Greg Tate’s sudden death in December sent a ripple through New York City’s art scene. Last Sunday at Lincoln Center, friends, family and some dedicated fans arrived at Damrosch Park ready to celebrate his life and work.
Welcoming each other with hugs and smiles, attendees moved with purpose through an almost maze-like path of large-scale art prints dedicated to the veteran music writer and musician, who was known for playing a pivotal role in legitimizing criticism of hip-hop and street art.
“He is one of those pillars of what New York is to me,” Jordana Leigh, Lincoln Center’s senior director of artistic programming, told Gothamist.
Lincoln Center collaborated with the Tate family — including his daughter, Chinara, and brother, Brian — to assemble the tribute as part of its “Summer for the City” series. The celebration, titled "Celebrating Greg Tate: More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Burnt Sugar Arkestra Mojosexual Cotillion," was one of several programs assembled by a handful of NYC institutions to elevate Tate’s work this summer.
“His influence in the music scene, from his writing to his music, has always been something that has been a staple in my world,” Leigh said. “And so when he passed, my whole world shook, like I think many people's worlds shook that day.”
The gathering actually looked like something Tate might have curated himself, with slam poets, writers, dancers and other creatives gathered together in a space ready to exchange stories and ideas. Only this time, the anecdotes centered around each person’s connection with Tate: their first encounter, the last time they saw him, or when and how they became aware of his work.
On the grounds of Damrosch Park, a pop-up exhibition organized by the family with Lincoln Center and Photoville occupied the front half of the area, in displays constructed like a cube with one side open. Many artists presented favorite pieces of their work, like a painting or a series of photos, along with messages describing fond memories of Tate.
Chinara Tate was astounded at how little time the artists needed to send their work and kind words, especially since according to her they were working on a tight deadline.
“We’re dealing with handling my dad's estate and things that needed to be squared away, and that took up quite a bit of time,” she said. “Everyone we reached out to, like, within hours, it was just like a rapid-response turnaround. Regardless of the circumstances they were dealing with during that week, within the week we got all of these artists to contribute.”
Speaking before the event, Brian Tate said that curating the show had helped him understand just how massive and diverse his brother’s network was. “One of the things early on that really stood out for me was coming to understand just how many major and incredible artists Greg was in community with,'' he said.
“This pop-up exhibition that we've developed will feature works by 24 artists – it could have been easily 100," he added. "Greg's community was rich with visual artists, with musicians, with dancers, with creative people of all types.”
Greg Tate’s career spanned decades. Not long after graduating from Howard University, he became a leader in New York City’s cultural arts scene in the early 1980s. He began contributing to the Village Voice, and eventually became a staff writer in 1987. Revered by many, Tate was known for his immeasurable love for Black culture – and how that love saturated his work. He wrote with passion, curiosity and an informed voice when discussing the biggest artists in music.
“Where we grew up was filled with arts and culture and people, politics, and Greg's vision of the world was very much informed by that,” Brian Tate said of their childhood in Dayton, Ohio. “And it just infuses all of his writing, and all of the stuff that he created, and the people that he surrounded himself with.”
As his career progressed, Tate released books and became a traveling professor. In 1999 he founded Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, an improvisational band that blended genres like funk, jazz, rock and more.
“The thing about Greg was that he was so comfortable within himself that he never felt he had to flex as far as his reputation or his credentials,” said Jared Michael Nickerson, Burnt Sugar’s bassist and business manager. “When you're in that kind of environment, with somebody who you know is uber-intelligent and basically has their fingers in all kinds of pies, it basically makes you relax and just appreciate the moment.”
Performing at Lincoln Center, Burnt Sugar ripped up the stage with half-rehearsed, half-improvised versions of music Tate created. Nickerson said the band is prepared to carry on and extend Tate's legacy.
“You would think that as a parent their deepest desire would be that, when they passed, that they prepared their children not only to survive, but to thrive,” he said. “And Greg Tate has done that with Burnt Sugar. There is no reason why we can continue to play for the next 20 years, if we want to.”
Next month the band will take part in another Tate tribute, presented by City Parks Foundation SummerStage. That’ll happen on August 20th at Marcus Garvey Park. Before then, Lincoln Center will host a Silent Disco party featuring Tate’s music and the sounds he loved, on August 13th.
Leigh said she’ll miss her deep conversations about art with Tate the most. “I know that art has a lot of power, being in the work I do,” Leigh said. “But he always just elevated it to the next level and challenged me.”