On December 7, 2021, we lost a literary and cultural giant. To call Greg Tate one of the most important critics and essayists of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in any language, would not be an exaggeration. In fact, it would not be enough. He was the genius child everybody loved. He came of age in Chocolate City (what the political class call the nation’s capital), then studied film and journalism at Howard University before settling in New York in the early 1980s to write and make music. Thanks to poet, playwright, librettist, and scholar Thulani Davis, Tate began writing for the Village Voice and almost immediately transformed critical writing on Black culture. He was to the 1980s and ’90s generation what Amiri Baraka and A. B. Spellman (fellow Howard alums) were to that of the 1960s. In 1992 he published Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, a gathering of some of his best writing. The book became an instant classic. He went on to publish Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (2003); edit the landmark anthology Everything But the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture (2003); and issue his second collection of essays in 2016, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader.

Though Tate was a trenchant music critic, he also always kept his guitar handy and led his own bands. His first band was the iconoclastic Black feminist acid funk group, Women in Love, whose bassist was none other than Me’Shell Ndegeocello. He cared about the music and those who made it, leading him and guitar legend Vernon Reid to co-found the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. Tate penned the BRC’s manifesto, which could easily double as his personal mantra:

The BRC embraces the total spectrum of Black music. The BRC rejects the arcane perceptions and spurious demographics that claim our appeal is limited. The BRC rejects the demand for Black artists to tailor their music to fit into the creative straitjackets the industry has designed. We are individuals and will accept no less than full respect for our right to be conceptually independent.

His last band, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, lasted over two decades and, in my opinion, was one of the greatest musical projects of the last half-century. It was a kind of gypsy band consisting of a small tribe of genre-busting instrumentalists, vocalists, and poets. Tate played a little bit, but primarily assumed the role of conductor. His inspiration was the late Lawrence “Butch” Morris, who invented the theory and practice of “conduction,” a method of controlled improvisation whereby one employs signs and gestures to direct entire orchestras to create music without notation. As Greg explained to me twenty years ago, “Butch is probably the only person who has worked out a personal idea of how he wants a very large, integrated acoustic, electric, ancient jazz ensemble sound.”

Tate adopted and adapted conduction theory to create Burnt Sugar, which he often described as an extension of Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” album. In the course of two decades, they produced over a dozen astonishing albums bearing titles such as, Blood on the Leaf (2000), That Depends on What You Know (2001), Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets (2003), More Than PosthumanThe Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillon (2006), Making Love to the Dark Ages (2009), All Ya Needs That Negrocity (2011), Rebellum: The Darknuss (2014), All You Zombies Dig the Luminosity (2017), and Angels Over Oakanda (2021). Burnt Sugar and Butch Morris collaborated on what is arguably the hippest revision of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” simply called The Rites (2003). But nothing—and I mean nothing—compared to seeing the entire Arkestra on stage: packed together, swelling sometimes to twenty or twenty-five musicians, Tate facing his crew like Dr. Funkenstein, hands flailing as he draws out mind-blowing sounds. You wouldn’t dare blink. He was a modern-day Jules Verne taking you on a journey to the unknown. This was the Greg Tate I knew, a person who resided at the center of the earth.

Tate showed us a different way to write about the culture—one that respected the artist without being either ingratiating or catering to the industry.

I first met Tate in 1994. My dear friend Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, introduced us. We quickly became friends and occasional collaborators, though I was never his running buddy. He showed many of us a different way to write about the culture—one that respected the artist without being either ingratiating or catering to the industry. Tate was also a warm, open person. Whenever I randomly ran into him in the city, he always stopped and talked to me, listening to and caring about what I had to say.

