The sudden and most definitely unexpected news of the death of Greg Tate at the age of sixty-four has shaken the worlds of music, art, and cultural criticism. Tate was “one of the most incisive, insightful, and influential cultural critics of the past thirty-five years,” writes Hank Shteamer, a senior music editor at Rolling Stone, the magazine Tate read avidly as a teen—alongside his copy of Amiri Baraka’s 1968 book Black Music.
Tate taught himself how to play the guitar, studied journalism and film at Howard University, and in 1981, sent “an all-but-spit-out review of a Nona Hendryx show,” as he later remembered it, to Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau. “Bob told me he couldn’t use it, but that ‘the more writing like this I get in the paper, the more I’ll like it.’” Tate moved to New York, where he met Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, with whom he, Eye & I lead singer DK Dyson, and producer Konda Mason founded the Black Rock Coalition. “The BRC opposes those racist and reactionary forces within the American music industry which undermine and purloin our musical legacy and deny Black artists the expressive freedom and economic rewards that our Caucasian counterparts enjoy as a matter of course,” reads the manifesto.
In 1986, the Voice ran “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke,” something of a manifesto for Tate himself. “There’s no periodical on black cultural phenomena equivalent to the Village Voice or Artforum, no publication that provides journalism on black visual art, philosophy, politics, economics, media, literature, linguistics, psychology, sexuality, spirituality, and pop culture,” he wrote. “Though there are certainly black editors, journalists, and academics capable of producing such a journal, the disintegration of the black cultural nationalist movement and the braindrain of black intellectuals to white institutions have destroyed the vociferous public dialogue that used to exist between them. Consider this my little shot at opening it up again.”
The following year, Tate became a staff writer at the Voice, a position he held until 2005. “He didn’t know, but almost every piece I write, I think about what Greg would think,” tweets Amy Taubin. “So lucky to have been at the VV when he was there.” Forty of his essays for the alternative weekly were collected in 1992 in Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, and a second volume, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, appeared in 2016. “Hard to explain the impact that Flyboy in the Buttermilk had on a whole generation of young writers and critics who read every page of it like scripture,” tweets New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb. “It’s still a clinic on literary brilliance.”
As a contributor to the Voice and Artforum as well as to Vibe,Spin, the Source, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, Tate was primarily known for his writing on art and music, but he often turned his attention to cinema. Just last year, he wrote an essay that accompanied our release of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). The way Tate saw it, the film allowed Jarmusch to “up his game and rifle through three genres of which he’s enamored at once: samurai, Italian American gangster, and blaxploitation. Each of these, in modern revivals, requires a certain reverence for the internal, hypermasculine drives that cinematically energize the form while displaying a level of invention and play that can embrace slapstick and minimalist cool.”
Tate also spoke with director Terence Nance for the Criterion Channel, and earlier this year, he talked about the scores and on-screen presence of Curtis Mayfield. Open up the Greg Tate archives at the Village Voice, and you’ll see right off that he was a major champion of Julie Dash, who became the first Black woman director to have a feature released theatrically in the U.S. when Daughters of the Dust came out in 1991. “Devastated by the sad news and loss of a dear friend,” tweets Dash.
In 1988, as Dash was preparing to shoot, Tate took a flight and a fifty-mile drive out to the set on the Georgia Sea Islands. He spoke with Dash about her childhood in New York’s Queensbridge projects; her years at UCLA, where she worked alongside LA Rebellion filmmakers Larry Clark and Charles Burnett; and her failure to secure funding for Daughters from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “What Dash has come up against here,” wrote Tate, “is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance—an arrogance fortified by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.”
“Ostensibly about a Gullah family whose younger generation are making plans to leave their ancestral islands for mainland U.S.A. at the crest of the twentieth century,” wrote Tate three years later, “Daughters is also an interrogation of Black America’s cleft soul, split between the quest for modernity and a hunger for the replenishment of roots.” When Daughters was rereleased in 2016, he noted that the year had “yielded a bumper-crop renaissance for those who savor cinematic portrayals of the culture’s Adult Contemporary register—Black flicks that ring with vernacular specificity and confidence while offering modern-day takes on the national body politic, grown-ass sexual manners, alienation, and rage.”
Along with such works as Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, and Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, the year also saw the release of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, whose “luminously dark and lovely palette mirrors the aesthetics of Miles Davis, a graphic and tonal conceptualist who long ago established the high bar for implosive, convulsive blues revelations drawn from Black America’s existential interior.” Like Dash, Jenkins had run up against more than a few walls when he was seeking funding for projects earlier in his career, but by this point, Tate was sensing a change in the air. “The simplest tag you can put on Moonlight,” he wrote, “is that it’s a queer coming-of-age story set in a Negroidal Southern galaxy far, far away from the places it’s received world-cinema accolades from.”
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