In person, Tate is soft-spoken and disarmingly shy, effortlessly shifting topics from Duchamp to Rammellzee, astrology, and his family. But as a writer, Tate has been, in his own words “all about the sound and the fury.” His criticism over the last four decades has advanced a distinct poetics and politics with a Tateian mix of bravado, sonic play, and masterful connections between experience, aesthetics, and cultural politics. Assessing his own position in African-American writing in Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (2016), Tate writes, “I have come to occupy a somewhat unique position in the constellation of African American writing by keeping one ear to the street, one ear to the academy, and a phantom third hearing organ to my own little artsy-fartsy corner of Gotham and Brooklyn’s Black bohemia.” Tate has called his essays “a little something of a tool kit” for the next generation, who “wants to take on all of Black Culture, Sexuality, Consciousness and Cognition, high and low, hood and hermeneutical.” Tate’s works include Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (2003), Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (2003), and Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992). He has also taught courses at Brown and Princeton, and is an avid musician.
In their talk about Black aesthetics, and what Jafa has termed “Black Cognition,” at the Hammer Museum in June 2016, Tate and Jafa displayed their gifts for improvisation, perfected over decades of theoretical and intellectual discussions since they met at Howard as undergraduates. (This conversation was a significant part of our day-long conversation, even though all of it has not been transcribed below.) Their discussion was the fruit of a lifelong commitment to disciplined engagement with Black life, art, and experience. In his essay “The Changeling Mise-en-Scène — Arthur Jafa’s Meta Love and the New Black Reportage,” on Jafa’s film Love is the Message, The Message is Death, Tate displays one of his brilliant vernacular constructions to describe Jafa’s work:
Repeated viewings of Love Is the Message reveal the artist’s microsurgical attention to cinematically apprehending the dynamism of culturally and rhythmically-confident Black bodies in swooning, swaying, sanctified, synaptic, erotic, choreographic, athletic, cognitive, and violently-assaulted motion. The cornerstone of this artist’s vision lies in marking and re-manipulating the ways in which those bodies warp and woof the curvature of space, transfix the flow of time and alter our perceptions of the world’s materiality with existential fluidity.
Tate’s sentences, like Jafa’s film, beckon you to keep reviewing, rereading, rethinking, pushing past the boundaries of what we think is possible on the page and on the screen.
Our conversation touched on Tate’s evolution as a writer, his collaborations and influences, and previously unpublished fiction, which Tate has graciously given us permission to print.
LEAH MIRAKHOR: From your interviews of other artists and essays I know you’re an astrology buff — you point out that Miles Davis and Bob Dylan are both Geminis. What is the significance, to you, of being a Libra?
GREG TATE: Well, I’m a ’70s kid. Libras are supposed to have a very balanced response to situations, able to look at things from all sides, are good negotiators, generally are artistic, collective, we’re oriented kinds of people, and usually maintain a very calm demeanor. Never get too high or too low.
In your writing though …
Well, yeah, in my writing I’m a madman.
Yes, you’re bold.
Oh, yeah, I had a girlfriend in the ’90s, who didn’t know that I was the Greg Tate she had been reading. I can’t remember how early in our meeting she realized I was the guy that wrote for The Village Voice, and she said, “Wait you’re that Greg Tate? I thought you were just some old motherfucker with an Afro.” I said, well, yeah, you’re right. I was trained by old motherfuckers with Afros. Yeah. [Laughs.] You know what Flaubert said, right? Be as bourgeois as you can in your life so you can be a total madman on the page.
Do you feel there’s one thing that has changed most about how you write over the past 20 years?
Well, I’ve settled down. You know, when you’re younger, it’s all about expressionism, it’s all about trying to make as much noise as possible. I was trying to literally approximate music on the page.
The sentences sound sonically like rap lyrics.
It’s all about the sound and the fury. And, because I was writing for The Voice, I was encouraged to be as loud and critical and vulgar as possible. To just be explosive. And, being that age, you feel like you know everything about everything anyway. And given that platform you just feel empowered.
You’ve talked about the significance of cultural confidence and passing that down. This was an indelible part of what you received at Howard University. Is there a piece or moment where you realized you had that?