I first met Bongani Madondo in the summer of 2017, though three minutes into our first encounter in Johannesburg, it was as if we’d known each other since primary school. He was responsible for bringing me to the University of Witwatersrand that summer, and he proved to be one of the smartest interlocutors I’ve encountered in my adult life. Anyone familiar with South Africa’s contemporary cultural scene will not be surprised. He had long cemented his reputation as one of the most incisive writers in the country; a fearless interviewer; and pursuer of heroes, rebels, and myths. He has written provocative essays on music and culture, as well as sharp, often funny, commentary on politics for many major publications, including Rolling Stone, Johannesburg Review of Books, Aperture Magazine, Daily Maverick, and the Mail & Guardian. He has also authored three books: Hot Type: Icons, Artists, and God-Figurines (2007), ‘I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie’ (2014), and Sigh the Beloved Country: Braai Talk, Rock ’n’ Roll & Other Stories (2016).

I tend to think of Sigh the Beloved Country as the South African equivalent of Tate’s Fly Boy in the Buttermilk, except that Tate navigated a turbulent post-Soul America, whereas Bongani’s world was more chocolate milk of post-apartheid South Africa—although he was equally adept at comprehending the shenanigans on Turtle Island. This shouldn’t surprise us since his path to becoming a writer is strewn with the glossy culture magazines of the 1990s. He read Vibe, Transition, and Rolling Stone religiously and connected with an extraordinary generation of young writers, notably Kevin Powell, Bönz Malone, Joan Morgan, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Cheo Hodari Coker, Charlie Braxton, Kris X., dream hampton, bell hooks, and Greg Tate. But there are very specific parallels with brother Tate. Bongani loves women and writes about them with a deep sensitivity and irreverence. He doesn’t care what others think and isn’t interested in accumulating likes on Twitter. Moreover, he is as hard on himself as he is on other writers. He can smell bullshit from 7,000 miles away and will call it out when he does. As Dana da Silva once quipped about Bongani, “When you get down to it, in true Biko form, he writes what he likes.”

As soon as word spread about Tate’s unexpected and untimely passing, Bongani was on WhatsApp flooding my phone with magnificent recollections and reflections on our fallen comrade. I invited him to have a conversation with me to share with readers of Boston Review.


Robin D. G. Kelley: When I learned of Greg Tate’s passing, I thought of you, even before you began blowing up my phone. In Sigh the Beloved Country, you wrote: “If I were to single out a writer who impacted on me deeply, Greg Tate comes to mind. He does to hip hop and rock writing what the poet Amiri Baraka’s Yoruba/Zulu/Mandinka spirit-guides did to the blues verse.” Who was Tate to you?

 

Bongani Madondo: Greg Tate was my brother. I know he was an even closer brother to hundreds more, but, in the absence of Jean-Michel Basquait, Arthur Jafa was simply Greg’s alternegro. Therefore, it behooves of us to listen deeply when his ace boon brother, filmmaker and artist AJ said on Instagram that Greg was the “Absolute love of my life!” There are many brothers and sisters who would have spiritually married Greg, as Tate would have said himself, “titties optional.” This feels trivial but explains the oceanic deep love and respect many of us have for Tate.

As a disruptive writer with his own inner lyrical, literary compass, his “riddims” and “greens,” “reds,” “gods,” “golds,” “blacks,” “beiges,” and “blues,” all coalescing into journalism as music, and music as unruly poetic meter, Greg Tate was unmatched. Pure punk.

With his own inner lyrical, literary compass, his “riddims” and “greens,” “reds,” “gods,” “golds,” “blacks,” “beiges,” and “blues,” all coalescing into journalism as music, and music as unruly poetic meter, Greg Tate was unmatched.

 

RDGK: I’m surprised he never got a MacArthur genius award, or even a Pulitzer nod. He was a perfect candidate. And yet, no one denies his enormous impact on criticism and cultural commentary. He was, to my mind, the essayist of our era.

