The Black Jesus of post-structuralism

I first encountered Greg Tate’s writing at the De Lauer’s 24-hour newsstand in downtown Oakland in the early 1980s. I could stand down there at all hours of the night and just read periodicals from all over the world. On one of my late night sojourns to De Lauer’s I picked up a Village Voice with an article by Tate titled “Cecil Taylor’s monster movie”. I was trippin’ because I had started listening intently to Taylor’s music at that time and all of my LPs of his performances were solo recordings. Silent Tongues, Air Above Mountains, Indent and, significantly, Garden, which was the album that Tate intended to review in that essay. 

My intent was to learn a little more about Taylor, but the revelation that night was discovering Tate’s groundbreaking Black meta-poiesis. He had this hypertextual, polyglot knowledge of Black ontology that enabled him to open up our understanding of cultural phenomena, aesthetics, art, visual culture and the politics surrounding them like a time-lapsed film of a blooming flower. That is what I experienced while holding the Village Voice in my hands that night. 

By that time I had experienced music and art that so completely realigned the ways that I thought about a given artistic discipline that they made me say to myself, “I didn’t know that you could do that when creating a _________” (fill in the blank).  Examples of that type of critical-lens-altering art for me up to that early ’80s moment were Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Ntozake Shange’s choreopoems and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. But I hadn’t experienced someone who could explain Black aesthetics by playing music in my mind like a DJ while pulling citations from every Black cultural expression that I could think of — and a few that I couldn’t. 

Cecil Taylor, Garden

In “Cecil Taylor’s monster movie”, Tate analogises the movements in Taylor’s solo piano performances to scenes in a monster movie. But the revelatory masterstroke comes when Tate quotes a line uttered by the formerly enslaved android replicant in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner and additionally describes him by using the paraphrased line (or literary echo) of dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s song Fite dem Back to give us a better understanding of Taylor’s music. 

Dig Tate here: “What this monster be saying can be as frightening or as fascinating as that scene in Blade Runner where the replicant tells his manufacturer, “I want Life fucker!” before smashing his brains in like they ain’t got nothin’ in ’em.” 

The last part of the sentence references LKJ’s lyric retort to British white supremacists, “We gonna smash their brains in/ Cause they ain’t got nuffin in ’em.”

This is just one demonstration of how Tate could use words to play music in our heads. I was stunned by his brilliance and bought the Village Voice solely for that essay. The Voice can credit every subsequent purchase that I made of the publication to me chasing after the first dopamine hit I got from reading that Tate essay in ’83. 

But it wasn’t just Tate’s brilliance that made me cop that Village Voice. In that moment I had experienced something that made the notion of code switching seem flat by comparison to what he was doing. I felt a paradigm shift in what he was doing. A code shift. 

Florence and Greg Tate at a party in the1970s. (Courtesy of the Tate family, photographer unknown)

When I eventually learned that Tate was predominantly self-taught, his stint at Howard notwithstanding, it made his myth grow larger for me. He would sometimes describe himself as a guerilla scholar. I imagined him as a cat that ran up in massa’s house (the academy), stole as much as he could, and went back into the maroon fields to redistribute it with the appropriately hacked Afrifuturist modifications for the new terrain.

Tate would later describe this skill in Black folks as “maroon fugitivity.” If the quality of Miles’s playing can be described as being like a man walking on eggshells, then Tate was the Black Jesus of post-structuralist critical theory, walkin’ on the water and not gettin’ wet. He took what is normally considered Eurocentric critical theory and mix-mastered it with Black common language so seamlessly that we couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. 

Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectual notion doesn’t quite seem to capture the death-defying tricksterism needed to make folks with doctorates quote the brotha without the doctorate as their primary source. I feel brer Tate winking at us from that other realm now.

One has to be acutely self-aware, hyperconscious and profoundly attuned to Black existence in all of its both beautiful and misshapen forms to write in a way that can recalibrate the gaze of fellow Black critical thinkers and culture workers the way that Tate did. In other words, he was profoundly alive! Which is why when I first heard that Greg had died I said angrily that, “It must be a lie! No one is more alive than Greg Tate!” What I said is true whether I can talk to him about it now or not. No one is more alive than Greg Tate. 