I think regarding the writing, I came to New York with that. Maybe the second piece I wrote for The Voice, I really knew how bold I could be. I had sent Bob Christgau a piece I had written in DC, something I wrote just for myself, because my friend Thulani Davis told me to — the great Thulani Davis, whom I had known from DC — and it took me about a year before I felt like I had anything. So, I sent this review of a Nona Hendryx concert, and he said I can’t use this piece, but the more writing I get like this in the paper, the more I’ll like it. But the first thing I wrote from him was pretty restrained. It was a review of a Pharoah Sanders album. And he said, “This is cool, but I really want to see something like you showed me in the sample.” He was really seeing me as the Black Lester Bangs. He kind of really sensed that I would have that nerviness about me. That kind of aggression. So, the next piece I wrote was on James Blood Ulmer or Bad Brains (they were back to back). The pieces kind of made me in New York, before I moved up there.
So, when you showed up in New York, people knew you and knew your work?
Oh, yeah. I had a guy change the lock to my apartment, and I had lived in the city for about two years. He came to fix the door, he was a locksmith from the Bronx, and I wrote him a check and he said, “Oh, you’re Iron Man, I read you all the time.” And it happened with bouncers. They’d see my I.D. and say, “Oh, you’re the cat that writes for The Voice.” Everyone read The Voice then, clearly — locksmiths and bouncers included. It was a clue-in that it wasn’t just my family or friends.
The Voice was a real piece of what was happening in the city — very important culturally, politically.
It was a major part of what has happening in New York. Plus, everyone went out to get The Voice on Tuesday nights for apartment listings. So, it was major in terms of that. You could also order sex out of the back pages. It got a little out of control. [Laughs.] Then, in the time I was there, over a 20-year span, the paper got sold three or four times.
Did you think in your early 20s, when you showed up to New York, that you’d make a career of writing?
Hell no. I was just hanging on for dear life. I had broken up with my daughter’s mom before I moved to New York. I had my daughter when I was 22. I was a dad, still trying to figure out my life. People were terrified for me. But it all works out. That’s my great lesson to share. Especially if you have really great grandparents around. And we did. They really made a difference. But, the thing I knew was that I had to get to New York, I had to be in New York.
Because New York was the mecca?
The mecca. Everything that I loved was happening right there, and at that moment — hip-hop, jazz, rock. And New York just excited me, just the idea of being in New York. My mother was always excited too — she always loved New York. For my father — New York required too much loss of control, even as a driver. He couldn’t deal with it. Too much chaos. But I love the city. I started coming up on the weekends in the ’70s, when I was at Howard. It was the most exciting place, just hitting the ground. Every time you came to New York you felt the electricity and then, once I got there, I had work, I had a little bit of a reputation, and in your 20s you don’t mind couch surfing, sleeping on basement floors, girlfriend’s places … But then everything started to come together after five years. Which is why I always tell young artists, “You gotta give New York five years to let you know if you are supposed to be here.” Like if something doesn’t break for you, then you probably need to go somewhere else. This was my experience — and it was also borne out by what I was seeing, what was happening for other folks. That’s when I got the staff position at The Voice. I moved up in ’82, got the staff position in ’87, and that kind of stabilized things financially.
Did that stability change how you wrote?
No. I was still using The Voice during those five years as if I had a job there. [Laughs.]
When I was at Howard, one of my mentors told me, “Writers need institutions.” So that was my institution for about 20 years. Really, any changes that happened with the writing, it was just maturity. I learned that you don’t have to be as brash or volcanic or profane to say what you need to say. It becomes interesting to figure out more modulated ways to be as effective and political and polemical even. You realize, after a while, your thoughts are incendiary enough; the language doesn’t have to also be on fire all the time.
You’ve commented on how people don’t really do real editing anymore, and that writers now don’t have to deal with editing. Which editor most shaped you?
Oh, Bob Christgau. He whooped all our asses. All the music writers. Bob was rough. And he was merciless and unsentimental. He told a friend of mine who became a successful writer, when he first started sending stuff in, he straight up said to him, “Your work isn’t good enough to be published by this paper and I don’t think it ever will be.” Bob was good at absolute declarative statements like these. Because you know he would say that: “This is unpublishable. I don’t know how we are going to fix it.” And after a couple of hours you would fix it — well, you would fix it together, because in The Voice system, you actually sat with the editor and went through the piece line by line, real old school.
Instead of getting it back, and someone saying, “Just do this.” You had to sit there and learn.