BM: Amiri Baraka, who was Greg’s and my mutual (anti) mentor, once referred to his friend Max Roach, in his ode Digging Max, as “Bird’s Black Injun Engine”

I have not been able to gauge Greg’s exact impact because his imitators would rather not be him—in person, mind, or economic status. Also, some of the artists he influenced have since been marketed to sound dumb to secure the bag. Those who heard him pretend he was just an experimental lyricist whose sole job was to hold the bohemian avant-garde corner of the multinational cultural intact. As such, it is almost impossible to gauge his influence. However, had the amount of obituaries, ink containers, and trees chopped dedicated to “remembering” him in death been expressed in love or financial modes in his lifetime, Greg would have died a fat, wealthy, blessed man.

RDGK: And while he never got the grand awards, prizes, or grants he deserved, his impact was enormous. Not just here but around the world.

 

BM: That’s right. Greg Tate’s work, less him as a person, was foundational to this generation. His work always strove to connect the dots for communities involved in radical cultural work, antecedents and futurists alike. To be specific: Greg Tate was the Black Injun Engine of the entire culture, and much as he had a Prince-like output, it was simply too much on one man—and I told him so. But we cannot honestly think of the United States, or what I prefer to think of as Global Negro Cities, of the last thirty-five years without thinking of the invisible hand of Greg Tate.

We cannot honestly think of the United States, or what I prefer to think of as Global Negro Cities, of the last thirty-five years without thinking of the invisible hand of Greg Tate.

While I cannot gauge his impact, mainly because the United States is not in the business of loving “X”-ceptional folks without over-hyping them as an act of devaluing their worth (if you are the best of everything to all, chances are you are nothing to everyone), I can speak to his legacy. To riff on Baraka, when I truly think of Greg Tate’s legacy on the culture, I think of his impact specifically on the twenty-five to fifty year old demographic—which is the generation reared on Hip Hop and House; on David Chappelle and not Richard Pryor; on the East Coast-West Coast beef and not Miriam Makeba’s bi-coastal Black Love; on 50 Cents’ “hustler’s-lit” rather than John Henrik Clarke’s African exultations; a generation coming up exulting Doja Cat’s subversive Zulu ass rather than Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; raised on Kendrick Lamar’s BLM’ed “Alright” and not Mahalia Jackson’s March on Washington’s recording; on Jet Lee as opposed to Bruce Lee. His work sculpted and fine-tuned a generation that will dance to South African house genius’ “Jerusalema” and never arrive at the bridge, nor chorus of “L’Internationale,” nor care about the Palestinians except as cause celebre.

Tate knew damn well that he had a cultural, generational even, responsibility to expand the scope of Black anxiety and self-forgiveness for a generation raised on drive-thru romance and drive-by assassinations in the name of Hip Hop economic patriarchy, instead of a pride in long family drives to pray and care, in communion with the weak and sick community members in the hinterlands, beyond the metropolis. Lest we forget, in his first band, Women In Love, he declared his inner lesbianism to a generation of feminist writing festooned with take downs on Fela Kuti without pausing to explore the influence of Sandra Isadore on him, or Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, Maoist socialism on him. It is not an uneducated generation. Nor is it fundamentally at fault for missing generational links.

 

RDGK: Greg didn’t really have exclusive political affiliations, much like James Baldwin, but he was undeniably politically-oriented. If anything, he was his mother’s child—his mother being the indefatigable Florence Tate—a committed big tent Black nationalist of sorts, who loved Black people without apology but not without criticism. You, who lived through late apartheid and the putative post-apartheid era, who could audaciously signify on Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and tell the unvarnished truth about neoliberal South Africa—how did you process Greg’s writing? How did you understand his politics?

 

BM: As a thinker, he was far more generous and expansive than hordes of his Black radical fans can ever contend with. His brand of Black Consciousness, which he reconfigured as “Afro-Cult-Nationalism,” was wide and a work-in-progress. It reverberated with complex and receptive humanity, not unlike Steve Biko’s conception of Black Consciousness as the quest for true humanity, rather than a reverse pigmentocracy of the self-righteous and the damned. Greg held no single template for Black radical cultural work, but his was never the sort of divvying-up of skin color Blackness that take shelter in refuseniks and recusal politics, ideological outlaws dancing to the theoretical drums of Social Death. He knew the United States and the Colonial world at large, chose to see us as nothing but chattel slaves. He was never, for a minute, amnesiac about that. And yet, he believed that Black and Brown Culture, Negro culture, continental African, Afro-Latinx, and Asiatic African culture, our being, our becoming, ubukho bethu , and our arts provided powerful, counter-existence life: resistance as love, love as resistance, art for heart’s sake at home with art as a the axis around which Black Genius, with its project toward the will to live, or die so others can live, defied and never deified death.

