgau, the music editor of The Village Voice, where she was also an editor.

Just before moving to New York permanently, Mr. Tate struck up a friendship with Arthur Jafa , another Howard student, who was at the beginning of his own illustrious career as a video artist. A chance encounter outside the Howard library, just before Mr. Tate moved to Harlem, turned into an eight-hour conversation, ranging over Greek drama, avant-garde film and the latest sounds coming out of New York.

The two remained close, bouncing ideas off each other and becoming famous for their public gab sessions. When Mr. Jafa needed an essay for an exhibition catalog, Mr. Tate wrote it in a night. On another occasion, Mr. Jafa joined Mr. Tate for an event in Minneapolis, where they ended up talking for 10 hours, becoming a sort of accidental performance art.

“He didn’t accept false boundaries,” Mr. Jafa said in an interview. “It’s hard to describe what it’s like having the voice of a generation as your friend.”

An earlier version of this obituary misstated when Mr. Tate’s first book, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America,” was published. It was 1992, not 1993. The earlier version also referred incompletely at one point to the poet and playwright Thulani Davis, who recommended in the early 1980s that Mr. Tate submit material to Robert Christgau, the music editor of The Village Voice. She was also an editor at The Voice at the time; she did not simply know Mr. Christgau.

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Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The New York Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion. He is the author, most recently, of "Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey." More about Clay Risen

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Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America

Greg tate. simon & schuster, $10 (285pp) isbn 978-0-671-72965-3.

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Reviewed on: 05/04/1992

Genre: Nonfiction

Paperback - 288 pages - 978-1-5011-3697-9

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Greg Tate (1957-2021): Cultural Critic Who Made His Name Writing About Hip Hop, Was Equally Attuned to Visual Art

CULTURAL CRITIC AND MUSICIAN Greg Tate (1957-2021) died Dec. 7 in New York. He was 64. Widely renowned and beloved, Tate wrote with a singular style and insight about music, art, and culture at-large. In the 1970s, he worked at Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York, the storied gathering place and exhibition space established by Linda Goode Bryant. In the 1980s, he became a voice of authority on hip hop from its earliest days.

Although his key focus was Black music, his interests and references were wide ranging, from science fiction to French literary theory and street art. Over the course of his career, Tate wrote for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Vibe, and contributed to many more publications, including ARTnews. He also penned essays for volumes dedicated to artists Arthur Jafa, Deana Lawson, Ellen Gallagher, José Parlá, and Kerry James Marshall, among others.

greg tate essays

Known for writing about hip hop, he was equally attuned to visual art. Tate co-curated “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” (2020-21) at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and co-edited the accompanying exhibition catalog. “Writing the Future” was billed as “the first major exhibition to contextualize Basquiat’s work in relation to hip-hop and marks the first time his extensive, robust, and reflective portraiture of his Black and Latinx friends and fellow artists has been given prominence in scholarship on his oeuvre.”

In May, Tate gave the commencement address to 2021 MFA graduates at the Yale School of Art. At the time of his death, he was working on a volume of essays about Black visual art with Duke University Press.

BORN IN DAYTON, OHIO, Tate graduated from Howard University where he studied journalism and film. In the early 1980s, he started writing for The Village Voice and was on staff there from 1987 to 2003. In the ensuing years, he became a visiting professor at Williams College, and Brown, Columbia, and Yale universities. In 2010, Tate was named a United States Artists Fellow in literature.

He was also a musician. Tate co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and started Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, “a sprawling band of musicians whose prodigious personnel allows them to freely juggle a wide swath of the experimental soul-jazz-hip hop spectrum.” In the band, Tate played guitar and served as “conductor.” Burnt Sugar performed at numerous venues, including The Underground Museum in Los Angeles.

Tate was fluent in multiple disciplines and drew on an expanse of Black creative expression in his analysis and elevation of hip hop. “I marvel at hip-hop for the same reasons I marvel at Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X and Michael Jordan: a lust for that wanton and wily thing called swing and an ardor for black artists who make virtuosic use of African-American vernacular,” Tate wrote in The New York Times in 1994.

He continued: “If there is a connection between jazz and hip-hop, it is the tonal and rhythmic vocabulary they have culled from black speaking patterns and vocal timbres. Ralph Ellison orchestrated these voices with wit and finesse in “Invisible Man,” a novel prescient of hip-hop in affirming black America’s array of homespun philosophers. He even presages the B-boy when he writes of postwar Harlem’s hip youngbloods as men who appear “like one of these African sculptures distorted in the interest of a design” and who speak “a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour.”

“If there is a connection between jazz and hip-hop, it is the tonal and rhythmic vocabulary they have culled from black speaking patterns and vocal timbres. Ralph Ellison orchestrated these voices with wit and finesse in ‘Invisible Man,’ a novel prescient of hip-hop in affirming black America’s array of homespun philosophers.” — Greg Tate

Tate authored several books, including “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” (1992) and “Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader” (2016). A new book by Tate about Black visual art will be published posthumously.

In a farewell tribute to Tate, his publisher shared the news: “Duke University Press has a final book with Greg Tate under contract, to be published sometime in the next few years. Titled ‘White Cube Fever: Hella Conjure and Writing on the Black Arts,’ it is a collection of his writing on Black visual art, including essays on Carrie Mae Weems, Basquiat, Arthur Jafa, Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Lonnie Holley, Ellen Gallagher, and Theaster Gates. It will be a bittersweet pleasure for our staff to work on this posthumous project.”

“White Cube Fever: Hella Conjure and Writing on the Black Arts,” a forthcoming book by Greg Tate, collects his writing on Black visual art and features essays on Carrie Mae Weems, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Arthur Jafa, Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Lonnie Holley, Ellen Gallagher, and Theaster Gates.

A week before he died, Tate paid homage to art historian Robert Farris Thompson who passed Nov. 29. “A giant of African/Black Atlantic cultural and esthetic scholarship no longer walks among us but along what Sun Ra called The Strange Celestial Road,” Tate wrote on Instagram. “The impact of Robert Farris Thompson’s books and lectures on C. Daniel Dawson, David Hammons, Kelly (sic) Jones, Kerry James Marshall, Arthur Jafa, Judith Wilson, Henry Louis Gates, and Sanford Biggers among many others, was immense—especially Flash of the Spirit which we essayed upon in Flyboy In the Buttermilk under the title ‘Guerilla Scholar On The Loose.’”