Yeah, and with him it was always intense, because he was 1,000 percent present. He might have had six other writers to see that day, but you were all going to get the full brunt. It was like life or death to him, the quality of the section, the quality of the writing. He was fully committed. The other editors there were as talented, less intense, but you learned as much from them too, because you realized they knew the craft. They knew what the standard was and they held writers to it. M. Mark, Kit Rachlis, Ross Wetzsteon — all these people were sterling, superb, top-of-the-game editors. There’s no way you could go through that process and not become a better writer.
What was significant about the vibe of The Voice overall for you as you were establishing yourself as a writer?
All the other young Black writers that came right behind myself — Barry Michael Cooper and Nelson George. When Lisa Jones and the Yale mafia showed up at The Voice, they were all three or four years younger than me. The Yale crew was so present at The Voice that people thought I had gone to Yale. This is the same period that the Black hip-hop writers showed up — Scott Poulson-Bryant, Harry Allen, Dream Hampton, Karen Good, and Joan Morgan. This was a moment in the 1990s where there were more Black writers in the paper, on a weekly basis, than had been at the paper for the past 20 years. This was because of what was going on politically, because of the anti-racist, anti-crack struggles and conscious hip-hop, and the way writers at the paper were also addressing homophobia, misogyny, sexism in hip-hop. Those first conversations happened at The Voice. Then The Source came out, and there were people like Dream Hampton who migrated between the two. Then Vibe came along.
In the Midwest, I remember people would line up to get the newest issue of The Source. If you weren’t in New York, that’s sort of how you knew what was happening.
Yeah. I mean, it’s funny, because The Source was as read as the internet. For hip-hop, it was the internet. Dream found out later that there were guys reading her in jail, who could quote chapter and verse from her pieces. And the thing was, that Source review meant so much as far as your credibility in hip-hop. They had to get bulletproof glass in the reception area. Because if someone got one mic or half a mic, they’d be ready to fight, ready to take someone out.
Didn’t you talk about how Eminem was mad at Benzino for kicking him out of The Source?
Benzino gangstered his way into The Source. That’s why a whole section of the Black staff just left one day. I think one of them may have beat up an editor too. [Laughs.] When I think about journalistic rigor then versus now — yeah, there’s this editorial piece, but there was the intensity of the pushback, from your colleagues, and an audience, so you’re getting checked on multiple sides. And you couldn’t hide behind digital anonymity. That was your ass out there, walking up and down the same streets, going to the same clubs.
You had to encounter people on multiple levels. Did that enforce a kind of responsibility and integrity — if you were going to say it, you’d better stand behind it?
Yeah, that was The Voice in general. The music section was just kind of one place where there was pushback, and the pushback might come back with some teeth. Because of the investigative journalism we were doing — on city politics, corruption, the worst landlords — people would write threatening letters to The Voice writers every week. And sometimes we would have to clear the office because of bomb threats.
In addition to writing consistently, you were constantly reading. What reading material was important to you? Who were you talking with as you read?
A. J. [Arthur Jafa]! We both got interested in reading critical theory stuff. He was more advanced in terms of art, film, visual theory. He would turn me onto folks like David Bordwell and Christopher Metz. I was already reading Pauline Kael, André Bazin. We would talk about everything — films, music, politics, personal stuff. He had a kid at a young age too.
What are the collaborations that you have either witnessed or been a part of in your own career that have been most significant to you?
Definitely working with Butch Morris on the Burnt Sugar album The Rites. That was a major collaboration. We’ve been doing a collaboration with the dance group Company SBB, led by Stefanie Batten Bland, for the last four years. Five of us from Burnt Sugar. This is a chopped-down version of us; generally, if you see us on tour, you’ll see about nine to 10 people, and in the city, about 17 to 20 people. If we do a repertory project like our Prince or Bowie shows, then we would need multiple singers, a full horn section. But I’ve really enjoyed working in that dance situation, because Stefanie Bland is such a brilliant visionary.
Her father, Ed Bland, was a composer and a filmmaker — he did The Cry of Jazz (1959). A prophetic film, years ahead of its time in terms of explicitly essaying the connection of jazz to Black working-class culture. It’s an authoritative, definitive study, and nobody was looking at it that way then — looking at the social conditions of Black people and the aesthetic of the music as one conversation. Really, really ahead of its time, and the first appearance of Sun Ra’s band on film, when they were wearing suits and ties. Ed Bland was also this amazing modern classical composer. Stefanie thinks like a director and composer as a choreographer. She is really specific about what she wants and doesn’t want. She edits the band as much as she edits the dance. But it’s great being directed that way. And hearing what comes out of us under someone else’s hand. And being in concert with these amazing dancers. We’ve performed with her company about 10, 12 times in different spaces. Stefanie also just won a Jerome Robbins Award — the first time they’ve given it to someone that is not his protégé. So we will tour this piece around the country and Europe over the next couple of years.
