Greg Tate (1957-2021): Cultural Critic Who Made His Name Writing About Hip Hop, Was Equally Attuned to Visual Art

Yoshiko Yap

 

CULTURAL CRITIC AND MUSICIAN Greg Tate (1957-2021) died Dec. 7 in New York. He was 64. Widely renowned and beloved, Tate wrote with a singular style and insight about music, art, and culture at-large. In the 1970s, he worked at Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York, the storied gathering place and exhibition space established by Linda Goode Bryant. In the 1980s, he became a voice of authority on hip hop from its earliest days.

Although his key focus was Black music, his interests and references were wide ranging, from science fiction to French literary theory and street art. Over the course of his career, Tate wrote for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Vibe, and contributed to many more publications, including ARTnews. He also penned essays for volumes dedicated to artists Arthur Jafa, Deana Lawson, Ellen Gallagher, José Parlá, and Kerry James Marshall, among others.

 


Greg Tate (1957-2021). | Photo by Nisha Sondhe, Courtesy Duke University Press

 

Known for writing about hip hop, he was equally attuned to visual art. Tate co-curated “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” (2020-21) at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and co-edited the accompanying exhibition catalog. “Writing the Future” was billed as “the first major exhibition to contextualize Basquiat’s work in relation to hip-hop and marks the first time his extensive, robust, and reflective portraiture of his Black and Latinx friends and fellow artists has been given prominence in scholarship on his oeuvre.”

In May, Tate gave the commencement address to 2021 MFA graduates at the Yale School of Art. At the time of his death, he was working on a volume of essays about Black visual art with Duke University Press.

BORN IN DAYTON, OHIO, Tate graduated from Howard University where he studied journalism and film. In the early 1980s, he started writing for The Village Voice and was on staff there from 1987 to 2003. In the ensuing years, he became a visiting professor at Williams College, and Brown, Columbia, and Yale universities. In 2010, Tate was named a United States Artists Fellow in literature.

He was also a musician. Tate co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and started Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, “a sprawling band of musicians whose prodigious personnel allows them to freely juggle a wide swath of the experimental soul-jazz-hip hop spectrum.” In the band, Tate played guitar and served as “conductor.” Burnt Sugar performed at numerous venues, including The Underground Museum in Los Angeles.

Tate was fluent in multiple disciplines and drew on an expanse of Black creative expression in his analysis and elevation of hip hop. “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,” Tate wrote in The New York Times in 1994.

He continued: “If there is a connection between jazz and hip-hop, it is the tonal and rhythmic vocabulary they have culled from black speaking patterns and vocal timbres. Ralph Ellison orchestrated these voices with wit and finesse in “Invisible Man,” a novel prescient of hip-hop in affirming black America’s array of homespun philosophers. He even presages the B-boy when he writes of postwar Harlem’s hip youngbloods as men who appear “like one of these African sculptures distorted in the interest of a design” and who speak “a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour.”

“If there is a connection between jazz and hip-hop, it is the tonal and rhythmic vocabulary they have culled from black speaking patterns and vocal timbres. Ralph Ellison orchestrated these voices with wit and finesse in ‘Invisible Man,’ a novel prescient of hip-hop in affirming black America’s array of homespun philosophers.” — Greg Tate


In 2017, Greg Tate gave a lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles about the work of Kerry James Marshall on the occasion of “Mastry,” the artist’s 30-year retrospective. Curator Amanda Hunt introduced Tate. | Video by MOCA LA

 

Tate authored several books, including “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” (1992) and “Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader” (2016). A new book by Tate about Black visual art will be published posthumously.

In a farewell tribute to Tate, his publisher shared the news: “Duke University Press has a final book with Greg Tate under contract, to be published sometime in the next few years. Titled ‘White Cube Fever: Hella Conjure and Writing on the Black Arts,’ it is a collection of his writing on Black visual art, including essays on Carrie Mae Weems, Basquiat, Arthur Jafa, Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Lonnie Holley, Ellen Gallagher, and Theaster Gates. It will be a bittersweet pleasure for our staff to work on this posthumous project.”

“White Cube Fever: Hella Conjure and Writing on the Black Arts,” a forthcoming book by Greg Tate, collects his writing on Black visual art and features essays on Carrie Mae Weems, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Arthur Jafa, Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Lonnie Holley, Ellen Gallagher, and Theaster Gates.

A week before he died, Tate paid homage to art historian Robert Farris Thompson who passed Nov. 29. “A giant of African/Black Atlantic cultural and esthetic scholarship no longerr walks among us but along what Sun Ra called The Strange Celestial Road,” Tate wrote on Instagram. “The impact of Robert Farris Thompson’s books and lectures on C. Daniel Dawson, David Hammons, Kelly (sic) Jones, Kerry James Marshall, Arthur Jafa, Judith Wilson, Henry Louis Gates, and Sanford Biggers among many others, was immense—especially Flash of the Spirit which we essayed upon in Flyboy In the Buttermilk under the title ‘Guerilla Scholar On The Loose.’”