TATE HAD A WAY with words. In a New Yorker essay titled “The Critic Who Convinced Me That Criticism Could Be Art,” Hua Hsu wrote about Tate. “His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon,” he said. Borrowing Tate’s own words, Hsu added: “What he’s been exploring through his criticism has been something ‘less quantifiable,’ as he puts it, than culture, identity, or consciousness. What Tate wants to understand is ‘the way Black people “think,” mentally, emotionally, physically,’ and ‘how those ways of thinking and being inform our artistic choices.'”

That was back in 2016. In the days since Tate’s passing, many more writers and artists have weighed in on the critic, his work, and influence, offering heartfelt reflections and tributes.

In The Washington Post, Kevin Powell authored an essay titled, “Greg Tate showed me what being a writer in America could mean.” He called Tate “arguably the best American writer and thinker of the past 40 years, easily one of the greatest wordsmiths we’ve ever been blessed to have.”

Powell also wrote: “His words were hypnotic, and they lit my brain like a fuse. Greg was writing, with unparalleled honesty, about the perils and pitfalls of fame and its toll on the Black mind and the Black body. He was also showing me the possibilities of what a writer could do and be: poet, cultural curator, memory-keeper, visionary and unapologetic truth-teller for the people.”

Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey posted on Twitter: “Greg Tate leaves a brilliant lexicon behind, the product of a brilliant and restless mind. Asé. Ibaye bae tonu. May the ancestors be proud of your work and welcome you home.”

“Greg Tate leaves a brilliant lexicon behind, the product of a brilliant and restless mind. Asé. Ibaye bae tonu. May the ancestors be proud of your work and welcome you home.” — Dawoud Bey

A testament to the critic’s cultural stature, the iconic Apollo Theater dedicated its marquee to Tate. Artist Carrie Mae Weems used a picture of the Apollo tribute to illustrate an Instagram post on Dec. 11. “My dear friends,” Weems wrote, “today at 1:00pm sharp-EST, everywhere you are, stop and stand for a moment of silence in honor of our brother Greg Tate, and call his name!”

Also on Instagram, poet Saul Williams called Tate a friend, brother, oracle, orchestrator, and “a troubadour of the here before and here forever after.” He wrote in part: “When Greg Tate adopted me along with every poet squeezed tight into the Brooklyn Moon we were in the midst of a renaissance. Afronauts light-tripping Blackness in queer & euphoric space. He welcomed us to the table, already set, with cardboard placemats cut from the refrigerator boxes we had placed on sidewalks, backspins & windmills ago, with a slight grin like ‘I been waiting for y’all.'”

Williams added: “Greg Tate held captive audience with sly subtlety, gave out homework in ways that made you make sure your next album, or sentence, was proof of research. Ever-generous with his servings he made sure we knew that we were coming in the tradition of, on the shoulders of, out of the mouths of oracles that had predicted us.”

Artist Lorna Simpson posted a vintage photo of Tate on Instagram and wrote: “Indelibly beautiful rich markings of poetics that you groved (sic) into our hearts and minds – thank you thank you thank you Greg Tate.”

Tate and artist Arthur Jafa met at Howard. Conversations between the two were legendary and lengthy. They famously spoke for hours and hours in private and on public stages, covering all manner of topics.

Jafa told the New York Times: “It’s hard to describe what it’s like having the voice of a generation as your friend.” On Instagram, Jafa wrote: “Absolute love of my life.” CT

FIND MORE about Greg Tate on his Instagram page

READ MORE Last year, Tate was in conversation with Arthur Jafa about author Samuel R. Delany and his “iconoclastic, intergalactic oeuvre,” a dialogue featured in Ursula, the magazine published by Hauser & Wirth gallery

LISTEN MORE Greg Tate on What is Hip Hop

READ MORE In 1989, Greg Tate wrote an essay in The Village Voice about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat titled, “Nobody Loves a Genius Child”

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BOOKSHELF Greg Tate is the author of several books, including “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” (1992) and “Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader” (2016). He edited “Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture” (2003), a collection of essays by multiple authors that features an introductory essay by Tate titled, “Nigs ’R Us.” Tate co-edited the exhibition catalog “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation.” He also contributed to many artist’s catalogs, including “Deana Lawson,” the new publication accompanying the artist’s current exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.

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Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.

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The Invisible Hand of Greg Tate

Robin D. G. Kelley and Bongani Madondo honor the writer’s life, work, and legacy.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Bongani madondo.

  • January 4, 2022

On December 7, 2021, we lost a literary and cultural giant. To call Greg Tate one of the most important critics and essayists of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in any language, would not be an exaggeration. In fact, it would not be enough. He was the genius child everybody loved. He came of age in Chocolate City (what the political class call the nation’s capital), then studied film and journalism at Howard University before settling in New York in the early 1980s to write and make music. Thanks to poet, playwright, librettist, and scholar Thulani Davis, Tate began writing for the Village Voice and almost immediately transformed critical writing on Black culture. He was to the 1980s and ’90s generation what Amiri Baraka and A. B. Spellman (fellow Howard alums) were to that of the 1960s. In 1992 he published Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America , a gathering of some of his best writing. The book became an instant classic. He went on to publish Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (2003); edit the landmark anthology Everything But the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture (2003); and issue his second collection of essays in 2016, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader.

Though Tate was a trenchant music critic, he also always kept his guitar handy and led his own bands. His first band was the iconoclastic Black feminist acid funk group, Women in Love, whose bassist was none other than Me’Shell Ndegeocello. He cared about the music and those who made it, leading him and guitar legend Vernon Reid to co-found the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. Tate penned the BRC’s manifesto , which could easily double as his personal mantra:

The BRC embraces the total spectrum of Black music. The BRC rejects the arcane perceptions and spurious demographics that claim our appeal is limited. The BRC rejects the demand for Black artists to tailor their music to fit into the creative straitjackets the industry has designed. We are individuals and will accept no less than full respect for our right to be conceptually independent.

His last band, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, lasted over two decades and, in my opinion, was one of the greatest musical projects of the last half-century. It was a kind of gypsy band consisting of a small tribe of genre-busting instrumentalists, vocalists, and poets. Tate played a little bit, but primarily assumed the role of conductor. His inspiration was the late Lawrence “Butch” Morris, who invented the theory and practice of “conduction,” a method of controlled improvisation whereby one employs signs and gestures to direct entire orchestras to create music without notation. As Greg explained to me twenty years ago, “Butch is probably the only person who has worked out a personal idea of how he wants a very large, integrated acoustic, electric, ancient jazz ensemble sound.”