I met Stefanie because Vernon Reid’s wife, Gabri Christa, adopted the Butch Morris conduction system to choreography. Gabri put a bunch of bad-ass New York choreographers together with the band, and we called it Burnt Sugar/ DANZ. We did about six shows with that group. It was really amazing. Love this kind of thing — working with other artists who are also open to improvisation. Structured improvisation. And when you work with dancers on that level, you get to be an audience member too. It’s like you’re watching living music when you see the things they can do with their bodies.
Could you talk about “Born to Dyke: I Love My Sister Laughing and Then Again When She’s Looking Mean, Queer, and Impressive”? What inspired you to write it?
So, before I left DC, in my late teens, I made a lot of friends in the Black Lesbian art community. They were some of my favorite people, and we would hang out and talk. They were all intellectuals, culturally avant bad-asses, and stylish, and I dug their sense of connection and outlawness. And we got each other, in terms of the sophistication of the cultural conversation. There were cats — in terms of the music piece — that I could always talk to in DC, but they weren’t as interested in literary theory. So that community was kind of like home to me, intellectually, culturally, aesthetically.
I didn’t connect with that community in the same way in New York until years later. What happened was I started this rock band called Women in Love, with my friends Mikel Banks, Flip Barnes, Marque Gilmore, Helga Davis, and Jason Di Matteo. Mikel and I had our own fascination-fetishization-love relationship going on with Black Lesbians as a genre. We started Women in Love to write songs about love and relationships from multiple perspectives. Sisters would ask us, “What you guys think you know about women in love?”
My standard response was like that a woman in love could be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Mikel and I used to joke that our one ambition with the band was to be the Black Rock Coalition band with the biggest Black Lesbian audience. As it turned out the first person that ever approached us about being a manager was a gay sister named Angel Williams. And Angel was a part of a whole community of sisters.
There were these “Girl Parties.” I believe MC Lyte was one of the organizers, but it was a very covert scene. One day, maybe about a year after working with the band, Angel got us a gig up in this thing, brought us in there. Wasn’t the whole band, as I recall. So, we are playing in this big warehouse, and I think because of the hip-hop celebrity factor, I thought it was going to be this lipstick Lesbian scene, and then I went in there and went, “Oh, damn, there’s like 2,000 sisters from the hood in here.” And it made me realize the whole social ecology of Black female gay culture in the working-class Black community, in the projects. What that said about familial relationships, kinships, the displacement of the male population — how the prison-industrial complex affected the upbringing of kids, the whole thing. It was a real epiphany. So I just decided I wanted to write about that, and some of my own history in terms of the Black Lesbian community, and that was the piece. I started writing, and I had no idea they were going to put it on the cover — you never know those things — and it was the cover story that week.
The questions you ask yourself in the piece are risky, non-rhetorical, and honest. Would you do that now?
Yeah, it was really honest. The thing is, I don’t like writing about myself. I write about myself in the third person on Facebook. I hate saying “I” in the public domain. That’s why I’m usually on your side of the table. And that’s probably the most personal, the closest I’ve been to an autobiographical or memoir-like kind of piece. As close as I may have come. There’s some of me in the eulogies. [See in particular Tate’s eulogies for Amiri Baraka, Ornette Coleman, Michael Jackson, and James Brown.]
The interviews you’ve done have a lot of you, too. Even though you step out of the way. Can you talk a little more about “your Black Lesbophilia,” and why this was your most memoir-like piece?
You know, the ’80s and ’90s were just a real sexual time in New York. The women of that generation were incredibly sexually liberated, felt incredibly comfortable because of their feminist experiences, and their relationships with their own bodies — maybe because of Prince. [Laughs.] And, oddly enough, they were embracing the buccaneer machismo of hip-hop as their voice too. In the Bohemian artistic communities, a lot of women felt as sexually bold as most guys. I remember one friend had said she felt like she had gone through college with a bed strapped to her back, she was having so much sex. It’s real specific to that moment, Brooklyn, the East Village. Now having one-night stands is more organized — there are all these apps.
There was a network of people. People were connected to each other.
