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Greg Tate, a powerful chronicler and critic of Black life and culture, has died at 64

Greg Tate, in 2016.
Nisha Sondhe
/
Duke University Press
Greg Tate, in 2016.

Greg Tate, the essential music writer, cultural critic and journalist, has died. He was 64. The news was confirmed by a spokesperson at Duke University Press, his publisher. No further details were provided.

Starting in 1987, Tate was a longtime staff writer for The Village Voice, where he documented all facets of Black culture for the storied alt-weekly. Tate covered everything from Eric B. & Rakim to the changing nature of Black identity and the death of Michael Jackson.

"The Voice was the recorder, messenger and proclamatory dictator of what culturally mattered in the province," Tate told NPR, after The Village Voice announced the end of its print version.

Black writers couldn't not be aware of the irony; writing as radically black as you wanted for a press organ that was perceived as very white and gay in the hood. But you also knew that your own more ethnically diverse community was reading the rag, too.

The audience could turn on you, too. I actually got death threats from the paper's equally passionate letter writers — one in the form of a Yoruba curse — after I wrote piece about Michael Jackson's Bad in 1987 called "I'm White!"

In 1992, Tate published his first book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America. It tackled race, politics, music, and literature, and was required reading for anyone approaching culture (popular or otherwise) through the lens of criticism.

As a stylist, Tate was assertive, artful, funny and expressive. His pieces, whether they were book reviews or essays or notes from a concert, always reminded you that art didn't exist in a vacuum — that it existed in the real world, and had real-world causes and effects. In grappling with the Black hardcore band Bad Brains in The Village Voice, Tate writes:

You say you want hardcore? I say the Brains'll give you hardcore coming straight up the ass, buddy. I'm talking about like lobotomy by jackhammer, like a whirlpool bath in a cement mixer, like orthodontic surgery by Black & Decker, like making love to a buzzsaw, baby. Mean­ing that coming from a black perspective, jazz it ain't, funk it ain't hardly, and they'll probably never open for Dick Dames or Primps. Even though three white acts they did open for, Butch Tarantulas, Hang All Four, and the Cash, is all knee-deeper into black street ridims than the Brains ever been and ain't that a bitch? 

And that's a relatively positive writeup.

Like any good critic, Tate went in on the things he hated with just as much flair as he did the things he loved. Writing about the rap group Public Enemy, Tate took to task the sexism, homophobia and antisemitism he found in their work.

Since PE show sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the U.S. power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women, and Jews isn't going to set black people free. As their prophet Mr. Farrakhan hasn't overcome one or another of these moral lapses, PE might not either. For now swallowing the PE pill means taking the bitter with the sweet, and if they don't grow up, later for they asses.

Greg Tate was born on Oct. 15, 1957. He spent his teenage years in Washington, D.C., where he first got interested in music. Upon moving to New York City, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, which existed to push back against stereotypes of Black artists. He also founded Burnt Sugar, a sprawling avant-garde orchestra that melded elements of free jazz and fusion, R&B, funk and contemporary classical music through conduction, a system of real-time arranging pioneered by improvising conductor Butch Morris. The ensemble issued its most recent recording, the EP Angels Over Oakanda, in September.

After The Voice, Tate would go on to write for a variety of different media outlets— Rolling Stone, the BBC, Down Beat and more. His last piece was from September in The Nation, surveying the current Black cultural landscape through the lens of the book Afropessimism, by Frank B. Wilderson III. "James Baldwin said, 'To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time,'" wrote Tate. "But what he didn't say was that, on a good day, it is mostly a sublimated state of rage since folk got bills to pay and sanity to keep."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.