Tate adopted and adapted conduction theory to create Burnt Sugar, which he often described as an extension of Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” album. In the course of two decades, they produced over a dozen astonishing albums bearing titles such as, Blood on the Leaf (2000), That Depends on What You Know (2001), Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets (2003), More Than Posthuman — The Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillon (2006), Making Love to the Dark Ages (2009), All Ya Needs That Negrocity (2011), Rebellum: The Darknuss (2014), All You Zombies Dig the Luminosity (2017), and Angels Over Oakanda (2021). Burnt Sugar and Butch Morris collaborated on what is arguably the hippest revision of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” simply called The Rites (2003). But nothing—and I mean nothing—compared to seeing the entire Arkestra on stage: packed together, swelling sometimes to twenty or twenty-five musicians, Tate facing his crew like Dr. Funkenstein, hands flailing as he draws out mind-blowing sounds. You wouldn’t dare blink. He was a modern-day Jules Verne taking you on a journey to the unknown. This was the Greg Tate I knew, a person who resided at the center of the earth.

I first met Tate in 1994. My dear friend Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America , introduced us. We quickly became friends and occasional collaborators, though I was never his running buddy. He showed many of us a different way to write about the culture—one that respected the artist without being either ingratiating or catering to the industry. Tate was also a warm, open person. Whenever I randomly ran into him in the city, he always stopped and talked to me, listening to and caring about what I had to say.

I first met Bongani Madondo in the summer of 2017, though three minutes into our first encounter in Johannesburg, it was as if we’d known each other since primary school. He was responsible for bringing me to the University of Witwatersrand that summer, and he proved to be one of the smartest interlocutors I’ve encountered in my adult life. Anyone familiar with South Africa’s contemporary cultural scene will not be surprised. He had long cemented his reputation as one of the most incisive writers in the country; a fearless interviewer; and pursuer of heroes, rebels, and myths. He has written provocative essays on music and culture, as well as sharp, often funny, commentary on politics for many major publications, including Rolling Stone , Johannesburg Review of Books , Aperture Magazine , Daily Maverick , and the Mail & Guardian . He has also authored three books: Hot Type: Icons, Artists, and God-Figurines (2007), ‘I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie’ (2014) , and Sigh the Beloved Country: Braai Talk, Rock ’n’ Roll & Other Stories (2016).

I tend to think of Sigh the Beloved Country as the South African equivalent of Tate’s Fly Boy in the Buttermilk , except that Tate navigated a turbulent post-Soul America, whereas Bongani’s world was more chocolate milk of post-apartheid South Africa—although he was equally adept at comprehending the shenanigans on Turtle Island. This shouldn’t surprise us since his path to becoming a writer is strewn with the glossy culture magazines of the 1990s. He read Vibe , Transition , and Rolling Stone religiously and connected with an extraordinary generation of young writers, notably Kevin Powell, Bönz Malone, Joan Morgan, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Cheo Hodari Coker, Charlie Braxton, Kris X., dream hampton, bell hooks, and Greg Tate. But there are very specific parallels with brother Tate. Bongani loves women and writes about them with a deep sensitivity and irreverence. He doesn’t care what others think and isn’t interested in accumulating likes on Twitter. Moreover, he is as hard on himself as he is on other writers. He can smell bullshit from 7,000 miles away and will call it out when he does. As Dana da Silva once quipped about Bongani , “When you get down to it, in true Biko form, he writes what he likes.”

As soon as word spread about Tate’s unexpected and untimely passing, Bongani was on WhatsApp flooding my phone with magnificent recollections and reflections on our fallen comrade. I invited him to have a conversation with me to share with readers of Boston Review .

Robin D. G. Kelley : When I learned of Greg Tate’s passing, I thought of you, even before you began blowing up my phone. In Sigh the Beloved Country , you wrote: “If I were to single out a writer who impacted on me deeply, Greg Tate comes to mind. He does to hip hop and rock writing what the poet Amiri Baraka’s Yoruba/Zulu/Mandinka spirit-guides did to the blues verse.” Who was Tate to you?

Bongani Madondo : Greg Tate was my brother. I know he was an even closer brother to hundreds more, but, in the absence of Jean-Michel Basquait, Arthur Jafa was simply Greg’s alternegro . Therefore, it behooves of us to listen deeply when his ace boon brother, filmmaker and artist AJ said on Instagram that Greg was the “Absolute love of my life!” There are many brothers and sisters who would have spiritually married Greg, as Tate would have said himself, “titties optional.” This feels trivial but explains the oceanic deep love and respect many of us have for Tate.

As a disruptive writer with his own inner lyrical, literary compass, his “riddims” and “greens,” “reds,” “gods,” “golds,” “blacks,” “beiges,” and “blues,” all coalescing into journalism as music, and music as unruly poetic meter, Greg Tate was unmatched. Pure punk.

RDGK : I’m surprised he never got a MacArthur genius award, or even a Pulitzer nod. He was a perfect candidate. And yet, no one denies his enormous impact on criticism and cultural commentary. He was, to my mind, the essayist of our era.

BM : Amiri Baraka, who was Greg’s and my mutual (anti) mentor, once referred to his friend Max Roach, in his ode  Digging   Max , as “Bird’s Black Injun Engine”

I have not been able to gauge Greg’s exact impact because his imitators would rather not be him—in person, mind, or economic status. Also, some of the artists he influenced have since been marketed to sound dumb to secure the bag. Those who heard him pretend he was just an experimental lyricist whose sole job was to hold the bohemian avant-garde corner of the multinational cultural intact. As such, it is almost impossible to gauge his influence. However, had the amount of obituaries, ink containers, and trees chopped dedicated to “remembering” him in death been expressed in love or financial modes in his lifetime, Greg would have died a fat, wealthy, blessed man.

RDGK : And while he never got the grand awards, prizes, or grants he deserved, his impact was enormous. Not just here but around the world.

BM : That’s right. Greg Tate’s work, less him as a person, was foundational to this generation. His work always strove to connect the dots for communities involved in radical cultural work, antecedents and futurists alike. To be specific: Greg Tate was the Black Injun Engine of the entire culture, and much as he had a Prince-like output, it was simply too much on one man—and I told him so. But we cannot honestly think of the United States, or what I prefer to think of as Global Negro Cities, of the last thirty-five years without thinking of the invisible hand of Greg Tate.

