Greg Tate (1957-2021)
I have been thinking about the death of writer/curator/force of nature Greg Tate this entire month and my sadness has not left me. I did not know the man like so many writers I admire did. Instead I head about his books and essays about hip-hop, art and black culture from this generation of writers who taught me. Maybe that makes Mr. Tate, legacy-wise. like a great-uncle to the work I do. Or try to do.
Really though, what he created was too big, too magical and other-wordly for to pin it on my own chest. Reading him, listening to him in print or on television or radio was like discovering other planets, being thrown into the galaxies and knowing, instead of plummeting you would fly.
Knowing we have read the last of his work is feeling like the sun has dropped out of the sky.
Look at some of the titles of his obituaries…
- “The Peerless Imagination of Greg Tate” — (NY TIMES)
- “Master of Criticism” — (VULTURE)
- “A Warrior for The Heart: The Gigantic Music Legacy of Greg Tate” — (ROLLING STONE)
- “There will Never be Another Greg Tate” — (PITCHFORK)
That first one concluded thusly (bravo to its author, Jon Caramanica)
“By that point, Tate’s sui generis brilliance was widely acknowledged in our circles, and still barely touched by others. Showcasing his critical pirouetting was meant to serve as a beacon, and also a simple acknowledgment of the way he affected every writer I cared about and learned from — we’re all Tate’s children. I still buy “Flyboy” every time I see it in a bookstore. I never want to be too far away from it, lest I forget how vast the cosmos is.”
By “Flyboy”, Mr. Caramanica is referring to Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Tate’s first collection of essays published in 1992. The writer Jeff Chang and artist Tim’m West steered me to it during my early years in the Bay Area. If reading about music and art and the people who make it is act of redemption for you, Flyboy is like a volume of the Hebrew Bible.
I still have a few notes I scribbled down when I first read it all those years ago…
Reading “Flyboy”you realize you are in the presence of a genius, a voice reaching down from the cosmos unlike any you have ever heard. And so you forgive it when its once-in-a-while too twisted or loud or muffled or sharp. Because when it is quiet and you are too, you are better for having heard it, better for your listening and it makes you want to be better as well.
Greg Tate died a week before Bell Hooks and two weeks before Joan Didion, writers he admired, knew and in their lifetimes, get many more trophies and honorary degrees than he did. I’ve been distributing used copies of Flyboy to many wise men and women I know, who missed the word on Mr. Tate, the first time around. It’s a small gesture for an artist who knew and shared and gave so much.
My friend and fellow writer Annie Zaleski once sat on a panel with Mr Tate and told me, shortly after his death, that the man, a generation’s worth of admirers did not scream out his gifts, did not ask you to praise them and led with a generosity of spirit that split through his work like light through glass. We weren’t simply gifted his imagination. His imagination showed us what we could be, how much brighter and smarter and far out. Apparently, he mentored dozens of young journalists too.
Goodbye Mr. Tate. I’m late to a dream you opened right on time.
Some of my favorite Greg Tate pieces are, in no real order
- “Cult-Nats meet Freaky-Deke” — (Earned Tate the honorific “Godfather of hip-hop journalism”, VILLAGE VOICE 1986)
- “Kalahari Hopscotch” — (On Afrofuturism. THE BELIEVER 2016)
- “Julie Dash Films Gullah Country” — (On Daughters of the Dust, VILLAGE VOICE, 1988)
- “Afropessimism and its Discontents” — (Tate’s last published piece. THE NATION, 2021)
- “Brother From Another Planet” — (on David Bowie and Black Music. MTV.com 2016)