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On Dec. 7, acclaimed cultural critic, author, and musician Greg Tate died from cardiac arrest at age 64 in New York City.
But D.C. is where Tate’s singular blend of slang, academic, and activist writing originated. Tate moved with his family from Dayton, Ohio, to D.C. when he was 13. Those who met him during his teen years in the District recall his budding genius. As a teenager living in Northwest and later as a Howard University student, he honed both a passion and writing style that landed him a career at the New York alt-weekly The Village Voice, where he became a staff writer in 1987 and worked for over two decades. His take on music, politics, film, art, and culture also shined in his books such as Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture; and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience.
Tate was one of three children. His father, Charles, worked at the Booker T. Washington Foundation. His mother, Florence, was a journalist, civil rights activist, and later handled press for former Mayor Marion Barry as well as Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. In the introduction to Flyboy 2, Tate describes his mother as a “lifetime Pan-Africanist” who introduced him to Aretha Franklin, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, and Jimmy Cliff.
During his teen years, Tate met a handful of people who helped shape his work. Former Howard University professor and poet E. Ethelbert Miller recognized Tate’s skills early on when judging a citywide poetry contest in 1976 in which a 19-year old Tate was a participant. Via email, Miller called Tate a “genius child.”
He recalls the contest as one where English teachers encouraged students to write a poem for extra credit, noting that “much of the work is not memorable.” He continues: “That’s why Greg’s work stood out like Hendrix playing his guitar.”
Miller subsequently met young Tate after being introduced by a mutual friend and Tate became a regular visitor at his HU office. Throughout the next 10 years, Miller presented Tate and his work at the Miya Gallery, d.c. space, and Folger Shakespeare Library with both Alexis De Veaux and poet Diane Burns.
At Howard, Tate edited OO-sh’ Bop magazine with his friend Calvin Reid (now an editor at Publisher’s Weekly). Miller funded the publication’s singular issue, which came out in the summer of 1977 and featured an interview with cutting edge jazz sax player and flutist Oliver Lake. Tate also wrote for Howard’s newspaper, The Hilltop, and performed spoken word with a group of poets who called themselves the Six-Legged Griot Trio.
Tate was also learning from poet, jazz historian, and arts administrator A.B. Spellman at the time. Spellman recalls leading a poetry seminar in the early ’80s that met in his basement—the Free D.C. Writers’ Workshop. He describes Tate as an obvious leader. “Greg was writing performance poetry—long rhythmic lines with hard cadences,” Spellman says. ”The material was cultural and political. During these years, Greg and I spent a lot of time together listening to jazz. He had a good ear and excellent taste.” When hip-hop rose, Spellman says, “Greg was its natural arbiter. Greg was strong and informed in his opinions. His years as a poet electrified his prose.”
In 1981, a 23-year-old Tate described his local WPFW public radio show Other Afternoons as: “Black electic [sic] emanations with a sci-fi muse for the hellified. Otherworldly Music for everybody on the one: BlueragblackrockFunkreggae to bop, swing free afro-r’n’b, salsa, Brazilian sounds and a plethora of other pan-ethnic sounds as well.” This was the voice he would later bring to the Voice.
During his time with the alt-weekly, Tate displayed not only his broad spectrum of interests but also the creative ways in which he connected them. In his 1982 Village Voice article on D.C. Black punk band Bad Brains, he wrote “being of black radical-professional parentage, the kid has always had the luxury of cultural ambivalence coupled with black nationalist consciousness. That’s why my party affiliation reads: Greg Tate, Black Bohemian Nationalist. Give me art or give me blood. Preferably on the One, but everything I do ain’t got to be funky. So, a black punk band? Okay, I’m game.” His fellow Voice scribe Don Palmer says Tate was a “magician with words. He could make up his own language, but the words were still based in language we understood and very lyrical and poetic. His writing kept growing.”
Actor Bob Wisdom, who also grew up in D.C. and lived with Tate in New York for several years in the ’80s, says Tate “wasn’t going to sit up there and just talk about I like this or I like that, he was inventing an alphabet, a hieroglyphic in a sense. … He gave words a different density. It was like physics—they had a whole different atomic weight the way that he was putting them together.”
In a 1993 interview with this writer for Uno Mas fanzine, Tate credited “the editorial page, Marvel Comics, and the liner notes Pedro Bell wrote for Funkadelic” as early influences.
Called a “Godfather of hip-hop Journalism” by some, Tate also wrote about various music genres in his patented style. He referred to himself as “Gregory Iron Man Tate” for years (after the Marvel superhero), and later as the “Mayor of Black Bohemia.”
Duke University Press plans to release Tate’s White Cube Fever: Hella Conjure and Writing on the Black Arts posthumously. The collection will feature his writing on Black artists, including Carrie Mae Weems, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kerry James Marshall.