While I cannot gauge his impact, mainly because the United States is not in the business of loving “X”-ceptional folks without over-hyping them as an act of devaluing their worth (if you are the best of everything to all, chances are you are nothing to everyone), I can speak to his legacy. To riff on Baraka, when I truly think of Greg Tate’s legacy on the culture, I think of his impact specifically on the twenty-five to fifty year old demographic—which is the generation reared on Hip Hop and House; on David Chappelle and not Richard Pryor; on the East Coast-West Coast beef and not Miriam Makeba’s bi-coastal Black Love; on 50 Cents’ “hustler’s-lit” rather than John Henrik Clarke’s African exultations; a generation coming up exulting Doja Cat’s subversive Zulu ass rather than Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; raised on Kendrick Lamar’s BLM’ed “Alright” and not Mahalia Jackson’s March on Washington’s recording; on Jet Lee as opposed to Bruce Lee. His work sculpted and fine-tuned a generation that will dance to South African house genius’ “Jerusalema” and never arrive at the bridge, nor chorus of “L’Internationale,” nor care about the Palestinians except as cause celebre .

Tate knew damn well that he had a cultural, generational even, responsibility to expand the scope of Black anxiety and self-forgiveness for a generation raised on drive-thru romance and drive-by assassinations in the name of Hip Hop economic patriarchy, instead of a pride in long family drives to pray and care, in communion with the weak and sick community members in the hinterlands, beyond the metropolis. Lest we forget, in his first band, Women In Love, he declared his inner lesbianism to a generation of feminist writing festooned with take downs on Fela Kuti without pausing to explore the influence of Sandra Isadore on him, or Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, Maoist socialism on him. It is not an uneducated generation. Nor is it fundamentally at fault for missing generational links.

RDGK : Greg didn’t really have exclusive political affiliations, much like James Baldwin, but he was undeniably politically-oriented. If anything, he was his mother’s child—his mother being the indefatigable Florence Tate—a committed big tent Black nationalist of sorts, who loved Black people without apology but not without criticism. You, who lived through late apartheid and the putative post-apartheid era, who could audaciously signify on Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and tell the unvarnished truth about neoliberal South Africa—how did you process Greg’s writing? How did you understand his politics?

BM : As a thinker, he was far more generous and expansive than hordes of his Black radical fans can ever contend with. His brand of Black Consciousness, which he reconfigured as “Afro-Cult-Nationalism,” was wide and a work-in-progress. It reverberated with complex and receptive humanity, not unlike Steve Biko’s conception of Black Consciousness as the quest for true humanity, rather than a reverse pigmentocracy of the self-righteous and the damned. Greg held no single template for Black radical cultural work, but his was never the sort of divvying-up of skin color Blackness that take shelter in refuseniks and recusal politics, ideological outlaws dancing to the theoretical drums of Social Death. He knew the United States and the Colonial world at large, chose to see us as nothing but chattel slaves. He was never, for a minute, amnesiac about that. And yet, he believed that Black and Brown Culture, Negro culture, continental African, Afro-Latinx, and Asiatic African culture, our being, our becoming, ubukho bethu , and our arts provided powerful, counter-existence life: resistance as love, love as resistance, art for heart’s sake at home with art as a the axis around which Black Genius, with its project toward the will to live, or die so others can live, defied and never deified death.

Simply, Greg Tate was invested in us and our life. He believed life existed beyond the flesh’s time span on this and other planets. In that way, although Greg’s work was mainly mind-centered and generated, as opposed to cheap romanticism, it brought its own electric intimacy. A perfect example of it is his narrative piece on Jimi Hendrix in the American Legacy magazine’s Summer issue.

He was never Baldwin, never Toni, and more sintax-tically psychedelic than Baraka. This is not to say he was a better or worse writer than them. We are not invested in Olympian hierarchies in our engagement with our Ancestral realms, of which Tate would need no hanging out at or cooling off in purgatory to enter. For he is already there:

And us with him /

With them /

Them Is Us /

RDGK : How did you come to Greg’s writing?

BM : Before the internet as we know it altered the media landscape and distribution economy. We really never accessed the Village Voice here in South Africa. Not even at the U.S. Aid libraries on President Street in Johannesburg or Ipelegeng Centre in Soweto. As a street autodidact, however, I grabbed the first copy of Vibe directly from the ferry at the inner city’s exclusive import magazines shop named Estoril. The very first issue, the market teaser, before the official Issue One. I never missed a copy from then until about 2005 when I saw no point in it anymore. Greg Tate’s Black Consciousness voice, with a playful, punk-rupture lilt, was like a permanent Oracular presence in the magazine’s first full decade.

The close reading started in earnest with visiting African American sisters—scholars and cultural exchange visitors to Johannesburg. I remember their names well. We were all young and beautiful. There was Yvonne Bynoe and her deputy editor at the journal Doula , which carried brilliant Hip Hop scholarship not produced in New York. Meeting them was a big deal for me. On the first day they came by my place, I played Prince and some Congolese stuff, and they said I reminded them of Greg’s thinking.

By then I was familiar with some of Greg’s work, but did not yey truly appreciate or see what they saw. A few years later a sister, Sharon “Xoshito” Washington, who was a PhD candidate on a Fulbright in South Africa, arrived in town and we had dinner at this Yeoville joint, Times Square. That’s where Johannesburg’s fastest talking and beautifying minds, stargazers, starfuckers, returned ANC exiles, poets, jazz players and journalists hung out and engaged in expensive crud (Fela).The following day she stepped back and we spent a whole day playing Prince, Coltrane, Johnny Dyani. I was besotted with Cassandra Wilson then.

She had an album, “New Moon Daughter,” in which she referenced Clarksdale. I basically used her cover of Neill Young’s “Harvest Moon” as my meditational chant. Cass and Flora Purim were no one’s muses, but the twin spirit angels my “chi” would be incomplete without. “You worship these women, you truly remind me of Greg Tate. And even your way of thinking. The writing is not the same. But the spirit is so similar.” Next time I saw her, she had already introduced Greg and I via Hotmail or Yahoo.

I was familiar with Greg’s writing before we were introduced. At first I was not a fan. Even from South Africa, we felt young Black America was tricked into a tragic fratricide embodied by the East Coast vs. West Coast beef that was not benefiting anyone from the Black working-class, but the corporate media that fed off the streets ingenuity and confused masculinities.

We also felt that that fierce competitive spirit sipped into the soul of readers. Suddenly you had to choose between Kevin Powell and Greg Tate, or Joan Morgan or dream hampton, or whoever. Even when they wrote for the same titles.

