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