Though Greg Tate burst upon the literary scene writing about music at the Village Voice in the early '80s, his electric prose has since wandered far afield to include politics, literature, art, identity and gender, his creative flow as beautiful, free and improvisational as an Ornette Coleman solo. After I encountered his Fly Boy ways in the Voice as part of Robert Christgau's legendary stable of music writers, I became a fan, inspired by his prose, a musical tapestry full of jazz-like flurries, packed with ideas that mash critical theory and street smarts into a new argot.
Here's an example: "Like a lot of folk," writes Greg Tate, "I also knew the party, the hip-hop movement, was truly over when Puffy, a major talent scout, but no talent, got the nerve to get on the mic – and went platinum! This became the handwriting on the wall if only because it signified that Black Mediocrity was now as commercially viable in hip-hop as Black Genius, the same fate that had already befallen jazz and soul in the eighties." This is just one of the many thought-provoking comments found in Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, a collection of essays, journalism, commentaries and obituaries by one of America's foremost exponents of black cognition – "how black people 'think' mentally, emotionally, physically, cryptically" -- a term he uses to describe a way of looking into the prism of the black experience. There's lots to unpack in Tate's writing, challenging us to come along for the ride--if we're up to it.
His influence on the next generation of cultural critics is immense, intense and widely acknowledged. In "Why Greg Tate Matters" Michael A. Gonzales cites Sasha Jenkins, Joan Morgan, Scott Poulson Bryant, Toure, Danyel Smith, Michael Eric Dyson and many other contemporary commentators as Tate disciples. More recently, the New Yorker's Hua Hsu wrote eloquently on Tate's influence in a piece titled "The Critic Who Convinced Me That Criticism Could be Art." The esteemed critic and professor Henry Louis Gates once chimed in: "I often disagree with [Greg] Tate, but I seldom fail to learn something."
Jet-lagged from a trip to South Africa where he was on a lecture and book-signing tour, Tate is a bear of a man, friendly with the staff of Lenox Saphire, the Senegalese restaurant in Harlem where he likes to write and eat lunch. On his first trip to Africa, he "learned a lot," he says. "They're going through growing pains, creating a new nation, but there's a lot to be optimistic about. They think of moving through the world in a global sense and are still very committed to home. Their sense of the world is really broad."
Tate's love-hate relationship with pop culture whatever its hue, is the powerful presence in his thinking and writing that gives him the credibility he needs to both praise and condemn. In his introductory essay, Greg Tate admits to "Lust, of All Things Black," yet he doesn't let his predilection get in the way of his fine-honed critical sensibility. He can wax eloquent as well on a spectrum of non-race-specific subjects like Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Dylan and John Cage who also get a nod in Tate's world. In conversation, subjects easily jump from the East Village in the 80s to Jean-Michel Basquiat's outlier status in the art establishment to the emergence of a new jazz age emanating from the west coast.
Having moved to New York City in the late 80s, he naturally fell under the spell of downtown's mutant culture. "A lot of people of color were on the scene back then," he says, "because that's when the whole punk, hip hop, jazz thing all merged. I'm not one of those 'It was better in my time' kind of cats. But if you're between 22 and 27 years old, living in New York, and you can afford to pay the rent, you're really having a good time. The difference since then is the indelible impact young people made on culture in that time. I don't see that happening now."
Originally a "jazz head," Tate followed the writings of the Voice's Stanley Crouch, which led him to David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Lester Bowie, "our free jazz heroes." Though they fell out of favor among some critics, Tate's sympathies in the improvisational never lagged. His appetite for jazz is as ravenous as ever. "Jazz always needs young blood," he says. "It can easily fall into this creaking conservatism when people just want to hear older people listening to older music." The good news is that "jazz is coming back as live music," he says, "because some of the younger cats that came in modernized it, brought it closer to what's going on with contemporary hip hop and R&B. Jason Moran, Vijay Ayer, Robert Glasber, the West Coast guys [like] Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington. They made the idea of hearing long improvisations OK. They're not playing for the dance floor, they're playing for the aesthetic."
I've been entertaining a thought that in many ways our generation represents a period when the black aesthetic has come of age and into the forefront of contemporary thought. From writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Paul Beatty and Zadie Smith, to artists like David Hammonds and Kehinde Wiley, to musicians like Kanye or Kendrick Lamar, we seem to be living in a moment that reminds me of the days when the Jewish-American aesthetic of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Larry Rivers and many more modulated the conversation.
Does it help an artist to be part of an oppressed class? I ask. "To an extent. Like James Baldwin said, the artist's job is to disturb the peace," answers Tate. "And the trajectory for most successful white artists became to be assimilated into the status quo. They start out as rebels but become part of the firmament. Baldwin's still kind of on the outside of the literary establishment while his white peers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal became the cornerstone of literary history. The notion of free expression is going to be different for black folks and white folks in this society. Sexual liberation was a driving force for a lot of white radical artists in the 50s and 60s but then once they got over that hump they moved away from being actively engaged. If you're a Baldwin, your struggle is ongoing as a black man, gay man, black intellectual man, black anti-government man. There's that sense of always having to push against these boundaries and white supremacy in general. We're still fighting some of the same battles we've been fighting since the 60s."
Another case in point is the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. "The thing is that in America he's still an outlier, still not taken seriously. MoMA refused a free painting of his from two major collectors -- watch the film Radiant Child," says Tate. "Even though you've got paintings of his in Japan and Europe and collectors paying $30-$40 million, they still don't own a painting because he comes from the streets, [which] doesn't fit their modernist narrative. Who he represents demographically is still problematic in America. In the art world, he's still considered some bastard interloper that found his way in through the favor of European gallerists."
Tate is also a cultural activist. In the mid-80s, he and Vernon Reid, among others, founded the Black Rock Coalition, a collective formed to reclaim rock as a roots music with a legacy of black musicians that stretches back to Little Richard, Alvin Lee, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. To demonstrate the proposition – and to satisfy his own impulse to rock out – Tate's been fronting an improvisational rock band, Burnt Sugar since 1999. "There was a resistance just on a business level to blacks playing rock music. The face of rock being a skinny white guy with a guitar. The legitimate face. We banded together just to prove those folks wrong. We went about producing our own songs and concerts, creating our own little industry. In a lot of ways the Afropunk festival grew out of the Black Rock Coalition."
Tate moved to Harlem in the mid-80s and he's been here ever since. Though there's been significant gentrification in the neighborhood, he is not very worked up about the situation. "Best change is I got more choices of places to eat uptown," he says, "and there's lots more live music here now. All kinds of stuff, jazz, rock, folk, R&B, The Red Rooster, The Apollo, The Experimental Black Box Theater, The Schomburg, The Harlem Stage, live Reggae, jazz, Afro-beat, a hip bar scene going on."
Before there was Flyboy 2, there was Flyboy In the Butter Milk: Essays on Contemporary America. Together they make up as comprehensive a look at the major cultural players of the last 40 years as you are likely to find. His essays – whether about Miles Davis, Kara Walker, Ice Cube, Richard Pryor or Azealia Banks just to name a few – are not fast food but they do leave you hungry for more.