It was very kind of casual, a part of the everyday. It was bo-ho artists, and this is just true of artist communities. One evening Linda Bryant, who hired me at the JAM Gallery, ran me through the who’s-zooming-who of the previous generation, and I remember saying, “Damn, this sounds like a soap opera.” Then five years later, oh, you’re living the soap opera too! [Laughs.] This is just the way it goes. But it was cool. I learned a lot. You learn a lot about yourself and your community. And then you also learn a lot because you know other people’s stories. Even those you aren’t intimate with. You become very aware of the erotic activity going on.
And that there’s a way in which the life and the work feed into each other. The Wayne Shorter interview you conducted with Craig Street is a philosophy of the erotic according to Shorter.
Oh yeah, and for Wayne, marriage is the core of that. That’s the point of it for him — the whole idea that marriage is where you actually complete your purpose on earth. He referred to it as a rocket ship. You hear it in his music — this syncretism of deep emotion, deep skills, and deep space exploration on the saxophone.
Shorter said that so much of what he and Miles did together wasn’t about music per se. This seems to be a recurring thing with a lot of the jazz musicians in your interviews.
Yeah, I mean, the thing is, jazz musicians almost never talk about music, in the way that even critics who know music talk about it. The musicians who do read the reviews, they say, “Yeah, I read that, but that’s not even what was going on.” They’re so masterful, and so prepared to do what they do every night, that thing they do onstage. They have a living relationship with music. And they practice four to six to eight hours a day to maintain that level of craft. In terms of the work, the day has 24 hours — and you have a gig, that’s like maybe four hours out of your day. And since the day starts for them at 4:00 p.m., they might get up at 2:00 p.m., so what you do with the other parts of the day are pretty definitive. Some of the jazz musicians of the ’60s and ’70s were interested in life, in the good life. They were like gangsters in that way, classic Capone, eating well, dressing well, hanging out with fun people, being surrounded by sexually alive people in a sexually alive environment. When you get to Ornette, Shorter, Coltrane, Sun Ra, then you start to get these very cosmic philosophers, interested in making connections between music and life in really profound ways. Their interviews are all about this other stuff.
When Shorter broke down the difference between a “direction” and a “value-creation,” I was mesmerized. It was paradigm-shifting for me. He explains:
Another word I don't like it “direction.” If something is a style and it stays there, then people ask, [adopting a pompous British accent] “What direction are you going in aesthetically?” If you put on a style of clothes is that the direction? I rather like instead the term “value-creation.” Direction to me is blinders. But value-creation is taking off the blinders and making value out of every moment.
Yeah! [Laughs.] That’s Wayne Shorter, man! We’re so far behind. I mean, that interview is like 30 years old, and we still haven’t caught up with Wayne, we never will. [Laughs.] I did the interview with my friend Craig Street, and we were both Wayne addicts since we were like 16 years old. It was the Yoda moment, man. The simplest shit, the most profound shit, and it was mind-blowing. The throwaway stuff — him talking about how his mom would bring art supplies home and one day he and his brother Alan made the red and blue armies of Russia doing World War II out of clay, fashioned a thousand soldiers …
The one that stuck with me for years was when I said to him, “There’s a lot of detail in your writing.” and he said, “You can have a penny without a million dollars, but you can’t have a million dollars without a penny. If the penny ain’t in there, it’s jive.” [Laughs.] Life lessons. He’s just so well integrated. The thing I really don’t have an answer for is what the fuck was going on in Newark in the ’50s? That Wayne Shorter, Amiri Baraka, and George Clinton all emerge from there … Those three cats are probably, philosophically, the three most important people on my poetic radar.
With Baraka, even if you don’t quote him directly, he’s there.
He’s there. He’s like my literary dad. Those three I could point to most specifically. I quote George a lot. I’ve spent a lot of time with Amiri’s work. I know Amiri’s work backward and forward — the poems, the fiction, the essays, the plays. He wrote so much; I know that he wrote works in the style of The Dead Lecturer that are as rich, but he never published them, because he was so reflexive. I would love to see some of that. He wrote a full-length biography of Coltrane, and I would love to see that.
How did you get to interview Richard Pryor?
Vibe. Vibe is the reason I got to interview Sade, Richard Pryor, Santana, Lenny Kravitz in the Bahamas, Lisa Bonet in Topanga Canyon, Erykah Badu in Fort Green. The Richard Pryor interview is from the days when Vibe was ballin’. I did that interview with my friend and Howard University J-School classmate Peter J. Harris. They’d send you out to Los Angeles for like a week, set you up at some great hotel, you’d go hang out at Richard Pryor’s house or Sade’s hotel room. A whole other moment.