Simply, Greg Tate was invested in us and our life. He believed life existed beyond the flesh’s time span on this and other planets. In that way, although Greg’s work was mainly mind-centered and generated, as opposed to cheap romanticism, it brought its own electric intimacy. A perfect example of it is his narrative piece on Jimi Hendrix in the American Legacy magazine’s Summer issue.

Greg held no single template for Black radical cultural work, but his was never the sort of divvying-up of skin color Blackness that take shelter in refuseniks and recusal politics, ideological outlaws dancing to the theoretical drums of Social Death.

He was never Baldwin, never Toni, and more sintax-tically psychedelic than Baraka. This is not to say he was a better or worse writer than them. We are not invested in Olympian hierarchies in our engagement with our Ancestral realms, of which Tate would need no hanging out at or cooling off in purgatory to enter. For he is already there:

With us /

And us with him /

With them /

Them Is Us /

 

RDGK: How did you come to Greg’s writing?

 

BM: Before the internet as we know it altered the media landscape and distribution economy. We really never accessed the Village Voice here in South Africa. Not even at the U.S. Aid libraries on President Street in Johannesburg or Ipelegeng Centre in Soweto. As a street autodidact, however, I grabbed the first copy of Vibe directly from the ferry at the inner city’s exclusive import magazines shop named Estoril. The very first issue, the market teaser, before the official Issue One. I never missed a copy from then until about 2005 when I saw no point in it anymore. Greg Tate’s Black Consciousness voice, with a playful, punk-rupture lilt, was like a permanent Oracular presence in the magazine’s first full decade.

The close reading started in earnest with visiting African American sisters—scholars and cultural exchange visitors to Johannesburg. I remember their names well. We were all young and beautiful. There was Yvonne Bynoe and her deputy editor at the journal Doula, which carried brilliant Hip Hop scholarship not produced in New York. Meeting them was a big deal for me. On the first day they came by my place, I played Prince and some Congolese stuff, and they said I reminded them of Greg’s thinking.

By then I was familiar with some of Greg’s work, but did not yey truly appreciate or see what they saw. A few years later a sister, Sharon “Xoshito” Washington, who was a PhD candidate on a Fulbright in South Africa, arrived in town and we had dinner at this Yeoville joint, Times Square. That’s where Johannesburg’s fastest talking and beautifying minds, stargazers, starfuckers, returned ANC exiles, poets, jazz players and journalists hung out and engaged in expensive crud (Fela).The following day she stepped back and we spent a whole day playing Prince, Coltrane, Johnny Dyani. I was besotted with Cassandra Wilson then.

She had an album, “New Moon Daughter,” in which she referenced Clarksdale. I basically used her cover of Neill Young’s “Harvest Moon” as my meditational chant. Cass and Flora Purim were no one’s muses, but the twin spirit angels my “chi” would be incomplete without. “You worship these women, you truly remind me of Greg Tate. And even your way of thinking. The writing is not the same. But the spirit is so similar.” Next time I saw her, she had already introduced Greg and I via Hotmail or Yahoo.

I was familiar with Greg’s writing before we were introduced. At first I was not a fan. Even from South Africa, we felt young Black America was tricked into a tragic fratricide embodied by the East Coast vs. West Coast beef that was not benefiting anyone from the Black working-class, but the corporate media that fed off the streets ingenuity and confused masculinities.