My first conversations with him began in 2007 when I was in a programme for a graduate degree in visual and critical studies. Greg agreed to be an official adviser on my graduate thesis and as a result, in 2009, he invited me to New York to show work in an art show that he had curated called Negritude. I brought with me a series that I call Minkisi @ 33/3, so when he inscribed my copy of Flyboy in the Buttermilk over coffee in Harlem with the words “thanks for bringing the medicine to Negritude” it felt better than getting my degree. 

Greg Tate’s seminal collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America

In our critical writing my post-1980s generation all tried to sound like Greg in one way or another. I’m tryna do it right now but I am merely Sonny Stitt to his Charlie Parker. Everybody ends up being Sonny Stitt to his Charlie Parker. That’s not a put down on Stitt or people who confess to being influenced that much by Tate, because anyone who’s heard Stitt knows that he’s one of the greatest alto players to ever lay hands on the instrument. My point is that the architecture that Stitt works within is Bird’s. 

That’s the way that I feel about post-post-modern Black writing after Tate. His writing style was so seductive that it made us want to make insightful music on the page the way that he did. We wanna not just articulate a good critique but, in true Black style, sound good while doing it. 

His writing was so powerful that even when I didn’t agree with his take on a topic, his insights were stated with such hip eloquence that it still drew me in to it on the strength of its literary value alone. I would sometimes read one of his brilliant essays and say to myself, “I didn’t agree with everything he said, but Ogun as my witness in Ironman I enjoyed reading that piece.” I can remember reading his review of Jay-Z’s album 4:44 and saying that Tate’s review of Jay-Z’s album is better than Jay-Z’s album. 

Jay-Z, 4:44

He had cultivated skillz not just in the realm of Black hermeneutics (what he called “hip-hop semiotics”), but as a musician, bandleader, curator and educator. After co-founding the Black Rock Coalition, he organised the band Burnt Sugar, which recorded jazz trumpeter and composer Lawrence “Butch” Morris. Tate’s role with the Burnt Sugar Orchestra after Morris’s death in 2013 was as the keeper and primary proponent of Butch Morris’s improvisation technique, known as conduction. 

Conduction is a series of hand signs and baton signals that reimagined the European classical music conductor’s technique as prompts that access the dynamics of jazz improvisation. 

In 2010 Tate visited the Bay Area to participate in conceptual artist Renée Green’s exhibition Endless Dreams and Time-Based Streams at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. When he got to the Bay Area he rang me, we connected and I relished the chance to tour him around my beloved Oakland (West Oakland in particular), while engaging in conversation about everything from Miles to the Panthers. 

While in Oakland, one of the places that I took him to was an instrument shop on 17th and Broadway so that he could pick up a baton for his conduction workshop at the Yerba Buena Center that afternoon. The workshop was a rehearsal of sorts for a performance inspired by Green’s work, in which Tate would use conduction to prompt participants without instruments who read Green’s texts and made sounds with their bodies and voices. He adapted the conduction theory to work with expressive sound that didn’t require musical instruments. I participated in the workshop and, with that memory in mind, I imagine Tate now being in some other realm with Butch Morris cueing spirits into even higher modes of self-expression and self-awareness. 

Greg Tate’s legacy is that he will now and forever be that egun conduction DJ (Divine Jazzticulator) playing his word music in our minds when we read his work. Before joining the honoured ancestors he was fully aware of how his writing would work like “tool kits” for those of us endeavouring to inscribe a deeper understanding of Black aesthetics and its utterly pervasive global presence. 

Early Tatian poiesis could read like a manifesto in one sentence: “Bird flew Miles to Trane who Jimi’d the Mothership exit/ us exodus movement of Jah people to juju music blues dance raid/ revue don’t say the baby isn’t yours Michael row the boat ashore/ else the message will get stuck in that little red corvette.” 

Greg Tate pictured with his father in the 1980s. (Courtesy of the Tate family, photographer unknown)

All of that jumped out at us in his first cover story for the Village Voice about Nigerian Yoruba juju music icon King Sunny Ade’s first American tour. Spend a moment or two contemplating how many ideas Tate’s word music has dancing in your head with that one sentence. And after that, consider that among the unpublished projects that we’ve heard about over the years are his science fiction novel (an excerpt titled “Pangborn” was published in the Bronx Biannual in 2006), his biography on James Brown and writings on radical Black 19th century visionaries. We haven’t seen all of the tech in Ironman’s tool kit yet. Ferramentas de Ogun indeed.

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