Greg Tate, the acclaimed author, journalist, cultural critic, musician, activist, and professor, died on December 7 in New York City. He was 64.
Tate was born in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. He attended Howard University and later moved to New York in the early 1980s. Best known originally as a music critic for the Village Voice, where he was a freelance writer and columnist from about 1981 until 2003, Tate first attracted attention for his writing on Jazz and African American music in essays that covered everything from the blues and R&B to contemporary rock and hip-hop. Before long, the range of his critical writing—he wrote about punk and hard rock, Black novelists, poets, and academics as well as musicians, and was as interested in Black political activism, cultural theory, and contemporary gallery and performance art as he was about experimental jazz—and his vivid, wildly inventive, and musical writing style singled him out as an insightful and entertaining critical voice on Black culture and Pan-African aesthetics.
Tate was dubbed “the godfather of hip-hop journalism” for his early, groundbreaking writing on rap and hip-hop in the 1980s. But he was also an activist critic, and his career involved numerous efforts to bring his critical broadsides to life via collective action. In 1985, along with guitarist and bandleader Vernon Reid, Tate cofounded the Black Rock Coalition, a collective of African American musicians focused on rock music and challenging racism in the music industry. And in 1999, after teaching himself how to play guitar, Tate founded Burnt Sugar, an inventive and improvisational multi-genre big band, in which he played and which he conducted.
Over the course of his career, Tate wrote or edited five books: Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992, S&S); Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (2003, Broadway Books); Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (2003, Lawrence Hill Books); Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (2016, Duke); and, co-edited with Liz Munsell, Writing the Future: Basquiat and the hip-hop generation (2020, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts).
Beginning in 2009, Tate was the Louis Armstrong visiting professor at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz studies. He was also a visiting professor at Brown University.
On a personal note, this reporter first met Tate, who was best known as a poet in those days, sometime in mid-1970s—most likely while he was sitting on the steps of the Fine Arts Building on Howard's campus, one of his favored spots for surveying campus activity—when we were both students at Howard University. He was a longtime friend, and all the qualities that epitomized Tate’s personal style, including his sense of humor and nuanced critical vision, were all on display even as a student—as well as, most importantly, his passion for understanding and celebrating African American art and artists and their long legacy of innovation and resistance in the face of American racism.
His popularity and legacy as a thoughtful cultural critic, and as a popular artist himself, can be measured by the range of tributes published almost immediately after his death in such venues as the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Rolling Stone, WNYC, The New Yorker, Variety, ArtNews, Duke University Press (his publisher), and even the Today Show.