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Greg Tate showed me what being a writer in America could mean

A 2013 portrait of journalist and jazz musician Greg Tate in Harlem. (Janette Beckman/Getty Images)

You do not have to be famous or a best-selling or award-winning writer to influence multiple generations of singers, rappers, musicians, filmmakers, journalists, cultural critics, visual artists, public intellectuals, poets, dancers, DJs, novelists, playwrights, politicians, community activists and multimedia content creators of all colors and identities.

You just have to be Greg Tate, arguably the best American writer and thinker of the past 40 years, easily one of the greatest wordsmiths we’ve ever been blessed to have.

This is why I pushed my phone away in horror when I received a text on Tuesday from my former Vibe magazine editor Rob Kenner that read, “Greg Tate R.I.P.” This is why I hyperventilated and cried in disbelief on the phone with Joan Morgan, a fellow writer, when she confirmed it was true: Greg Tate had died, at age 64.

I had seen Greg a month ago, at a crowded and very lit New York City art opening for Radcliffe Bailey. He greeted me as he always did, with a from-the-gut-up shout of “KP!” He was wearing a mask, a trademark hat and a variety of colorful fabrics wrapped around his plump frame like the sacred garments worn by a priest. And he was there by himself, as he often was, lurking on the edges of the event, shy in a crowd despite his warmth with those he knew. Sometimes his eyes met yours, sometimes they did not.

We spoke about the new autobiography of his late mother, civil rights pioneer Florence Tate, and the possibility of my interviewing him for my forthcoming biography of Tupac Shakur. Greg is widely considered one of the godfathers of hip-hop journalism, among many other accolades, because of his prolific coverage of the culture from the early 1980s forward, just as rap was becoming a cultural juggernaut. We agreed I would email him to arrange that interview. I never got to send that email.

I cannot recall when I first met Greg Tate or how or where, but I do know as a ridiculously young writer in the late 1980s I found my way to the pages of the Village Voice, and to his byline. The first piece I read was Tate on the legendary painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, in 1989. It was titled “Nobody Loves a Genius Child,” in a nod to a poem by Langston Hughes.

“The ones who keep up the good fight with a scintilla of sanity,” Greg wrote, “are the ones who know how to beat the devil out of a dollar while maintaining a Black agenda and to keep an ear out for the next dope house party set to go down in Brooklyn, Sugar Hill, or the Boogie Down Bronx.”

His words were hypnotic, and they lit my brain like a fuse. Greg was writing, with unparalleled honesty, about the perils and pitfalls of fame and its toll on the Black mind and the Black body. He was also showing me the possibilities of what a writer could do and be: poet, cultural curator, memory-keeper, visionary and unapologetic truth-teller for the people.

From then on, I digested everything Greg Tate penned, including his earlier work, and to this day I thumb through his writings for inspiration. When I was a cast member on the very first season of MTV’s “The Real World” in 1992, in my hands was Greg Tate’s first book and collection of essays, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” during one of the many heated arguments about race and racism.

He wrote powerfully not just about race but also sexism, about homophobia, about anti-Semitism, about hate in all forms. I mean it was mad bold for Tate to take on Public Enemy and its landmark album “It Takes a Nation of Millions,” regarded by many as the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of hip-hop.

“PE wants to reconvene the black power movement with hiphop as the medium,” Greg wrote. “From the albums and interviews, the program involves rabble-rousing rage, radical aesthetics, and bootstrap capitalism, as well as a revival of the old movement’s less than humane tendencies: revolutionary suicide, misogyny, gaybashing, Jew-baiting, and the castigation of the white man as a genetic miscreant, or per Elijah Muhammad’s infamous myth of Yacub, a ‘grafted devil.’ ”

Never have I read a man, other than James Baldwin, who was so unafraid to challenge both White and Black America and the messy madness of race in this country. Other than “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” never have I read work by a man, any man, who not only made me think new ideas but who made me feel transformed, like my very life had been saved. As someone raised by a single mother, I hungered for new definitions of manhood, and Greg was giving it to me without my even realizing it.

That is why I am mourning the loss of this hugely influential writer who moved from his native Ohio to Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s, who grew up on everything from Motown, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to D.C. go-go, early punk and hip-hop, and comic books and science fiction, too, cementing his stature as a game-changing ink-slinger with his uncanny gift to turn a missive about an album, a film, a scene, about anything, into a master class on the craft of being a writer steeped in the improvisational traditions of Negro spirituals, jazz, and a Black mama singing alone in her bedroom.

Because Greg Tate was brave, free and unapologetically Black. Because Greg was hip, hip-hop and a hippie; and Greg was American-made in every sense of the phrase, like his artistic heroes Miles Davis and Amiri Baraka, like all Black music, which is undoubtedly American music.

For sure, his words could reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard, because Greg blurred and burned class lines every chance he got. For sure, he was one of the many Black men sitting on sagging milk crates on a street corner in Anywhere America, woke to the daily news and woke to the ways of his ’hood, and able to flip that wisdom into observations and wordplay as genius as Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Joni Mitchell, Smokey Robinson, Nikki Giovanni or Bob Dylan.

That is why he mattered even in his final years, be it his work as a musician with his funk fusion band Burnt Sugar, his nearly 40 years with the Black Rock Coalition, of which he was a co-founder, or his insights into Kendrick Lamar.

Because Greg Tate never stopped creating and fighting, because he never stopped dreaming, in the form of words strung together like a Pablo Neruda poem, of love, of his vision for a future he will not get to see himself.

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, filmmaker, and author or editor of 14 books. He is working on a biography of Tupac Shakur.