Cultural critic Greg Tate, whose incandescent and incisive writing, especially on topics surrounding black American culture, influenced a generation, has died today of undisclosed causes at the age of sixty-four. The news was confirmed by its publisher, Duke University Press. A talented guitarist, he was also the founder of the improvisation group Burnt Sugar and co-founder of the Black Rock coalition. In prose that, as Hua Hsu wrote in the New Yorker in 2016, “pounding like a party and chatting like a living room,” Tate artfully valued black art and music not as part of the white culture that appropriated and consumed it, but in relation to black culture who had engendered him. He saw and was a vocal critic of passive racism, a hidden and often unrecognized form of racism as damaging as the active form. “I think a lot of people don’t want to see themselves as the beneficiaries of a slimy system,” he told Laina Dawes of AfroToronto in 2005. “They like to imagine that if their hearts are pure, then others are pure, all is fair and equitable in their own world. People don’t want to see themselves embroiled 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 meets Rolling stone and the writing of Amiri Baraka, in particular that of the author Black music. These twin discoveries would shape the course of his life. After learning to play the guitar on his own, Tate studied film and journalism at Howard University. One year later Voice of the village music critic Robert Christgau invited him in 1981 to contribute to this historic downtown publication, Tate moved to New York. He immersed himself in the music scene there, befriending such luminaries as guitarists James “Blood” Ulmer and Vernon Reid. In three years, he and Reid co-founded with singer Dk Dyson and producer Konda Mason the Black Rock Coalition, a vast collective whose goal was to elevate the work of black musicians and challenge stereotypes within the ‘industry.
In 1986, Tate wrote the essay “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” for the Voicethe literary supplement of e. This historic work of cultural criticism has clarified the artificial division imposed by white supremacist culture between black intellectuals, supposedly repressed cultural nationalists, and black artists, supposed to be “bizarre” and unbalanced purveyors of exoticism. “Somewhere on the road to probable insanity or meaningful life,” Tate wrote in his opening lines, “I decided that what black culture needed was popular poststructuralism – a accessible writing determined to deconstruct the whole of black culture. Tate would continue to provide exactly that for the next three decades and beyond, as the Voice the following year, he hired him as editor. The newspaper was “the one place in journalism where you weren’t expected to specialize,” Tate wrote in these pages in 2018, “where you could speak your own handpicked vernacular. of any form of aesthetic glory or fucking politics. your typing trigger finger ready to rumble on a fish wrap. “He will stay there until 2005.
“I didn’t know I was a cultural critic until I started being described as such,” he wrote in Art ForumDecember 1992 issue. “I never liked to be described as a music critic, even when that was all I wrote, 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 continue to write for a wide range of publications, including Art Forum, the New York Times, Source, ATMOSPHERE, the Washington post, and the magazine that originally inspired him, Rolling stone. He has published a number of books, including the famous Flyboy in Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992), which he continues with a second volume in 2016; Everything But The Burden: What Whites Get From Black Culture (2003); and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Dark Experience (2003).
Tate has been a Visiting Professor of African Studies at Brown University and a Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor at the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. He continued to play music, creating Burnt Sugar in 1999, which he described in 2004 as “a band I wanted to hear but couldn’t find”. The improvisation fusion group featured a large group of rotating players, which could be up to thirty-five at a time.
The news of Tate’s death was greeted with shock and grief on social media, reminiscent of Tate’s own words from 1991. “I realized that the meaning of being black comes down to who comes to you. bury, which gathers in your name after you ‘are gone’, he wrote, ‘what they have to say about how you loved and how you were loved in return’.