Richard Pryor, Miles Davis, and Sade — all had an inimitable sense of control, and a sense of where they were professionally.
They were at the height of their powers. They had nothing else to prove in terms of their work. They were all paid for life. They were still doing it because they still wanted to do it. With Miles, that’s the chattiest interview I’ve ever read with him. [Laughs.] Usually his answers are the length of our questions. He just started talking about everything. He vibed with us — with me and Craig Street — intellectually, artistically.
There’s a point where he asks, “Y’all musicians?” And for Miles Davis to ask you if you’re a musician — for Miles Davis to ask you that shit, like … you know … for that even to be something he asked you. It just told you, he totally sussed us out. I’ll tell you this: Those kinda people read you the second you come in the room. It’s part of their psychic armor. They figure out if you’re someone they can trust from the moment you walk in the room.
In “Sade: Black Magic Woman,” you described this palpable eroticism that was present in and with her.
First thing Sade said to me was, “I really like that shirt.” [Laughs.] She went straight into seduction mode. I had this beautiful silk Indian shirt that I wore. That was the very first thing she said, before we sat down for the interview. No, actually, that’s the first thing she said during the interview. Because I showed up the day before for the video shoot and Vibe had told me, “Don’t try and talk to her.” They had gotten that instruction from her people. So, we went to a sound stage and I was standing in the hall, and I could see the set in another room. I was at the bottom of the stairs, and upstairs was the makeup and dressing rooms, and I felt this energy coming at me — couldn’t see who it was. It was like the movies, where there’d be some wavy-shapey shit moving toward you, and I figured it was her. But I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna be cool. I’m not even gonna turn around.” But she spoke, and her voice has bass, like Grace Jones. She sings in her head voice, as opposed to a chest voice, but I realize that she has like a natural reverb chamber up in there! [Laughs.] That’s the Sade sound. That’s why we are all so caught up in it.
That’s why it’s rapture.
Totally. But I mean, that’s when I felt, like, whatever “That Thing” is … It came down the stairs with her.
When you got to Pryor, he was not at the top of his game, physically. There is a direct contrast between his desire and the inability to fully express it.
He wasn’t physically in command, but mentally he was all there. That was the thing that was the most painful. I had this apprehension that he was going to be some kind of psychic wreck, but he was the Richard Pryor you knew — that mind, that intellect, that wit, that perception, that vulnerability — locked into a wheelchair. His body had completely betrayed him, had failed him. He was in that wheelchair till the day he died. He had to have a caretaker. And there was that sadness of realizing that all these people who used to come around, because you had $50 million in the bank, have abandoned you, and at the end it was just his ex-wife Jennifer Lee Pryor — she was the only one showing up.
But, the shit Jennifer and Pryor drop in that interview is just hilarious — ol’ bickering couple shit. It’s just beautiful. He was himself till the end. He said, “The difference between me and everyone else is I want all the pussy.” He laughs. And Jennifer comes back with, “I think you’ve had enough for this lifetime.” I thought, “Yeah, for like 10 lifetimes.” And he says, “There’s no such thing as enough.” He was devoted. One of the funniest lines to me from his 1970s comedy skit is when he is arguing with his woman, and he says, “I’m gonna go get me some new pussy.” And she says, “There’s some new pussy right here, if you had an inch more dick.” Come on, man. What man is that honest? You know? [Laughs.]
What you manage to capture is his capacity for joy, his spirit.
Yeah, his spirit was alive. The flesh was weak, but his spirit was alive and still kicking comedic ass …
You’ve said that video of Michael Jackson sitting down with Oprah is still one of your favorites to watch. It shows his capacity to do something with his body, brain, and spirit that was joyful for him and also created joy in others. Prince and Michael were more like jazz musicians than pop musicians, because the music was just in their bodies at all times. They could just bring it out at a moment’s notice. And you write about why their bodies needed to morph, and how beholden they were to their bodies.
Well, I think that most of us are just not alive in that way. I mean, even athletes, they lose it. But musicians can be phenomenal in their 90s. In fact, they are even more energetic in their 90s than in their 20s or 30s. The sound they produce can be even more energized. Miles had that.
