We who are alive know nothing of death. We know nothing of it except the experience of having met someone who has ascended to the spiritual, intangible realm. I assume that I am not alone in desiring that those we’ve known have left this life with grace, peace and honor.
A little over a year ago, my mentor and a friend, father, brother, uncle, colleague and outstanding Black American writer, Gregory Tate, died suddenly without a word and without warning. I was lucky enough to have exchanged a positive and brief message about hip hop with him—he was named “The Grandfather of Hip-Hop Journalism” a week before his passing. Nonetheless, it is regrettable that an invitation to speak at my class at the New School and a time to catch up about a month later all fell through, although I cannot imagine what those who had not been in contact in months or years may have felt after receiving the news.
I’d never thought of it before, but in writing the last passage, I thought of survivor’s guilt—a term that is typically reserved for those who have experienced intense tragedies, like being the only survivor in a plane crash or genocide. Logically, I shouldn’t be entertaining the term in this instance because I am so young, and my personal question is not “Why Greg and not me?” but rather more of a collective, broad question of “Why did it happen that way, without giving anyone a chance to truly say goodbye?” And “Why do those who have gotten whisked away in their own life’s circumstances have to feel guilt and pain for not reaching out sooner?” Life isn’t always fair, and the grief has been a slow process.
Nonetheless, it is my humble honor to revisit some of the works of Tate, one of the most important cultural critics of the 20th and 21st centuries. I would not be where I am in my life and career, I would not have been afforded many of the opportunities, or have some of the wisdom I have gleaned, without his mentorship, friendliness and paternal kindness. Rest in Power, Baba Tate.
FLYBOY, FULL CIRCLE
Flyboy in the Buttermilk (Simon & Schuster), 1992
The seminal, linguistically trailblazing debut collection of Tate’s, which compiled a breadth of essays and articles published between 1981 and 1990 by the Village Voice. The pages of “Flyboy in the Buttermilk” are full of the bombastic, tonally fused hip hop, beatnik and singular imaginative colonialism that rose from the world, according to Tate. His world, full of Afro-centric observations, humor, irony and acute honesty when tackling issues of racism, rap, jazz and socio-political issues. Today, “Flyboy” is read in universities and regarded as the foremost book on modern Black cultural criticism.
Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press), 2016
Nearly a quarter of a century after Tate’s first original literary triumph, “Flyboy 2” appeared to reveal what had become of the growth of the flourishing seeds its predecessor planted by presenting the equivalent of a cultural oak tree—storied, full of writing that spanned across decades and sharing the wisdom of Tate’s maturation as an essayist and thinker.
Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (Chicago Review Press), 2003
Tate pushed the boundaries of distinctive inquiry and commentary to explore the intricacies of Jimi Hendrix’s navigation of segregation and emergence into the predominately white psychedelic rock world, culture and lexicon.
Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History (Voyageur Press) | Contributor along with many others, 2012
Lending his pen alongside many leading jazz critics and musicians, Tate assists in telling Miles Davis’ life, aligned with vibrant illustrations that breathe new life into the jazz legend’s well-known history.
ART BIOGRAPHIES, EXHIBITION CATALOGS
Kerry James Marshall (Contemporary Artists Series) (Phaidon Press)| Written with Charles Gaines and Laurence Rassel, 2017
Tate writes an extensive historical biography of the Black contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall with co-authors artist Charles Gaines and Brussels-born feminist curator and artist Laurence Rassel.
Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story (Guggenheim) | Written with Chaédria LaBouvier, Nancy Spector and J. Faith Almiron, 2019
Writing to accompany an expansive exhibition inspired by Basquiat’s 1983 painting, “The Death of Michael Stewart (Defacement)” at the Guggenheim Museum in 2019, Tate helps describe the vastness and brilliance of Basquiat’s work and profound influence.
Writing the Future: Basquiat and the hip-hop generation (MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Art) | Written with MFA Liz Munsell, 2020
Tate and MFA curator Liz Munsell pen the catalog chronicling the story of how hip hop informed Basquiat’s art and complicated brief life in conjunction with the 2020 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Art Boston.