Heady times: it was exciting, stupid, and ballsy—and it whipped up energy. That’s just how Hip Hop culture and everything it represented affected us all in the late 1990s. But my favorite magazine writers then were Bönz Malone “The Concierge,” and Cheo Hodari Coker. Still, there was something Kevin and Greg did that almost no other magazine writer in the United States was able to do. Kevin brought so much soul, almost community kind of old school church vibes, permanent anxiety over lost or absent fatherhood, as well as some kind of campus style Black arrogance which was terribly charming.

I can say this now: I suspect Kanye West grew up locked in his room reading Kevin Powell, out there in Chicago’s suburbs. Kevin was Tupac’s more educated, refined, and filtered voice out there.

But Greg had something his fellow magazine writers did not possess: a frenzied, kind of avant-garde, bebop energy that, to me, evoked African witchdoctors’ initiation rites. Coming from a family of priests and healing graduates who never practiced as medicine women, his writing made far more sense to me.

I was already in weekly conversations with Amiri Baraka and got along pretty well with Saul Williams. In Greg, I noticed a fellow spirit traveler, meaning I slowly got around to what those Black Magic sisters from the United States had seen prior. I still felt his writing and word play was a bit too much—one comma wrong and the whole edifice, architecture, and song he was singing on the page would simply collapse. I also thought reading him was exhausting. So I learned to pick and choose what I read from him.

RDGK : You have your own unique voice as a writer, but you share with Greg an omnivorous approach to culture. You partake in everything, delving in music, film, literature, visual art, fashion, the culture of celebrity, swallowing some things, spitting out others. You don’t hold your tongue and aren’t afraid to say the unpopular. Tate’s life was too short, but his writing spanned four decades. What were some of your favorite pieces, or at least the ones that moved you?

BM : Everyone has their favorite Greg Tate, and Greg Tate phase. Everyone agrees 1987 to 1997 Greg Tate of Flyboy (1) is the illest. I feel them. But for me, the only pieces I believe will last as long as this world exists, from that era from the book, are the trilogy he wrote on Miles: “The Electric Miles (Parts I and II),” and “Silence, Exile, and Cunning: Miles Davis in Memoriam,” and “Nobody Loves the Radiant Child.” Everything else is cool, but cool is not always of literary merit.

I also felt 1990s Greg was writing for the head and not the heart. I’m aware I’m making these damn bold claims, and who the hell am I? It’s also possible that the man had long bolted out of this world and began communicating in extra-terrestrial dialect that only the deepest cats could understand.

But there was light at the end of his overly elaborate prose. It filtered into my reading “maturity”; that sense of responsibility and duty that every stretched reader is challenged to bring into text, or any artform. For me it occurred around 1998. I’d been reading Greg for at least seven years. Then I encountered a piece of his in a Vibe issue that had Mary J. Blige on its cover. The cover dripped with beguiling reds: ruby reds, red tresses, extensions.

Greg had a piece on Carlos Santana, in which our Mex-Tex-Aztec electric Blues brother said to the scribe: “I don’t play jazz, or Rock, or Blues. What I play is African Music. Period.” That night I wept warm tears. That’s the piece that turned me around to not just read Greg Tate but engage in a spirit dance with his work and the people he loved and wrote about.

Although he was of an older generation, the parallels were already in place. We were both deeply influenced by Baraka, immersed in rock. Greg was immersed in punk culture, Bowie, the whole CBGB scene, funk’s futurism, which to me felt like long-form Baptist gospel played by classically-trained punk musicians. I, on the other hand, was romantically beholden to psychedelia, Goth, and heavy metal.

To me, that sound that was embedded with aquatic secrets—that Greg, Kodwo (Eshun), Charlie Dark, Knox (Robinson), Lynee (Denise), and other like-spirited souls listened to across the Black Oceana—sounded like Free Jazz. Ancient African rituals filtered through Western electrical technology: what Hugh Masekela referred to as “Techno Bush.” Louis Jordan reminded us pithily, “We arrived here (in the Americas), fully realised, our sounds and all.” Back then South Africa, just like in the 1930s through the 1960s, terribly lagged behind the rest of the world in new literature (books, journals, zines, art monographs, etc.) by a good three years. Films were behind by a good six months.

Around that time, I was also deeply touched by Larry Neal’s work, A.B Spellman’s, Albert Murray’s, and that of the “Noise Boys”—the popular rock critics of the 1960s and ‘70s, Richard Meltzer’s, Nick Tosches’s and Lester Bangs’s. I think Greg was also deeply touched by some of these folks, you can practically hear Lester trippin’ in Greg’s syntax. He did not readily claim roots in African voudun and other faith systems, but you could tell that if had he been born in the continent, or in the Caribbean, the brother would have been a Voodoo or Candomble high priest. Anyhow, the literary parallels were firmly in place even before we knew of each other. It’s safe to say that if Greg’s work had been just brilliant as it is, sans it’s inbuilt “African electricity,” I would have possibly nodded my head in recognition of a subversive wordsmith and moved on. Great art with no alchemy touches me alright, yet it never stirs my soul. Few writers achieve that chemistry with readers.

RDGK : You once told me you were especially drawn to Tate’s later writings or, as you put it in the language of Edward Said, his “late style.” These would have been the essays in Flyboy 2 . Would you say more?

BM : Brother, I’m the first to admit that his essay “Cult-Nats Meets Freaky-Deke” (Decermber 9, 1986)—which I came across perhaps eight years after publication and which is anthologized in FlyBoy In the Buttermilk —was inarguably a seminal text. But “late style” Greg appealed to me more because of my own growing pains. A writer’s work grows in value or loses value based on a reader’s own life experience and intellectual development, always a work-in-progress. Therefore, as the 2000s rolled in, I read him closer, around the time I was also casting the literary net wider, a young writer in pursuit of his own voice. Which is to say, I also matured as a reader and was not easily bamboozled by verbal pyrotechnics.

As a reader, I felt that in his early to mid-forties, something in the writer Greg Tate emerged—slowly but surely. Greg slowly got rid of his late twenties love for post-structuralist and performative acrobatics and drew the reader into storytelling. Which could not have been easy for someone who had built a sizable chunk of work churning blindingly smart edicts from a futurist pulpit only you and your friends “got.”

Here, I beamed with a sense of curiosity and wonder as I began to read a Greg Tate who was invested in long narrative, structure, and story on its own and not only style as story. Pieces such as “Band in My Head,” “Hip Hop Turns 30.”