Because of how they harness the power in their bodies?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The instrument is really just that — just a tool to transduce something. It’s like a hammer or screwdriver or something — it’s just a way of applying energy to a particular task or objective. It’s their ability to push and ply their personalities through these pieces of metal. And if it weren’t special, shit, Berklee College of Music would be turning out Miles Davises and Princes every week. When we say someone is gifted, it’s that ability to communicate. That’s the gift. That ability to make a sound with this horn, that reaches you, hits you in the gut, makes you cry.
In your talk with Arthur Jafa at the Hammer Museum, I remember he told the audience that for Coltrane, being a musician was his second choice. He wanted to design cars, but thought, “What Black man is going to be allowed into this space?” This speaks so much to what you say now about the instrument being a vessel.
There’s these guys … I did an interview with the Aleem Brothers, who came up with Hendrix in Harlem. They talked about the focus and intensity Jimi had when he was in a room with an un-amplified guitar, practicing licks over and over again, with his back to the door. They told me, “We realized that if this guy was a street sweeper we would be talking about how this is the most magnificent display of street sweeping anyone has ever seen, in the history of street sweeping.” It’s funny, because I’ve been in delis where the way someone prepares food stands out to you, because they’re putting mad personality into it. It becomes like a dance. So, you take that kind of energy, you give it Jimi’s performance prowess, and it becomes something supernatural.
This also reminds me of “The Gikuyu Mythos versus the Cullud Grrrl from Outta Space: A Wangechi Mutu Feature,” where you wrote about Wangechi Mutu’s regal, mystical, mythic energy: “Wangechi somewhat resembles Kenya’s famously tall, long-necked, nomadic, cattle-blood-drinking, hand-to-hand lion-killing, gorgeously coiffed, pierced, tattooed, and adorned Maasai people.”
Oh, yeah, Wangechi has that energy — that impalpable, sexual, creative, mystical energy. And totally in control of all of it. I mean, I’m in control of whatever frequency I have in writing, but these people have control of it in life. So even in an interview they are that person that goes into the studio or goes onstage. They’re living it, they’re not just visiting.
In almost every piece, you write about the biological and historical circumstances that led these persons to make the art they make. It’s not accidental, you keep reminding us.
Well, yeah, they are powered by the ancestors. I believe that. I just saw an interview with Ron Carter, who played with Miles. And they asked him, “What’s the one thing that you want people to know about your talent that you think they don’t understand?” Carter replied, “That this gift that I have came from God.” No follow-up on that. On to the next question.
One of your ongoing conversations with Jafa is about how Blackness is and is not related to horror. In your talk at the Hammer, Jafa said, “The Delta is like the Afro-Am Jurassic Park.”
It’s funny that one of the main differences between A. J. and me has to do with his proximity to the “Primitive South” and me coming up in the “Cosmopolitan North.” So I didn’t see the kind of violence he actually saw, or even hear the kind of stories he heard — not just in what white people were doing to Black people, but what Black people were doing to each other in that environment. He told me once that his father said, “If I had girls, I never would have moved my family to such a barbaric, decadent, depraved place as Tupelo.” [Laughs.] And A. J. said, “Well, you didn’t think about what it was doing to us!” So he never had an intellectual remove from the human devastation that existed in the South. I think that’s why he can make the work he does and generate the emotion he creates in the work. He has these lofty thinkers in the pieces, but they are definitely pieces to be felt, more than analyzed.
Your brother Brian Tate introduced you to Bad Brains, another huge influence on you.
Yeah, I come from the generation that when someone calls you a “punk,” those are fighting words. It wasn’t even a sexual thing. It just meant you were weak. He, like a lot of Black kids of his generation, just heard themselves in that music — that was their “rebel yell” — and so they didn’t even think about it racially. They were like, “I’ll bring the Black part.” It was a calling — a call to prayer almost. He was in the clubs, slam dancing, pogoing, wearing weird-ass clothes with safety pins in them and shit, but he turned me onto so much music. He’s repurposed that energy now into the work he does as a curator and organizer and event-planner. It’s kind of like now with me and the writing: you don’t have to be as showy, you’re more interested in how subtle you can be.
“Twenty-Five things about Afro-Futurism” doesn’t have the bravado of your earlier pieces, but it’s still really bold, and has a different texture.
It’s showy, but it’s a different show. It’s a chamber piece. It’s not a funk concert — it’s not a landing of the Mothership — it’s chamber jazz.
When you read your earlier pieces out loud, you have to keep up with them — the energy the cadence, the movements.