We also felt that that fierce competitive spirit sipped into the soul of readers. Suddenly you had to choose between Kevin Powell and Greg Tate, or Joan Morgan or dream hampton, or whoever. Even when they wrote for the same titles.

Heady times: it was exciting, stupid, and ballsy—and it whipped up energy. That’s just how Hip Hop culture and everything it represented affected us all in the late 1990s. But my favorite magazine writers then were Bönz Malone “The Concierge,” and Cheo Hodari Coker. Still, there was something Kevin and Greg did that almost no other magazine writer in the United States was able to do. Kevin brought so much soul, almost community kind of old school church vibes, permanent anxiety over lost or absent fatherhood, as well as some kind of campus style Black arrogance which was terribly charming.

I can say this now: I suspect Kanye West grew up locked in his room reading Kevin Powell, out there in Chicago’s suburbs. Kevin was Tupac’s more educated, refined, and filtered voice out there.

But Greg had something his fellow magazine writers did not possess: a frenzied, kind of avant-garde, bebop energy that, to me, evoked African witchdoctors’ initiation rites. Coming from a family of priests and healing graduates who never practiced as medicine women, his writing made far more sense to me.

I was already in weekly conversations with Amiri Baraka and got along pretty well with Saul Williams. In Greg, I noticed a fellow spirit traveler, meaning I slowly got around to what those Black Magic sisters from the United States had seen prior. I still felt his writing and word play was a bit too much—one comma wrong and the whole edifice, architecture, and song he was singing on the page would simply collapse. I also thought reading him was exhausting. So I learned to pick and choose what I read from him.

 

RDGK: You have your own unique voice as a writer, but you share with Greg an omnivorous approach to culture. You partake in everything, delving in music, film, literature, visual art, fashion, the culture of celebrity, swallowing some things, spitting out others. You don’t hold your tongue and aren’t afraid to say the unpopular. Tate’s life was too short, but his writing spanned four decades. What were some of your favorite pieces, or at least the ones that moved you?

 

BM: Everyone has their favorite Greg Tate, and Greg Tate phase. Everyone agrees 1987 to 1997 Greg Tate of Flyboy (1) is the illest. I feel them. But for me, the only pieces I believe will last as long as this world exists, from that era from the book, are the trilogy he wrote on Miles: “The Electric Miles (Parts I and II),” and “Silence, Exile, and Cunning: Miles Davis in Memoriam,” and “Nobody Loves the Radiant Child.” Everything else is cool, but cool is not always of literary merit.

I also felt 1990s Greg was writing for the head and not the heart. I’m aware I’m making these damn bold claims, and who the hell am I? It’s also possible that the man had long bolted out of this world and began communicating in extra-terrestrial dialect that only the deepest cats could understand.

But there was light at the end of his overly elaborate prose. It filtered into my reading “maturity”; that sense of responsibility and duty that every stretched reader is challenged to bring into text, or any artform. For me it occurred around 1998. I’d been reading Greg for at least seven years. Then I encountered a piece of his in a Vibe issue that had Mary J. Blige on its cover. The cover dripped with beguiling reds: ruby reds, red tresses, extensions.

Greg had a piece on Carlos Santana, in which our Mex-Tex-Aztec electric Blues brother said to the scribe: “I don’t play jazz, or Rock, or Blues. What I play is African Music. Period.” That night I wept warm tears. That’s the piece that turned me around to not just read Greg Tate but engage in a spirit dance with his work and the people he loved and wrote about.

Although he was of an older generation, the parallels were already in place. We were both deeply influenced by Baraka, immersed in rock. Greg was immersed in punk culture, Bowie, the whole CBGB scene, funk’s futurism, which to me felt like long-form Baptist gospel played by classically-trained punk musicians. I, on the other hand, was romantically beholden to psychedelia, Goth, and heavy metal.