For me Greg Tate’s writing, thinking, feeling, dancing, and storytelling combined to solidify a truly serious writer into a pedagorgeous artist at his alchemic peak with these two pieces: An elegy for Michael Jackson in the Village Voice , “Man in Our Mirror,” and, a narrative study and monograph on his truest love, Jimi Hendrix. His truest love was not Miles. It was not King Sunny Ade—he never even wrote much about continental African music, film, literature. His truest love was not even James Brown, with whom he performed imaginary splits, oooo’d, aaah’d, and grunted with until he booked his beautiful ass into that heaven bound chariot—no, not him neither. His greatest love, outside of a son’s love for his mother or a father for his own offspring, was the ghost of Jimi Hendrix.

Which is to say, he loved eclectic Blackness, regardless of that phrase’s tautology. Jimi was Jean Michel, was Jimmy, Delaney, was the entire fragments of George Clinton, Toni Morrison, Andre 3000, Bootsy, Fela, and, perhaps, as Manthia Diawara once dared us to imagine of James Brown, the Dogon people’s long lost Crown Prince.

When his long form essay on Hendrix dropped, via The American Legacy magazine’s 2009 Summer cover story, I read all of it—all of the 15,000 worded alchemic love letter to his totemic alternegro, the Afro-Cherokee “blood.” I suspected Greg saw in Jimi not a Black Consciousness firebrand he tried to render in his book, Midnight Lighting , but as he did Jean-Michel Basquiat, a fellow Black outsider . It’s cast light is global, but the tent of profound Black outsiders (who suffered triply)—Jimi, Basquait, Kodwo Eshun, and other artists Greg not only loved but “felt” himself with, created with, alongside, and for—is quite small. It’s light incandescent. They suffer(ed) from anti-Black structural racism, Black ignorance, and, more painfully, cultural reclamation love from Blacks who still want you to belong to them only just because all our heroes have been desecrated on the altar on the U.S. conveyor belt of the higher-purchase heroes economy. Greg went on to write exceptional criticism on Gil Scott-Heron, reviews on Kanye’s “Pablo,” and much more brilliant writing. But those two pieces! Forget about me being Africa’s Greg Tate, even if you mean it with love. The man was in a lane all his own. Not better or worse than anyone. Just a word artist militantly—and with that Ellingtonian pursuit to swing—committed to sing his song his way.

RDGK : Those were exciting times, the early 2000s. I also remember being frustrated by some of the younger writers and students of mine who were singularly obsessed with Hip Hop. They tried their best to cop Tate’s style but ignored his scope. I mean, I always thought of Tate as a jazz head of the highest order. This was his foundation and my deepest connection to him. When I was the Louis Armstrong Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia (a position he would later hold), I taught a seminar on Thelonious Monk. This would have been 2001. Greg used to come to the class, with Arthur Jafa and others who were just part of a crew. And of course, Burnt Sugar was one of the great modern jazz big bands of the twenty-first century.

BM : Yes, he was a foundational figure of Hip Hop scholarship, no two ways about it. But our culture’s either-or single dimensionality (buttressed with this thing called “specialization,” even in our avowed multi-disciplinary age) continues to “shade” over Greg’s most intellectually cohesive music writing: jazz criticism. He was a hell of a reader of the avant-garde, as well as of punk rock. Personally, I would have loved to read Greg Tate’s reviews of Phillip Glass’s concerts, the Velvet Underground, of Lou Reed sonic assemblage with Metallica. I fantasized about how he would have heard and sang his literary songs about continental African music, without the safety valves of African American history, Dixieland, N’Awlinz, and all the familiar post-Middle Passage heritage.

However, knowing Greg, he would have said: But “bruh all music piping through the global stereo, or transistor radio post-1900 carried with it the Negro back beat,” or some Tate’esque on-your-toes riposte.

Jazz heads will talk of him on the same level as Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, Nat Hentoff, Val Wilmer, Gary Giddins, and Stanley Crouch. And they already are! At heart, beyond the ballast of words, the dictatorship of narrative, and his signature narrative acrobatics, if you knew Greg, you knew a deeply loving, soft, big bear who hid his shy inner core with ultra-geekiness and a creation of an English lingua franca all his own. I will never forget the midnight I met him on 125th west, on a break from the set with his Arkestral band of fellow night marauders.

I will also never forget the long silent walk in the direction of the mountain of the San and Khoi gods, Table Mountain, in Cape Town where we were both scheduled to speak at the literary festival, Open Book Fest. I will never forget the morning I left him at 3 a.m. in the company of Cameroonian and Nigerian musical and literary cuisine innovators in Cape Sea Point because, although fifteen years younger than he was, I simply could not keep up with his enlivened inner spirit, content to be at home with fellow seers.

Forgetting him is impossible. Greg Tate now fully inhabits our spiritual and intellectual blood streams. Greg Tate now inhabits the realm of the gods.

Robin D. G. Kelley is Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA and a contributing editor at Boston Review. His many books include Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination .

Bongani Madondo is a cultural theorist, race matters critic, public arts curator, and journalist by training.The author most recently of Sigh, the Beloved County: Rock n Roll & Other Stories , a collection of memoirs, travelogues, long form narrative and essays. His books include Hot Type: Artists, Icons & God-Figurines (2007), portraits on African iconic figures in the cultural sphere, which was awarded the Africa selection and won him a Fellowship at the Katzen Centre for the Arts at The American University, Washington DC, and I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie (2014), which he conceptualized, contributed to, and edited. All three of his books were published by Picador Africa (Pan MacMillan SA). Bongani has contributed to publications including the New York Times , Transition magazine, and Rolling Stone .

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Flyboy Forever: Greg Tate Was a Titan in Black Arts Criticism and Visual Culture

By Liz Munsell , J. Faith Almiron December 31, 2021 10:43am

Greg Tate

In the days since writer Greg Tate joined the ancestors, much has been said about how he engaged music with unparalleled style and brilliance as a critic, bandleader, activist, and producer. But Tate also transformed the global-n-galactic landscape of visual arts and film. He did so through his groundbreaking scholarship, lectures, performance, and curation, bringing on the exuberance, politics, and poetics of the Black radical tradition.

During his tenure at the Village Voice beginning in the early 1980s, Tate both signaled and catalyzed tidal shifts in cultural criticism toward the interdisciplinary scholarship we read and continue to need today. As an inheritor of the Black Arts movement (1965–75), Tate forced the stuffy–and overwhelmingly white and wealthy–fields of art history and mainstream art media to contend with the insurgency and soulfulness of the emergent fields of Black studies and Ethnic studies, as well as postcolonial, women, gender, and sexuality studies. He code-switched with ease between Black American vernacular language and French structuralist theory with the finesse of a turntablist on the ones and twos. In tune with the emergence of cultural studies overseas in Britain, Tate belonged to a new Black arts intelligentsia that, like hip-hop culture, began flourishing in tight communities only to spread out into global relevance.

