By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — Few writers have ever better understood or chronicled the links in various Black cultural forms better than Greg Tate. Tate, who died last week at 64, covered both jazz and hip-hop, as well as literature, visual art and theatre. His work was published in many publications, most notably the Village Voice and Rolling Stone.
A Howard graduate, Tate began writing for the Voice in the early ‘80s and joined the staff in 1987, He remained with them until 2005. Though he could be quite caustic when he felt it was necessary, Tate functioned much more as an advocate, someone seeking to inform, clarify and educate. He believed it was important to cite the innovations in Black culture, but also inform audiences about its history, and show that its many idioms and genres are from a common heritage.
“I marvel at hip-hop for the same reasons I marvel at Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X and Michael Jordan: a lust for that wanton and wily thing called swing and an ardor for Black artists who make virtuosic use of African-American vernacular,” Tatewrote in The New York Times in 1999, a paragraph that perfectly summarized his approach to Black culture.
His first book, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America,” was published in 1992. A compendium of his articles from The Voice, it catalyzed a generation of young writers of color with its vivid language, easy erudition and kaleidoscopic range. He also didn’t feel the necessity to isolate himself from the scenes or performers he covered. His friends included fiery guitarist Vernon Reid, and the two helped found the Black Rock Coalition in 1985 to discuss and address racial disparities in New York’s music scene.
“Rock and roll,” he wrote, “like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music, and we are its heirs. We, too, claim the right of creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations, irrespective of genre.”Tate later formed Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, a genre-blending band of indeterminate size. Anywhere from 12 to 40 members might be onstage at a time, withTate serving as conductor.
His post-Voice career included being a visiting professor at Brown and Columbia and writing more books, including a sequel to “Flyboy” and a critical assessment of Jimi Hendrix.