To me, that sound that was embedded with aquatic secrets—that Greg, Kodwo (Eshun), Charlie Dark, Knox (Robinson), Lynee (Denise), and other like-spirited souls listened to across the Black Oceana—sounded like Free Jazz. Ancient African rituals filtered through Western electrical technology: what Hugh Masekela referred to as “Techno Bush.” Louis Jordan reminded us pithily, “We arrived here (in the Americas), fully realised, our sounds and all.” Back then South Africa, just like in the 1930s through the 1960s, terribly lagged behind the rest of the world in new literature (books, journals, zines, art monographs, etc.) by a good three years. Films were behind by a good six months.

Around that time, I was also deeply touched by Larry Neal’s work, A.B Spellman’s, Albert Murray’s, and that of the “Noise Boys”—the popular rock critics of the 1960s and ‘70s, Richard Meltzer’s, Nick Tosches’s and Lester Bangs’s. I think Greg was also deeply touched by some of these folks, you can practically hear Lester trippin’ in Greg’s syntax. He did not readily claim roots in African voudun and other faith systems, but you could tell that if had he been born in the continent, or in the Caribbean, the brother would have been a Voodoo or Candomble high priest. Anyhow, the literary parallels were firmly in place even before we knew of each other. It’s safe to say that if Greg’s work had been just brilliant as it is, sans it’s inbuilt “African electricity,” I would have possibly nodded my head in recognition of a subversive wordsmith and moved on. Great art with no alchemy touches me alright, yet it never stirs my soul. Few writers achieve that chemistry with readers.

 

RDGK: You once told me you were especially drawn to Tate’s later writings or, as you put it in the language of Edward Said, his “late style.” These would have been the essays in Flyboy 2. Would you say more?

 

BM: Brother, I’m the first to admit that his essay “Cult-Nats Meets Freaky-Deke” (Decermber 9, 1986)—which I came across perhaps eight years after publication and which is anthologized in FlyBoy In the Buttermilk —was inarguably a seminal text. But “late style” Greg appealed to me more because of my own growing pains. A writer’s work grows in value or loses value based on a reader’s own life experience and intellectual development, always a work-in-progress. Therefore, as the 2000s rolled in, I read him closer, around the time I was also casting the literary net wider, a young writer in pursuit of his own voice. Which is to say, I also matured as a reader and was not easily bamboozled by verbal pyrotechnics.

As a reader, I felt that in his early to mid-forties, something in the writer Greg Tate emerged—slowly but surely. Greg slowly got rid of his late twenties love for post-structuralist and performative acrobatics and drew the reader into storytelling. Which could not have been easy for someone who had built a sizable chunk of work churning blindingly smart edicts from a futurist pulpit only you and your friends “got.”

Here, I beamed with a sense of curiosity and wonder as I began to read a Greg Tate who was invested in long narrative, structure, and story on its own and not only style as story. Pieces such as “Band in My Head,” “Hip Hop Turns 30.”

The man was in a lane all his own. Just a word artist militantly—and with that Ellingtonian pursuit to swing—committed to sing his song his way.

For me Greg Tate’s writing, thinking, feeling, dancing, and storytelling combined to solidify a truly serious writer into a pedagorgeous artist at his alchemic peak with these two pieces: An elegy for Michael Jackson in the Village Voice, “Man in Our Mirror,” and, a narrative study and monograph on his truest love, Jimi Hendrix. His truest love was not Miles. It was not King Sunny Ade—he never even wrote much about continental African music, film, literature. His truest love was not even James Brown, with whom he performed imaginary splits, oooo’d, aaah’d, and grunted with until he booked his beautiful ass into that heaven bound chariot—no, not him neither. His greatest love, outside of a son’s love for his mother or a father for his own offspring, was the ghost of Jimi Hendrix.

Which is to say, he loved eclectic Blackness, regardless of that phrase’s tautology. Jimi was Jean Michel, was Jimmy, Delaney, was the entire fragments of George Clinton, Toni Morrison, Andre 3000, Bootsy, Fela, and, perhaps, as Manthia Diawara once dared us to imagine of James Brown, the Dogon people’s long lost Crown Prince.