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Drawing rhetorical strategies from his avant-garde heroes like Miles Davis, his approach to writing and curating mirrored jazz improvisation, rhythm-centric Black rock, and freestyle in hip hop. In 1992, the year that he published his seminal collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk , he said in an interview with NPR, “I’ve always tried to produce critical writing that had as much vitality and viscerality as the art or the phenomena or the experience that I was trying to describe to someone else. I’m really trying to plug a reader into my central nervous system in its most hot-wired state.”

Tate challenged the tenets of art writing and cultural criticism by centering the lived experience of an artwork, seeing it through the lens of Black genealogies and epistemologies. In doing so, he restituted the work, placing it within its proper cultural, social, and political context. His early writing about Black visual art — notably on Jean-Michel Basquiat (1989, 1992), Rammellzee (1985), David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Romare Bearden (appearing in his seminal 1986 essay “Cult-Nat Meet Freaky-Deke”) – did not just presage Black art’s acceptance of or by white art institutions, they actively forged an opening through their insistence on Black arts’ sophisticated lineage and futurist projections.

In the titular essay in Flyboy in the Buttermilk, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Nobody Loves a Genius Child,” Tate pointed out how and why museums and the art world at large failed to acknowledge the genius of Basquiat in his time: “No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the ‘serious’ visual arts. To this day, it remains a bastion of white supremacy, a sconce of the wealthy, whose high-walled barricades are matched only by Wall Street and the White House and whose exclusionary practices are enforced 24-7-365. It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a Black abstract and/or Conceptual artist to get a one-woman show in lower Manhattan or a feature in the pages of Artforum , Art in America , or The Village Voice . The prospect that such an artist could become a bona fide art-world celebrity (and at the beginning of her career no less) was, until the advent of Jean Michel Basquiat, something of a joke.”

“No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the ‘serious’ visual arts,” Tate wrote in 1989.

Tate waged a war of words and broke down some of those barricades himself. By 1992, he was one of a handful of Black art critics commissioned by a major museum to write for an exhibition catalog, contributing the now seminal essay “Black Like B.” for the Whitney’s Basquiat retrospective publication. Not long after, in the aughts, manifold local newspapers and alt-weeklies collapsed. Journalism as a viable form of putting dinner on the table broke, even as the art market was skyrocketing.  Tate began teaching Black arts, visual culture, and music at Brown, Columbia, and other universities, and contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues, cementing his role as a fixture within the discourse around contemporary art. Self-dubbed “the rogue scholar,” he lectured and wrote for museums, like the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the ICA Boston, ICA London, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Tate, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as for galleries, like Gagosian and Deitch Projects.

Tate could discern the urgent missives among the cacophony and compelled us to be present in it. Just as he affirmed that hip-hop was making history when others insisted it was a passing fad, he consistently affirmed that visual artists were defining their moment. He uplifted creators as urgently as they produced work. To quote Basquiat quoting Charlie Parker, “Now’s the time.”

Back in 1989, coming out from under a receding wave of post-graffiti art and Basquiat’s tragic death, Tate had the foresight to link graffiti art to the visual revolution that took over not just New York’s cityscape, but the pop culture and art world that drank from it. He wrote, again in “Flyboy in the Buttermilk”: “Let’s go back to postpunk lower Manhattan, no-wave New York, where loft jazz, white noise, and Black funk commune to momentarily desegregate the Downtown rock scene, and hip-hop’s train-writing graffiti cults pull into the station carrying the return of representation, figuration, expression­ism, Pop-artism, the investment in canvas painting, and the idea of the master­piece. Whether the writers presaged or inspired the market forces to all this art­-commodity fetishism and anti-Conceptu­alist material is a question still up for grabs.”

As museums continued to overlook these groundbreaking artists 40 years later, Tate’s question became the driver of the research behind the 2020–21 exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” which he co-curated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Through its transporting exhibition design, multimedia installation, and electric artworks, the show aimed to reach the highest notes in Tate’s writing, plugging you into the nervous system of 1980s New York.

Because Tate came to the page with such clarity of purpose and revolutionary politics, Black artists and cutting-edge curators relied upon him to articulate the specific connections for its broad audiences without compromising rigor or verve. A titan of Black cultural criticism and a curator of community, Tate’s handprint is on exhibitions and gatherings generated by his elders, peers, and pay-it-forward devotees.

In the spirit of how Tate etched Black genealogy into the tomes of art history, here is just a sampling from the visual arts community who claim and mourn the loss of their clearest seer and soothsayer. By no means is it exhaustive or definitive, but may it signal to others that legacy of Greg Tate is ongoing: maverick Black curators and cultural producers such as Naomi Beckwith, Linda Goode Bryant, Rashida Bumbray, Nicole Fleetwood, Henry Louis Gates, Thelma Golden, Diedre Harris-Kelley, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Kellie Jones, Mark Anthony Neal, Richard J. Powell, Franklin Sirmans, and countless others. He leaves behind deep friendships with countless artists and catalogue essays for Dawoud Bey, Julie Dash, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Arthur Jafa, Ellen Gallagher, Theaster Gates, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Kamionge Workshop, Deana Lawson, Alan Licht, Kerry James Marshall, Nicole Miller, Wangechi Mutu, Chris Ofili, José Parlá, Cauleen Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, and more; and there were innumerable reviews that changed people’s careers. This call sheet barely scratches the surface of his contributions to the discourse in film, cinema, and the literary world, as with his writings on AfriCobra, John Akomfrah, Isaac Julien, Spike Lee, Melvin Van Peebles, and more. A selection of Tate’s essays on visual art and culture will be published in the forthcoming book White Cube Fever: Hella Conjure and Writing on the Black Arts (Duke University Press).

As the intrepid maestro for the musical ensemble Burnt Sugar Arkestra Chamber, Tate stomped his cacophony parade through many museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Kitchen, the Hammer Museum, Hallways Contemporary Arts Center, Walker Art Center, and more, as well as institutions such as Lincoln Center, and the Apollo Theater. Drawing from the performance strategies of Butch Morris’s conduction, Tate rocked out as Burnt Sugar’s maestro and radio conductor, interpolating his passions from visual arts, pulp film, speculative fiction, and of course, funk.