In addition to his writing, Tate cofounded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. He also played guitar in several bands, including jazz and funk group Burnt Sugar (he was also the band’s conductor). Sometimes called Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, the group released Angels over Oakanda in 2021, which Tate performed on.
He also taught classes at Yale, Brown, and Columbia universities.
Tate’s friends, such as Wisdom, say playwright, poet, and music critic Thulani Davis was a crucially important source for Tate and bridge between D.C. and New York. Davis, a family friend, was someone he could talk to about music, art, and literature. Davis later encouraged Tate to pitch the Voice, where she worked as an editor and writer.
Reuben Jackson, poet and University of the District of Columbia jazz archivist met Tate through his younger brother, Brian. Jackson recalls being impressed with an enormous upstairs room at the Tate family home with many shelves of jazz records at one end and punk records at the other end. He says Tate “was unpretentious and generous with information and he would recommend books. I asked him to look at my work and he offered suggestions and was very encouraging. He never lost that generosity of spirit. Watching his genius blossom was inspiring to me. The way he would weave references to James Brown and Jean Paul Sartre into his essays—it gave me confidence.”
According to reggae scholar, promoter, and activist Dera Tompkins, Tate and other creatives, would listen to reggae records at her Adams Morgan home and discuss the history of Rastafarianism. “Greg decided I needed to be on the radio to share that information” says Tompkins, who became a regular guest on the program. She and Tate worked together for Vernard Gray, owner of D.C.’s Miya Art Gallery one summer. Tompkins calls herself, Tate, DJ Tom Terrell, and a few others “this musical radical Afrocentric collective. We went to the same lectures and music.” Of Tate, she says, “He could tell a story like no other. He could spitfire.”
Tate’s love of D.C. remained throughout his life. In a 2007 Village Voice memorial for Terrell—who was also a journalist, critic, and promoter—Tate wrote of meeting Terrell at Howard when the city was a “post-civil-rights Black Utopia experiencing a golden age of live music and free-form radio—a time when the likes of Funkadelic, War, and Mandrill played every other week, and you judged a man by the size of his jazzrockfunkfusionsoul album collection.”
Lewis Flip Barnes met Tate on the steps of HU’s fine arts building in 1975. Back then, Barnes says, it was common to see people with boomboxes, but most were playing funk or R&B. “What initially drew me to approach Greg was that he was cranking John Coltrane Live in Seattle!” Barnes also says he and Tate shared enthusiasm for the Howard University film class taught by filmmaker Haile Gerima. Likewise, Wisdom credits Tate’s teachers at Howard as the ones who “gave him that fuel and saw the possibilities to approach the world as art.”
Bill Warrell, who booked avant-garde jazz and experimental music at d.c. space, remembers Tate fondly. “Greg was at d.c. space for the first concerts upstairs in 1977, Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, and Oliver Lake” he writes over email.
Warrell recalls sax player Hamiet Bluiett onstage there before a sparse crowd calling Tate’s radio show and putting the phone into the bell of his baritone. The result was a second night sold out show. Warrell, who only listened to avant-garde music at the time, adds that Tate “connected the dots with what I was missing.” Unlike Warrell, he listened to multiple genres and saw the connections between the experimental works Warrell loved as well as go-go, hip-hop, and Bad Brains.
Wisdom too remembers Tate’s eclectic music interests. Tate listened to and wrote about African artists like King Sunny Ade, plus R&B acts like Kool and the Gang and Chaka Khan. He stayed current with music over the decades. In 2015, he reviewed noted-rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for Rolling Stone.
But there was much more to Tate than just his ability to string together eclectic cultural interests. Just as his family, professors, and the DJs he met in D.C. supported and mentored him, Tate similarly gave back and helped others. Ghanian-American writer Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, who now lives in Los Angeles, met Tate in 1992. The two spoke on the phone daily for 15 years; she contributed to Tate’s edited effort, Everything But the Burden. Tate encouraged her to write her memoir, Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression, and helped her deal with mental health struggles. She credits Tate for helping her “heal” as well as being a “connector of people.”
“He liked to create community,” says Danquah. Always an activist, the community Tate worked to build was one free of various isms and phobias. D.C. Magistrate Judge Renee Raymond first met Tate in New York in 1985. She shared his interests in music, science fiction, and Black culture. “He was kind and generous at his core,” says Raymond. “Although he could slice and dice someone in a critique…he called bullshit on purveyors of sexism and homophobia at a time when men critics were letting it slide.”
She concludes, “Greg wrote the way he spoke. Freely. Poetically. Humorously. Words were there to convey a moment or an idea. And if a word wasn’t there he created it.”
*Editor’s note: A previous version said Lewis Flip Jones instead of Lewis Flip Barnes.