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Remembering Greg Tate, a culture critic who focused on Black music and art

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Greg Tate, an influential writer and critic focusing on Black music and art whose work appeared in the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, died December 7 in New York City. He was 64.

Tate made an impact on New York's cultural scene in the 1980s after graduating from Howard University at a time when the city was full of aspiring rap artists and writers, disco DJs and punk rockers. Clay Risen of The New York Times wrote that Tate's tastes varied widely, as did his style. His whirlwind sentences might string together a pop culture, French literary theory and the latest slang. Besides his writing, Tate played guitar and formed a band called Burnt Sugar and the Arkestra Chamber (ph). And with guitarist Vernon Reid, he formed the Black Rock Coalition to promote Black musicians.

Terry spoke to Greg Tate in 1992, when he'd published a collection of essays titled "Flyboy In The Buttermilk."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: One of the forms of music you've written a lot about is rap. And there's a lot of the music that you really like a lot. On the other hand, you are - you take issue with a lot of the points of view in the rock records. You once described Public Enemy as having a whack retarded philosophy they espouse. What kinds of dilemmas does rap music present for you?

GREG TATE: Well, I don't know that rap presents any more of a dilemma to me than any other form of music or any other form of argument. I think that one of the things that rap or hip-hop isn't given enough credit for is the way - the spaces it opens for, you know, I think, serious intellectual discussion around a lot of issues that are shrouded in silence in society - and particularly in an African American society, particularly issues around sexuality and gender and also oppositional politics and also the experience of working-class Black people and poor Black people, people on the lower economic rung of the society. It - and that's - you know, and that's part of what hip-hop does. I think hip-hop is a venue for debate more than anything else, you know, and for argument and counterargument.

GROSS: Let me read an excerpt from your essay "The Devil Made 'Em Do It: Public Enemy" (ph). You write, (reading) to know Public Enemy is to love the agitprop and artful noise and to worry over the whack retarded philosophy they espouse, like the Black woman has always been kept up by the white male because the white male has always wanted the Black woman, like gays aren't doing what's needed to build the Black nation, like white people are actually monkey's uncles because that's who they mated with in the Caucasian hills, like if the Palestinians took up arms, when into Israel and killed all the Jews, it'd be all right. From this idiot blather, Public Enemy is obviously making it up as they go along. Since PE shows sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the U.S. power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women and Jews isn't going to set Black people free.

You got a reaction from Public Enemy to this piece.

TATE: Well, I got a reaction from Chuck D at a concert they did the week after it came out, where - it was kind of funny 'cause I wasn't even in town. I was in Greece at an African and reggae music festival I'd been invited to for a weekend. But I heard that, you know, I was referred to as a Village Voice porch [expletive] by Chuck in response to that in that piece. But we've since made peace. You know, he actually apologized to me for saying that.

GROSS: I think he apologized to you while you were interviewing him for a piece in the Village Voice.

TATE: Right.

GROSS: And in that piece, you were doing the interview along with Robert Christgau, who was the former music editor of the Voice.

TATE: Right.

GROSS: And you were both really trying to, among other things, talk to Chuck D of Public Enemy about gay-bashing and...

TATE: Yeah, homophobia.

GROSS: Homophobia, yeah. And I don't think you were really getting through very far.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What did you think? I mean, what was your approach to trying to talk with him about that?

TATE: To recognize the, you know, humanity of people who are gay...

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

TATE: ...You know? And I think he acknowledged it without ever acknowledging that he would ever be comfortable with it, you know? I think he - you know, he was able to acknowledge it in theory, but I don't think in practice, you know?

GROSS: You know...

TATE: (Unintelligible) That was the case.

GROSS: Some people are just totally threatened by rap music altogether and can't deal with it. Some people just, you know, love the message, love the music. And some people - and I think you're probably in this category - really love a lot about it, but feel that they have to speak out about parts that they find really offensive, like the misogyny.

TATE: Well, certainly. I mean - and the - I think that because so many people are so terrified of who makes rap music and, to a certain extent, who consumes it and who they believe is influenced by it, that they lose sight of the fact that what makes it so powerful is courageous utterance. You know, I'm not saying wise, always wise, always profound, always insightful utterance, but it is about a personal truth.

And I think it's - I think that too often people are trying to - they're trying to deal with their fear of a Black planet - (laughter) as Public Enemy put it - through attacking the music or the messages in the music, you know, more than they're seeing that this is about one person who has an opinion, and he put it to a beat, and he gave it a good hook, and he delivered it in a style that, by the tenets of the music, it should be menacing and seductive.

GROSS: You mentioned in one of your essays that your mother was very active in civil rights groups and politically active as well. She was a press secretary for Jesse Jackson during one of his presidential campaigns, press secretary for Marion Barry during his first mayoral campaign. What kind of political values were stressed in the house when you were growing up?

TATE: Be Black (laughter), you know? It was - I mean, it was very interesting because my parents were doing - were activists. And it wasn't even like these things were stressed; they were just lived. I mean, you were just aware of the fact that your parents were involved in a historic struggle against racial injustice in America. And we read all the things that my parents read. You know, there was a consciousness in the house around securing information and the understanding that knowledge is power and that Black people needed knowledge to be empowered, to be able to participate in a fight against injustice in America...

GROSS: So education was really important.

TATE: But not overemphasized, you know? I really am trying to stress the fact that it was a - that these things were, in a real casual kind of way, part of the environment. The intensity of political struggle in Black America in the '60s and '70s was a very casual part of the environment. You know, it was just something you accepted as normal. I thought, you know, this is the way everybody lived. I thought everybody was - in my neighborhood was getting this kind of information from their parents, you know? That wasn't (laughter) - subsequently found that that wasn't the case. But...

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, I'm wondering what your mother's take has been about the kind of B-boy writing that you've done, you know, in the kinds of pieces where you use real B-boy kind of language, real hip-hop language. And...

TATE: Oh, my - you know, I have one of those mothers who's, like, the biggest fan of anything.

GROSS: Right (laughter).

TATE: The joke is - it was like, as long as it's said from the heart, as long as it's done with integrity and style, my mother's totally down with it.

GROSS: Did you ever feel like you were rebelling against your parents or against being part of the Black middle class in any way by writing in that kind of style or by, you know, having dreads?

TATE: No. No, not at all. I mean, you know, because like I said, my parents are what we call movement people. You know, they were always involved in the movement, so that meant they were always involved with younger Black people who were rebelling, you know, I mean, against their own parents or their upbringings. But my parents were totally open to the shape and form that the Black struggle took when younger Black people of another generation, you know, moved to the forefront of it.

And, you know, my mother's one of Public Enemy's biggest fans, you know? I mean, there was a period where I know she was playing "Nation Of Millions" every day. My father was getting sick of it, you know? It was like every morning, boom - bring the noise.

(LAUGHTER)

TATE: You know, and like me, she knows all the lyrics, you know, backwards and forwards. You know, it's like I say. I mean, if it's done with style and integrity, if it's pro Black, my mother's with it.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

TATE: It's been great. It's been a great interview. I really enjoyed myself.

DAVIES: Greg Tate speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1992. Tate died December 7. He was 64.

On Monday's show, actor Alan Cumming. His Tony Award-winning portrayal of the Emcee in the 1998 revival of the musical "Cabaret" made him famous. He also starred in the 2014 revival. He had roles in the TV series "The Good Wife" and in the musical series "Schmigadoon!" In his new memoir, "Baggage," he writes about the legacy of his abusive father, understanding his own sexuality and acting. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.