Critic Greg “Ion Man” Tate has been writing about America’s cultural scene for nearly 30 years, with a syncopated and signified prose style inspired by Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison and The Black Arts movement. His most influential writings appeared in The Village Voice and Vibe magazine, and in his books, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience, and Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. His latest anthology, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, explores a continuum of topics, including the beyond category music of Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell, visual artist Kara Walker’s sumptuous silhouettes and legal scholar Randall Kennedy’s intrepid investigations of the N-world.
In the book, the term “Black Cognition” is used to describe your overall philosophy. What does that term mean?
It’s a thinking process that’s derived from the culture that is inscribed in the creative processes of various artists that I wrote about. It’s a way of thinking that derives from our cultural experience, traditions and rituals … particularly, music. An example of Black cognition is how Coltrane or Monk, or Miles approach the western twelve-tone system, the tempered scale, and apply those scales from [the perspective of] their cultural preparation and history.
Your musical example is apropos, given that you’re also a guitarist, the leader of the avant-garde Burnt Sugar Arkestra Chamber and a co-founder of The Black Rock Coalition. In your interviews, you’re more of an accompanist, feeding the interviewee the right notes to make his/her solo statement stronger. Do you agree?
It wasn’t so much about me flexing my writing prowess. I was really trying to create this space where meaty, thoughtful conversation could happen. I really enjoyed those interviews with Miles, and Wayne Shorter, Richard Pryor, Sade, Butch Morris, and Gary Simmons. I feel like the art of conversation and the art of writing are very much aligned.
Your cultural aesthetic is rooted in, although not limited to, the African-American experience. You were born in Ohio, and you moved to Washington, D.C. in your early teens. What influence did that city have on you as a writer?
D.C. in the seventies was a black cultural utopia along every axis: political, musical, visual, media, grass-roots activism and academic. I went to Coolidge High School, which was black at the time. We listened to everything on the radio, and that’s where I met black cats who were up on David Bowie, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. And at the same time, I was initiated into the jazz connoisseurship through the oral tradition by older brothers who were serious vinyl collectors, concert attendees and concert promoters as well.
What role did Howard University in your development?
The Howard experience was crucial! Jeff Donaldson [former Dean of the College of Fine Arts] was part of a very important and historic group of artists from Chicago called AfriCOBRA. In Haile Gerima’s film class, [we studied] films by Julia Dash, Charles Burnett and other members of the L.A. Rebellion. I also saw the great Cuban and Argentinean films like Lucia and The Hour of the Furnace. [Poet/writer] Ethelbert Miller, ran the Afro-American Resource Center, which was such an important place for a lot of young intellectuals to gather, have conversations, and read the most advanced, critical literature. In his reading series, Ethelbert introduced me to Ntozake Shange, Jayne Cortez, Ishmael Reed and Thulani Davis, and he put younger poets like myself on the same bill with those masters. Ethelbert is an Elegba figure: an opener of roads. In terms of me becoming a writer … He’s the reason there is a book!
You moved to New York in the early eighties. How did you end up at The Village Voice, which boasted an impressive cadre of black writers including Thulani Davis, Stanley Crouch, Nelson George, Carol Cooper and Barry Michael Cooper under the editorship of Robert Christgau?
Before Christgau, there was a brother, Rudy Langlais, who brought Stanley Crouch to the Voice. And then, Thulani Davis came to the Voice as a copy editor and started writing. She was the one who told me to send [my work] to Christgau, who came to the realization that, because of the connection between black culture and the popular music industry, he needed to have some writers who were not white [laughs]. So the three of us, Nelson, Barry, and I, were inspired by our ire at some of the writing about black music at the Voice at that time. And we all were bees in a bonnet, using the Voice as a corrective platform.
Looking back, how do you about your reader, from your vantage point as a literary icon?
There’s a nostalgic aspect when I look at this collection. I feel immense pride that I had really taken those chances to write about so many different kinds of subject, and to develop a voice that had a certain amount of intellectual integrity attached to it, writing things that I can still read 25 years later.