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December 8, 2021

Greg Tate (c. 1958–2021)

Greg Tate. Photo: Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press.

NEW YORK—Cultural critic Greg Tate, whose incandescent and incisive writing, particularly on topics surrounding Black American culture, influenced a generation, died today of undisclosed causes at the age of sixty-four. The news was confirmed by his publisher, Duke University Press. A tremendously talented guitarist, he was additionally the founder of improv group Burnt Sugar and a cofounder of the Black Rock coalition. In prose that, as Hua Hsu wrote in the New Yorker in 2016 “throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon,” Tate astutely assessed Black art and music not within the framework of the white culture that appropriated and consumed it but in relation to the Black culture that spawned it. He saw and was a vocal critic of passive racism, a hidden and frequently unrecognized form of racism as injurious as the active form. “I think a lot of people don’t want to see themselves as being beneficiaries of a viscous system,” he told AfroToronto’s Laina Dawes in 2005. “They like to imagine that if their hearts are pure, then others are pure, everything is just and fair in their own world. People don’t want to see themselves implicated in a system of oppression, as someone who is positioned and privileged by that system.”

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Tate was barely a teenager when he moved with his family to Washington, DC. There he encountered Rolling Stone and the writing of Amiri Baraka, specifically the author’s Black Music. These twin discoveries would shape the course of his life. Having taught himself to play guitar, Tate studied film and journalism at Howard University. A year after Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau in 1981 invited him to contribute to that storied downtown publication, Tate moved to New York. He immersed himself in the music scene there, befriending luminaries including guitarists James “Blood” Ulmer and Vernon Reid. Within three years, he and Reid cofounded with singer Dk Dyson and producer Konda Mason the Black Rock Coalition, a broad collective whose goal was to elevate the work of Black musicians and fight stereotyping within the industry.

In 1986, Tate penned the essay “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” for the Voice’s literary supplement. This landmark work of cultural criticism limned the artificial divide imposed by white supremacist culture between Black intellectuals, expected to be repressed cultural nationalists, and Black artists, expected to be “freaky” and unhinged purveyors of exotica. “Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life,” wrote Tate in its opening lines, “I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism—accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture.” Tate would go on to provide exactly that for the next three decades and beyond, as the Voice the following year hired him as a staff writer. The paper was “the only place in journalism where you weren’t expected to specialize,” Tate wrote in these pages in 2018, “where you could go off in your own cherry-picked vernacular about whatever form of aesthetic glory or political fuckery got your typing trigger finger ready to rumble on fish wrap.” He stayed there until 2005.

“I didn’t know I was a cultural critic until I began to be described as one,” he wrote in Artforum’s December 1992 issue. “I never liked being described as a music critic even when that was all I wrote about, the musician in me adhering to Keith Jarrett’s belief that the only adequate criticism of a piece of music is another piece of music.” Tate would go on to write for a wide range of publications, including Artforum, the New York Times, The Source, VIBE, the Washington Post, and the magazine that had originally inspired him, Rolling Stone. He published a number of books, including the critically acclaimed Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992), which he followed up with a second volume in 2016; Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (2003); and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (2003).

Tate was visiting professor of Africana studies at Brown University, and served as Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies. He continued to play music, in 1999 establishing Burnt Sugar, which he described in 2004 as “a band I wanted to hear but could not find.” The improvisational fusion group featured a large, rotating cast of players, who might number up to thirty-five at a given time.

News of Tate’s death was greeted with an outpouring of shock and grief on social media, conjuring Tate’s own words of 1991. “I realized that the meaning of being Black is summed up in who comes to bury you, who gathers in your name after you’re gone,” he wrote, “what they have to say about how you loved, and how you were loved in return.”

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