In addition to Tate’s immediate family, we offer our condolences to all his chosen tribes, particularly the Black Rock Coalition and Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, with whom he shared a lifetime of radical creative collaboration. Although the band’s membership is notoriously ever-evolving, according to Jared Michael Nickerson, the band’s co-leader, business manager, and electric bassist, personnel includes Jeremiah Abiah, Rene Akan, Marc Cary, Honeychild Coleman, Pete Cosey, Morgan Michael Craft, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Justice Dilla X, Captain Kirk Douglas, Melvin Gibbs, Carl Hancock Rux, Trevor Holder, Satch Hoyt, Julia Kent, Vijay Iyer, Tia Nicole Leak, Okkyung Lee, Derrin “D Max” Maxwell, Omega Moon, DJ Mutamassik, Qasim Naqvi, W-Myles Reilly, Matana Roberts, Petre Radu Scafaru, Sharrif Simmons, Swiss Chris, Somi, Tamar-kali, Imani Uzuri, Michael Veal, Christina Wheeler, and Nioka Workman to name a few. And Sugar Lifers: Lisala Beatty, Lewis “Flip” Barnes, Micah Gaugh, Jason DiMatteo, and Bruce Mack, with a current crew of righteous rompers Mikel “Spirithood” Banks, Asim Barnes, Julie Brown, Abby Dobson, Chris Eddleton, Avram Fefer, Marque Gilmore ‘the-inna-most, Greg Gonzalez, Leon Gruenbaum, “Moist” Paula Henderson, André Lassalle, Karma Mayet Johnson, Shelley Nicole, James “Biscuit” Rouse, V. Jeffrey Smith, LaFrae Sci, Dave “Smoota” Smith, Mazz Swift, Ben Tyree, JS Williams, and of course, Vernon Reid.

At the time of his death, Tate was completing his magnum opus, a decades-long pursuit, and a continuation of “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke.” A key articulator of Afrofuturist thought, he could land the Mothership gently on this planet and launch it back to Saturn through his multimedia magic. Such trickery Tate gleaned from being on the front lines with artists like George Clinton and Rammellzee. In 1985, Rammellzee told Tate in an interview, “We’re advanced in terms of science and technology, but the attitude of the population and the control of the population is still Gothic. We still do not know what we’re doing. We still do not know how to leave this planet the right way.”

Tate’s ascension to the stars may not feel right for a very long time, but his writings and recordings remain with us. His raw matter was all of America railing against its self-made terror and the Black genius and creativity that illuminate pathways towards survival and freedom dreams. Matching his rigor with love, Tate connected us cursed compatriots with humanism and the cosmos, reminding us of our commonalities. Tate shared his beautiful mind and tremendous heart with anyone who set their eyes and ears to his page, his stage, and his gallery—not a cube but a circle, still expanding.

Liz Munsell is the Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She co-curated, with Tate, the recent exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip Hop Generation.” 

J. Faith Almiron, who contributed a catalog essay for that exhibition, is a New York based cultural critic and a leading scholar on Jean-Michel Basquiat. She and Tate also worked together on the research and writing for the exhibition “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story of Michael Stewart” at the Guggenheim in 2019.

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Greg Tate, a powerful chronicler and critic of Black life and culture, has died at 64

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Andrew Limbong

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Greg Tate, in 2016. Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press hide caption

Greg Tate, in 2016.

Greg Tate, the essential music writer, cultural critic and journalist, has died. He was 64. The news was confirmed by a spokesperson at Duke University Press, his publisher. No further details were provided.

Starting in 1987, Tate was a longtime staff writer for The Village Voice, where he documented all facets of Black culture for the storied alt-weekly. Tate covered everything from Eric B. & Rakim to the changing nature of Black identity and the death of Michael Jackson .

"The Voice was the recorder, messenger and proclamatory dictator of what culturally mattered in the province," Tate told NPR , after The Village Voice announced the end of its print version.

Black writers couldn't  not  be aware of the irony; writing as radically black as you wanted for a press organ that was perceived as very white and gay in the hood. But you also knew that your own more ethnically diverse community was reading the rag, too. The audience could turn on you, too. I actually got death threats from the paper's equally passionate letter writers — one in the form of a  Yoruba  curse — after I wrote piece about Michael Jackson's  Bad  in 1987 called "I'm White!"

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In 1992, Tate published his first book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America . It tackled race, politics, music, and literature, and was required reading for anyone approaching culture (popular or otherwise) through the lens of criticism.

As a stylist, Tate was assertive, artful, funny and expressive. His pieces, whether they were book reviews or essays or notes from a concert, always reminded you that art didn't exist in a vacuum — that it existed in the real world, and had real-world causes and effects. In grappling with the Black hardcore band Bad Brains in The Village Voice , Tate writes :

You say you want hardcore?  I say the Brains'll give you hardcore coming straight up the ass, buddy. I'm talking about like lobotomy by jackhammer, like a whirlpool bath in a cement mixer, like orthodontic surgery by Black & Decker, like making love to a buzzsaw, baby. Mean­ing that coming from a black perspective, jazz it ain't, funk it ain't hardly, and they'll probably never open for Dick Dames or Primps. Even though three white acts they did open for, Butch Tarantulas, Hang All Four, and the Cash, is all knee-deeper into black street ridims than the Brains ever been and ain't that a bitch? 

And that's a relatively positive writeup.

Like any good critic, Tate went in on the things he hated with just as much flair as he did the things he loved. Writing about the rap group Public Enemy, Tate took to task the sexism, homophobia and antisemitism he found in their work .

Since PE show sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the U.S. power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women, and Jews isn't going to set black people free. As their prophet Mr. Farrakhan hasn't overcome one or another of these moral lapses, PE might not either. For now swallowing the PE pill means taking the bitter with the sweet, and if they don't grow up, later for they asses.

Greg Tate was born on Oct. 15, 1957. He spent his teenage years in Washington, D.C., where he first got interested in music. Upon moving to New York City, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition , which existed to push back against stereotypes of Black artists. He also founded Burnt Sugar, a sprawling avant-garde orchestra that melded elements of free jazz and fusion, R&B, funk and contemporary classical music through conduction, a system of real-time arranging pioneered by improvising conductor Butch Morris . The ensemble issued its most recent recording, the EP Angels Over Oakanda , in September.

After The Voice , Tate would go on to write for a variety of different media outlets— Rolling Stone , the BBC, Down Beat and more. His last piece was from September in The Nation , surveying the current Black cultural landscape through the lens of the book Afropessimism, by Frank B. Wilderson III. "James Baldwin said, 'To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time,'" wrote Tate. "But what he didn't say was that, on a good day, it is mostly a sublimated state of rage since folk got bills to pay and sanity to keep."


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