Greg Tate, Giant Among Cultural Critics, Dies at 64

Greg Tate (photo by Nisha Sondhe, courtesy Duke University Press)

Reading an early Greg Tate piece feels like you’re sitting with him in the files of his mind. Tabbing endlessly through the oft-mentioned Miles Davis, Public Enemy, Toni Morrison, Lorna Simpson, Rakim, Marvin Van Peebles, Suzan Lori Parks, bell hooks, neo-expressionism, concepts of post-structuralism, and on and on, we’re grasping and gnawing at culture, sitting and trying to express with lucidity just exactly what’s up with all these things people make to cannibalize and regurgitate the world. It feels impudent to mention so many other artists and thinkers in a piece about one writer’s life, but some of his genius lies in that very synthesis of intuitions, which helped to popularize and canonize the great Black works of the past four decades. His writing — a witch’s brew of references, personal history, and downright cutting takes, nudged along by ingenious turns of phrase — spilled over with a creative spirit that made art out of art, sourced from his investigations into music, literature, film and theory, peering into the serpentine realities of Black art and Black life.

And yet, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Following his graduation from Howard University, Tate first appeared in writing circles after publishing explosive freelance music reviews for the Village Voice, which later earned him a staff position at the weekly paper in 1987. He quickly emerged as one of the leading chroniclers of early hip-hop and New York’s downtown art scene, examining the experimentation and innovation of artists, regardless of cultural cache. Just as coke-fuelled Wall Street saw the prices of art skyrocket and rap trickled into the white consciousness, Tate took stock in what exactly this meant for Black music and art, which is frequently reviewed by a critics circle comprising primarily of white people. 

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His 1986 essay “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” is widely seen as a manifesto of sorts, thinking through a new crop of Black artists whose influences go beyond Black nationalism yet lack the institutions to fully and properly embrace or critique their work. But in Tate’s imaginings, such a world could exist. “Because black people don’t have institutions for serious, so­phisticated study and advancement of our culture, my dream of a populist black poststructuralism is actually kind of loony, but every man needs his own Moby Dick.”

He continued to explore this near-absence in his later writings. “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 his 1989 article on Jean-Michel Basquiat. “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… Black visual culture suffers less from a lack of devel­oped artists than a need for popular criti­cism, academically supported scholar­ship, and more adventurous collecting and exhibiting.”

Tate wrote rhythmically, each beat bringing about another biting critique of art or ebullient analysis on the state of Black culture. Aside from his work at the Voice, he contributed to Vibe, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times, amongst other publications, leaving behind a trove of work at the zenith of cultural criticism. After his first book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, was published in 1992, he went on to form the Black Rock Coalition, which promotes Black musicians. As a member of the band Burnt Sugar, the base of the musicality of his writing could potentially be found there.

“When you’re younger, it’s all about expressionism, it’s all about trying to make as much noise as possible,” Tate said in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018. “I was trying to literally approximate music on the page.”

Tate was born on October 14, 1957, in Dayton, Ohio, to Charles and Florence Tate. Perhaps given an early political education by his parents, who were organizers in the city’s Congress for Racial Equality chapter, Tate’s home was frequented by fellow activists. He is survived by his daughter, Chinara; a brother, Brian; a sister, Geri Augusto; and a grandson, Nile. He moved to Washington when he was 13 and later studied journalism and film at Howard, where he met his longtime friend Arthur Jafa, the famed video artist and cinematographer. In 1981, after his family friend, poet and playwright Thulani Davis, urged him to submit his music criticism to the Voice, he began his writing career. He left the paper in 2005 and continued to publish groundbreaking books, including his sequel Flyboy 2 in 2016 and a forthcoming book about James Brown, which will be published posthumously in 2022. 


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