“I realized that the meaning of being Black is summed up in who comes to bury you,” wrote Greg Tate in his landmark 1991 article for the Village Voice, “BLACK LIKE WHO? Love and the Enemy, ”who gathers in your name after you’re gone, what they have to say about how you loved, and how you were loved in return.”
Undoubtedly, Greg Tate loved Black culture—and was deeply loved in return. On Tuesday, publisher Duke University Press confirmed the death of the writer and musician Rolling Stone magazine called “one of the most incisive, insightful, and influential cultural critics of the past 35 years.” A cause of death was not confirmed. Tate was 64.
The news sent much of the Black creative community reeling—including many of us here at The Root. Tate was not only a critic and creator, but also a mentor, brother and friend many of our most prominent luminaries cite as both influence and inspiration.
Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1957, Tate’s family had relocated to Washington, D.C. when, at 14, he discovered Black Music by Amiri Baraka (written as LeRoi Jones), a book Tate credited along with Rolling Stone as inspiring him to become a music journalist. That ambition led him to nearby Howard University, where he studied journalism and film.
Already a contributor to The Village Voice, Tate moved to New York City in the early ‘80s, where he quickly fell in with the Black music community, and specifically, Black rock musicians. “Being a 25-year-old music freelancer for the Voice meant your number-one goal in life—free passes to any show at any venue in the city—was answered,” Tate wrote in a recollection of his then-burgeoning career for NPR in 2017 (h/t Rolling Stone). “But it also gave you street cred you didn’t even know you had among a wide swath of characters—club bouncers, burly Latino locksmiths from the Bronx who took your check and proclaimed themselves fans of your byline, label execs, musical icons, and rising rap stars.”
Also a musician, in 1985, Tate formed the Black Rock Coalition with guitarist Vernon Reid (later a member of Living Colour), singer D.K. Dyson, and producer Konda Mason as a vehicle of autonomy and authorship. Tate penned the group’s manifesto, which read in part:
The BRC opposes those racist and reactionary forces within the American music industry which undermine and purloin our musical legacy and deny Black artists the expressive freedom and economic rewards that our Caucasian counterparts enjoy as a matter of course.
Rock and roll, 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.
On Tuesday, the group mourned their fallen comrade, issuing a statement to Rolling Stone which read: “The Black Rock Coalition is shocked, saddened and absolutely devastated with the news that our brother, friend and co-founder Greg Tate made his transition earlier today. Greg led the wave of Black writers who, without apology, honored the past yet went full speed ahead into the future, giving dap to Black artists across the cultural spectrum who were not getting love within mainstream circles.”
As a full time staff writer for the Voice by 1987, Tate quickly became a firebrand in music criticism, possessing what his former editor Joe Levy (now editor-at-large at Billboard magazine) referred to as “Coltrane of Words greatness” on Twitter. In 1992, Tate published a collection of 40 of his Voice essays in what many consider to be his seminal work, Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Essays on Contemporary America. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb lauded the collection as “a clinic on literary brilliance,” upon learning of Tate’s death on Tuesday.
“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,” he wrote.
In the introduction to Flyboy, academician, author and co-founder of The Root Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote (h/t Rolling Stone):
Part of what’s so valuable about Tate’s role as a cultural critic is the way he negotiates the contradictions that underlie Black American culture...What Tate understands is that culture, Afro-American culture in particular, is never a matter of either-or. He can both celebrate the energizing pull of cultural nationalism and register its limitations, moral and intellectual.
As Tate’s profile grew, so did his influence upon, advocacy for, and mentorship of Black creativity. In 1999, he co-founded Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra Chamber, an improvisational musical collective which spanned genres, with Tate as guitarist and primary conductor. The group was among those to confirm Tate’s passing on Tuesday and recognize his survivors: sister Geri, brother Brian, daughter Chinara, and “Grand Sun” Nile, writing:
We’re broken hearted to confirm that this mourning, the morning of Tuesday, December 7th, 2021, Gregory Stephen Ionman Tate passed on to the next life.
At this time, out of respect for his sister Geri, his brother Brian, his daughter Chinara, and his “Grand Sun“ Nile, The Burnt Sugar Arkestra Family will refrain from further comment till the Tate Family has officially spoken.
The BSAC Family greatly appreciates the outpouring of love and reverent reflection expressed towards Greg on this very, very sad day.
Tate remained a prolific writer, remaining on staff at the Voice until 2005 and contributing to various other outlets, including Rolling Stone and the New York Times. He also published a succession of other works, including 2003's Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience. In 2016, he published a sequel to Flyboy, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader. Throughout it all, he was an indelible influence upon generations of Black writers and cultural critics, many of whom paid tribute to his brilliance and generosity upon learning of his death.
“Tate was the blueprint,” tweeted author Jason Reynolds, recalling his own rise from upstart journalist to National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. “He’s who I (and most of us at the time) emulated. We lost an archetype. Rest well.”
In Harlem, the famed Apollo Theater honored Tate on its marquee on Tuesday night; a fitting tribute to a man who consistently centered Black culture, creativity and the multitudes we hold in every aspect of his output and identity.
To quote Twitter user @pamelacouncil: “Greg Tate lived as a future ancestor. He gave us so much.” The Root salutes him and his legacy, and thanks him for cultivating legions of Black thinkers, writers and creators, simply with his own innate genius. Rest in power, Greg Tate. You were loved.