[Laughs.] Yeah, Christgau said something interesting once. He said — and this is when Thulani Davis, myself, Stanley Crouch, Nelson George, Barry Cooper were all at The Voice — he said, “All my Black writers write like preachers.”
Like a Baldwin sentence that’s a whole paragraph.
Yep, yep. I mean, sometimes those pieces suddenly appear, whole, as a voice in my head. Sometimes the first paragraph will show up like an oracular bit, like a transmission from somewhere else. A lot of my fiction starts out like that too.
Did you ever think about writing a novel?
Oh yeah, I already have. I’d thought it was unfinished for decades. And there are a bunch of short stories, novellas, and flash fiction. I just haven’t tried to publish many of them. Friends who’ve read the novel, though, say, “You need to publish that shit, and just let it go.” [Laughs.]
Greg Tate has kindly permitted us to present two previously unpublished short pieces.
HOW TO SELL ZOMBIE WOOF TICKETS
It was the summer your friend the dead poet TJ made good on his promise to ghoulishly return.
You saw him shuffling about the ’hood, wondering as he wandered, looking all lost, rudderless, and shambolic without purpose or direction.
How simple it would make things for the dead if they really could come back as zombies, ghouls, or vampires rather than as just homeless black ghosts.
Scaring the shit out of people, sucking their blood, eating out their intestines could be easily become a full-time job for someone who was truly undead and not just a derelict of a man walking.
But to be just shuffling about these broken-down parts for an eternity seemed like a hell reserved for those the devil deemed too dull to deserve more creative punishments.
Imagine being such the dullard that even at the gates of hell you’re be taken as an automatic candidate for the D-list.
Your dead poet friend's sin was just writing bad poetry and being amply rewarded for it. So, it’s not like he wasn’t already a candidate for the perdition of eternal literary obscurity. Even so, returning him to Harlem for a rootless bohemian after-existence was an injustice that ranked beyond even the Luciferian pale.
True, nobody told your friend to write all that awful verse. Or to accept all those shamefully, undeservedly flattering, ass-kissing prizes, publications, and awards — OK, grant you that.
In that regard, he surely has himself to blame for a life spent not writing well.
In TJ’s case though, the punishment still seems to far outweighs the crime by massive, galactic-sized units of measure.
Who knew the high lords of the Bibliophilic underworld were such vicious literary critics?
GIRLS RUNNING TRAINS IN NEGRIZONA
Most nights this is an all-boys club but tonight the beuys have graciously opened their house to any glitch in heat, any glitch off the street. Among the beuys there’s a meager few old enough to remember what it is to be hunted down and caged because of who you choose to love. Difference being all my glitches are being hunted down for not loving people we got no love for at all.
Me and my glitches could all die up in here tonight. All twenty-four of us acting like we don’t know no better than to be caught dancing close to another glitch in a large public space. Never mind we all grew up feeling that way anyhow — that we’re all the kind of glitches who’ve always understood dancing close and risking annihilation to be on the most intimate of terms and how those polarities come with the price of the ticket. Define the terms of our existence and existential threat.
What’s changed today though isn’t the base threat but the means by which it can be carried out. With that recognition comes the knowledge that for glitches like us there now looms a horde of fates far worse than death. Been that way for quite a while now. Way, way, way before The Governess began offering a mortgage on our wombs and a lien on our souls.
Glitches like us have been at odds with the Law of The Father since the Stone Age. Only thing that makes this any different is what The Governess did. Sell her own kind out to The Law of The Father to save her own ass and, in the process, cut our chances of survival and resistance down from percentages to mean fractions.
Some of us came here tonight with gitches we love. Some of us will not be going home with the glitch we came in with tonight.
Some of us are not gonna make it all the way back to The Breach.
Only a scant few will return home just the way they left it — as two halves of a whole and loving couple who dared stroll hand in hand in public, fully aware of the danger, exulting in the thrill.
Some take the risk because they love how hot the loving will be once they’re safely spaces where The Governess can’t reach them.
They’re the ones who like to tell all the juicy details — tell whoever will listen how no loving could ever be hotter than the love you make freely and recklessly under the threat of combat, prison, multiple forced impregnations, repeated brain deaths.
They’re the ones who live by our code to the fullest. The ones basically be on some shit like “If tonight is going to be last time we make love let’s make the kinda love that burns this house down, turns it into a pyre and enshrines our ashes…”
Leah Mirakhor’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Yale Review, African American Review, and Studies in American Jewish Literature. She teaches at Yale University.