I am reluctant to go on social media these days, not only because it is a colossal time suck and distraction, but because I do not wish to be bombarded with the onslaught of death announcements. It’s hard enough to take amid the myriad madness we live under—and in the grips of a global pandemic, at that—with some of the most corrupt and deliberately dumb mofos on the planet, but to be reminded death at every turn, is too much to process while trying to maintain. While running errands, I saw a photo of Greg Tate pop up on my screen at a red light, from a post by poet-performer Carl Hancock Rux, and I literally told myself not to look at it until I got home.
I knew what it was going to be about. Instead of it being about Greg getting some sort of long-overdue award or recognition, it inevitably was an announcement of his shocking and untimely passing at 63. This really made me angry. I couldn’t believe the news. Someone so young whose mother passed not too long ago, and with a book about her fascinating revolutionary life having just dropped, while his own latest book on James Brown, etc., was yet to pub, is overwhelmingly hurtful for my generation of writers who ran in similar circles and who had the utmost respect for Greg Tate’s intellect, imagination and integrity.
Someone so full of life who left Howard University for Harlem and the Village Voice only to create a new form of Black cultural and literary criticism, so much so that he is being hailed as the Godfather of Hip-Hop journalism, which is what some of what he wrote before there was such a coinage.
Tate was part of that Village Voice that has given us the late great Joe Wood (who disappeared over 20 years ago while bird watching in Mt. Rainier), Nelson George, Trey Ellis, Joan Morgan, dream hampton, Colson Whitehead, Ed Morales, and so many others (under the editorship of the great Thulani Davis) who he helped put on. Tate helped to invent a new style and language to critique the culture and push for the relevancy of a global Blackness. While writing a column for 20 years, he published several books, as essayist, editor and critic. He proved to many that you did not have to have a graduate degree to be a writer and thinker, to be an organic intellectual, as Antonio Gramsci would put it. Teaching himself to play guitar as a teen, Tate went on to form the band Burnt Sugar, which featured so many musicians and poets, including MeShell Ndgeocello. He also cofounded the Black Rock Coalition, and became a continual presence in print, on panels, on social media. Ironically, it was a panel that I was on with him at the Adam Clayton Powell State Office building where I met the poet Kamilah Aisha Moon, who we lost a few months ago this year.
Ironic also, I remember a little soirée in the East Village where Tate, myself, Saul Williams, and Craig “Mums” Grant (who also passed unexpectedly this year) were huddled up in a discourse. The last time I saw Tate in person was in Newark, after Baraka’s wake, where he and I and Latasha Natasha Diggs and Jessica Care Moore, among others, broke bread, and afterwards went to the hotel Tate’s parents’ room to meet and hang with them as they were resting up for Baraka’s funeral. A few years back, as I was preparing my graphic novel for publication, I reached out to Tate to see if Ava Duvernay would provide an intro for the book. Without question, he went out of his way to do me that solid. That was the kind of generous spirit he was to everyone. I remember back in the day when his play was featured in the Village (I want to say it was at the Kitchen, but I could be wrong). It was clearly a very surrealistic, Afrofuturistic production, for Tate was always on the cutting edge, with his critical essays, his other prose, his theater pieces and his music.
These tributes I do not love writing, particularly for those who leave us too soon. But Greg Tate has left us with so much. So much to ponder, so much to cherish, regarding his unique Black intellectual take on the world. I suspect we will be dipping into the deep well of his imaginings for years and years to come. He ran in so many different circles he will certainly be celebrated widely, for many are hurting right now.
We just never know when that bell is about to toll. When our ticket is up. But know that all those cultural, musical, literary and revolutionary giants in the tradition who have left this material plain will be proudly receiving the endless glow-up of the lifeforce that is Greg Tate, for he was a brother who lived life to the fullest with a myriad of interests; and always, all ways, dedicated to the struggle. Greg Tate as Ancestor.