The recent loss of Greg Tate, who wrote seminal lyrical essays and reviews for The Village Voice, gives us an opportunity to assess the evolution of the genre he and a handful of other talented black writers transformed in the 1980s.
Tate, who died December 7 at the age of 64, did for black culture what Galileo did for the sun: he placed it at the center of the universe. Whether he was writing about film, literature, music, or pop culture, he made us a big idea to grapple with, not a decorative sign of blackness relegated to footnotes. And everything revolved around this center. His Voice columns were a masterclass in using an insatiable thirst for knowledge to nurture associations and connections no reader ever saw coming. (And that was before Google!)
It would be inappropriate to call Tate the dean of hip-hop criticism despite being one of its architects because Tate was not bound by genres. Even if you didn’t agree with his polemical stances, you had to do your homework before stepping in the ring and check out all of his sources if you were serious.
His death made me think of what he wrote about the death of Miles Davis in 1991:
“Announcing the death of Miles Davis seems more silly than sad. Something along the lines of saying you started the blues’ demise. . . Miles is one of those works of art, science and magic whose absence would have ripped out a piece of the zeitgeist big enough to sink a dwarf star in.”
It was this alchemy of poetry, vernacular, and cosmic consciousness that made him one of our great bards, on the same level as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka. It’s somewhat fitting that he didn’t die alone – that in this frigid month we saw not only Tate, but Bell Hooks, Sidney Poitier, and what felt like a phalanx of black excellence bringing him to this unknown land on the other side followed, mourned together .
It’s safe to say that entire careers would not have existed without Tate and a few of his colleagues. Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, says it was Tate at the Voice and Nelson George at Billboard magazine that taught him what cultural criticism was. “Because I had Greg and Nelson as models, I realized I could make a living from it and bring some of Greg’s with me [writing] style to the academy,” he said.
Writer and activist Kevin Powell calls Tate “one of my literary superheroes. As a young writer, I read it religiously. I loved Richard Wright and James Baldwin, but they were dead. Amiri Baraka was alive, but he was… an elder. Greg Tate was immediately approachable, approachable, younger, hip, cool…one of the things I learned from him is that you have to be a student of the world and incorporate it into your writing.”
Powell’s invocation of these other names reminds us that while Tate was a star – something I would never dispute – it made him important because he was part of a constellation in the firmament of black thought. Or, in literary terms, a tradition. Baraka was heavily influenced by WEB DuBois and black music. At readings he danced freestyle bebop between the poems. His classic lyric “Blues People” was – and still is – a blueprint for music critics.
Tate studied this blueprint; He knew that as our music changed, our material conditions changed—from work songs in the cotton fields to blues and R&B to rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop. Tate simply elevated the latest version of popular black music from a perceived nuisance to an art form.
It follows, of course, that the tradition persists that Tate was not the last star in the firmament. So many tributes have already claimed that there will never be another Greg Tate – another position I won’t dispute. But who is the new flag bearer; Who carries on their tradition of breaking traditions, refusing to tick the boxes and breaking out with something new?
I have a candidate. Hanif Abdurraqib, author of five books, two volumes of poetry and three books of non-fiction, is Greg Tate’s literary heir. Like Tate, Abdurraqib is a native Ohio native. Unlike Tate – and perhaps this is due to some incremental advances in the world – he is already gaining wider recognition; his 2021 pan-cultural book A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance was nominated for both a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. (The winners of the latter will be announced on Thursday.)
Abdurraqib’s poems and essays are notable for their masterful use of scenes and pauses. He’s never not his entire, vulnerable self on the side. Even in his author photos, you can see a black man in full possession of himself, rocking the choice of skateboarder attire. He’s unapologetically Midwestern, punk, emo. I can’t imagine his necessary voice without Greg Tate’s.
Abdurraqib’s 2019 book Go Ahead in the Rain showcases his mastery as a poet, spinning lyrical phrases like threads of gold. As a critic, he sees and contextualizes without sentimentality. In a beautiful paragraph concluding the first chapter, he weaves cultural and personal history with such style and emotion that one can only think of Tate:
“So this is the story of A Tribe Called Quest, mastering many arts but none greater than the Art of Resurrection,” he begins, documenting its explosive popularity, then panning on: “Here begins a story even before jazz.” Like all black stories in America, it begins first with what a people did to make up for their loss when faced with what they no longer had. With an open palm against a chest, or a closed fist against a washboard, or a voice echoing in a vast and oppressive sky, or an album full of tributes – here’s the story of how, even without our drums, we still find a way to talk to each other across any distance between us.”
I confess I became emotional reading these words, stung like a paper cut, as I felt pain just a moment after I finished reading.
However, Abdurraqib was just getting started. As a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, Editor at Tin House, and Writer-in-Residence at Butler University, he is well placed to carry on the tradition of DuBois, Baraka, and Tate essay by essay, student by student.
“Little Devil in America” is probably the most autobiographical of his books, weaving his life stories into meditations on dance. It seems an odd choice of subject at first, until the dance becomes both a thematic continuity and eventually a narrative form. What we get is a contemporary “Souls of Black Folk” that opens up into the black cultural multiverse. Abdurraqib deals with themes such as death and ritual; Aretha Franklin; black face; Whitney Houston; Black People in Space; Josephine Baker; spades; Beyonce; mike tyson He compiles his own playlist, a new cultural geography of the black experience.
And over time, his work will be another time capsule, another marker on the journey to whatever and whoever comes next. Abdurraqib’s closing line in “Go Ahead in the Rain” could very well conclude a play about Tate’s legacy and what Hanif is building.
“When the time comes for the generation after me to speak out about what’s real,” he writes, “they’ll pull out a Tribe CD worn out after ten years of use and maybe that of an older sibling.” . I hope they put it in a CD player and let the room carry away.”
Ali is a Baltimore-based poet and essayist.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-03-17/who-will-inherit-greg-tates-mantle-of-black-cultural-critic-in-chief-i-have-a-candidate Hanif Abdurraqib inherits the black critic tradition from Greg Tate