TATE HAD A WAY with words. In a New Yorker essay titled “The Critic Who Convinced Me That Criticism Could Be Art,” Hua Hsu wrote about Tate. “His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon,” he said. Borrowing Tate’s own words, Hsu added: “What he’s been exploring through his criticism has been something ‘less quantifiable,’ as he puts it, than culture, identity, or consciousness. What Tate wants to understand is ‘the way Black people “think,” mentally, emotionally, physically,’ and ‘how those ways of thinking and being inform our artistic choices.’”

That was back in 2016. In the days since Tate’s passing, many more writers and artists have weighed in on the critic, his work, and influence, offering heartfelt reflections and tributes.

In The Washington Post, Kevin Powell authored an essay titled, “Greg Tate showed me what being a writer in America could mean.” He called Tate “arguably the best American writer and thinker of the past 40 years, easily one of the greatest wordsmiths we’ve ever been blessed to have.”

Powell also wrote: “His words were hypnotic, and they lit my brain like a fuse. Greg was writing, with unparalleled honesty, about the perils and pitfalls of fame and its toll on the Black mind and the Black body. He was also showing me the possibilities of what a writer could do and be: poet, cultural curator, memory-keeper, visionary and unapologetic truth-teller for the people.”

Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey posted on Twitter: “Greg Tate leaves a brilliant lexicon behind, the product of a brilliant and restless mind. Asé. Ibaye bae tonu. May the ancestors be proud of your work and welcome you home.”

“Greg Tate leaves a brilliant lexicon behind, the product of a brilliant and restless mind. Asé. Ibaye bae tonu. May the ancestors be proud of your work and welcome you home.” — Dawoud Bey


In May, Greg Tate gave the commencement address at the Yale School of Art (remotely) offering words of wisdom and congratulations to MFA graduates in the Class of 2021. (He delivers remarks at 20:15-30:04| Video by Yale

 

A testament to the critic’s cultural stature, the iconic Apollo Theater dedicated its marquee to Tate. Artist Carrie Mae Weems used a picture of the Apollo tribute to illustrate an Instagram post on Dec. 11. “My dear friends,” Weems wrote, “today at 1:00pm sharp-EST, everywhere you are, stop and stand for a moment of silence in honor of our brother Greg Tate, and call his name!”

Also on Instagram, poet Saul Williams called Tate a friend, brother, oracle, orchestrator, and “a troubadour of the here before and here forever after.” He wrote in part: “When Greg Tate adopted me along with every poet squeezed tight into the Brooklyn Moon we were in the midst of a renaissance. Afronauts light-tripping Blackness in queer & euphoric space. He welcomed us to the table, already set, with cardboard placemats cut from the refrigerator boxes we had placed on sidewalks, backspins & windmills ago, with a slight grin like ‘I been waiting for y’all.’”

Williams added: “Greg Tate held captive audience with sly subtlety, gave out homework in ways that made you make sure your next album, or sentence, was proof of research. Ever-generous with his servings he made sure we knew that we were coming in the tradition of, on the shoulders of, out of the mouths of oracles that had predicted us.”

Artist Lorna Simpson posted a vintage photo of Tate on Instagram and wrote: “Indelibly beautiful rich markings of poetics that you groved (sic) into our hearts and minds – thank you thank you thank you Greg Tate.”

Tate and artist Arthur Jafa met at Howard. Conversations between the two were legendary and lengthy. They famously spoke for hours and hours in private and on public stages, covering all manner of topics.

Jafa told the New York Times: “It’s hard to describe what it’s like having the voice of a generation as your friend.” On Instagram, Jafa wrote: “Absolute love of my life.” CT

 

FIND MORE about Greg Tate on his Instagram page

 

READ MORE Last year, Tate was in conversation with Arthur Jafa about author Samuel R. Delany and his “iconoclastic, intergalactic oeuvre,” a dialogue featured in Ursula, the magazine published by Hauser & Wirth gallery

LISTEN MORE Greg Tate on What is Hip Hop

READ MORE In 1989, Greg Tate wrote an essay in The Village Voice about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat titled, “Nobody Loves a Genius Child”

 






BOOKSHELF
Greg Tate is the author of several books, including “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” (1992) and “Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader” (2016). He edited “Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture” (2003), a collection of essays by multiple authors that features an introductory essay by Tate titled, “Nigs ’R Us.” Tate co-edited the exhibition catalog “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation.” He also contributed to many artist’s catalogs, including “Deana Lawson,” the new publication accompanying the artist’s current exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.

 

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