When his long form essay on Hendrix dropped, via The American Legacy magazine’s 2009 Summer cover story, I read all of it—all of the 15,000 worded alchemic love letter to his totemic alternegro, the Afro-Cherokee “blood.” I suspected Greg saw in Jimi not a Black Consciousness firebrand he tried to render in his book, Midnight Lighting, but as he did Jean-Michel Basquiat, a fellow Black outsider. It’s cast light is global, but the tent of profound Black outsiders (who suffered triply)—Jimi, Basquait, Kodwo Eshun, and other artists Greg not only loved but “felt” himself with, created with, alongside, and for—is quite small. It’s light incandescent. They suffer(ed) from anti-Black structural racism, Black ignorance, and, more painfully, cultural reclamation love from Blacks who still want you to belong to them only just because all our heroes have been desecrated on the altar on the U.S. conveyor belt of the higher-purchase heroes economy. Greg went on to write exceptional criticism on Gil Scott-Heron, reviews on Kanye’s “Pablo,” and much more brilliant writing. But those two pieces! Forget about me being Africa’s Greg Tate, even if you mean it with love. The man was in a lane all his own. Not better or worse than anyone. Just a word artist militantly—and with that Ellingtonian pursuit to swing—committed to sing his song his way.

 

RDGK: Those were exciting times, the early 2000s. I also remember being frustrated by some of the younger writers and students of mine who were singularly obsessed with Hip Hop. They tried their best to cop Tate’s style but ignored his scope. I mean, I always thought of Tate as a jazz head of the highest order. This was his foundation and my deepest connection to him. When I was the Louis Armstrong Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia (a position he would later hold), I taught a seminar on Thelonious Monk. This would have been 2001. Greg used to come to the class, with Arthur Jafa and others who were just part of a crew. And of course, Burnt Sugar was one of the great modern jazz big bands of the twenty-first century.

 

BM: Yes, he was a foundational figure of Hip Hop scholarship, no two ways about it. But our culture’s either-or single dimensionality (buttressed with this thing called “specialization,” even in our avowed multi-disciplinary age) continues to “shade” over Greg’s most intellectually cohesive music writing: jazz criticism. He was a hell of a reader of the avant-garde, as well as of punk rock. Personally, I would have loved to read Greg Tate’s reviews of Phillip Glass’s concerts, the Velvet Underground, of Lou Reed sonic assemblage with Metallica. I fantasized about how he would have heard and sang his literary songs about continental African music, without the safety valves of African American history, Dixieland, N’Awlinz, and all the familiar post-Middle Passage heritage.

Forgetting him is impossible. Greg Tate now fully inhabits our spiritual and intellectual blood streams.

However, knowing Greg, he would have said: But “bruh all music piping through the global stereo, or transistor radio post-1900 carried with it the Negro back beat,” or some Tate’esque on-your-toes riposte.

Jazz heads will talk of him on the same level as Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, Nat Hentoff, Val Wilmer, Gary Giddins, and Stanley Crouch. And they already are! At heart, beyond the ballast of words, the dictatorship of narrative, and his signature narrative acrobatics, if you knew Greg, you knew a deeply loving, soft, big bear who hid his shy inner core with ultra-geekiness and a creation of an English lingua franca all his own. I will never forget the midnight I met him on 125th west, on a break from the set with his Arkestral band of fellow night marauders.

I will also never forget the long silent walk in the direction of the mountain of the San and Khoi gods, Table Mountain, in Cape Town where we were both scheduled to speak at the literary festival, Open Book Fest. I will never forget the morning I left him at 3 a.m. in the company of Cameroonian and Nigerian musical and literary cuisine innovators in Cape Sea Point because, although fifteen years younger than he was, I simply could not keep up with his enlivened inner spirit, content to be at home with fellow seers.

Forgetting him is impossible. Greg Tate now fully inhabits our spiritual and intellectual blood streams. Greg Tate now inhabits the realm of the gods.