“We reserve the right to be normal.”
On December 7, 1985, at the request of my good friend Vernon Reid, I hopped on the subway and headed to the Just Above Midtown art gallery in Manhattan. When I arrived, I saw more than a dozen others had answered the call to come together and organize, to push to overcome the obstacles placed in our path because we were Black people playing music that white America had claimed as its own.
The people who attended that first meeting of the Black Rock Coalition were a mix of musical firebrands who, like Vernon, had a “by any means necessary” mindset; justice-minded musical entrepreneurs like (then) artist manager Konda Mason; and writers and media people who understood the jujitsu of words and images. Chief among the media sifus was the person who held the floor at that moment, organization co-founder Greg Tate.
Greg talked us through his draft of the group’s manifesto. I was internally head-nodding in agreement until he threw that sentence out there: “We reserve the right to be normal.” I pushed back, responding, “Nothing I do is normal.” Greg moved on. When he presented the final version of the manifesto, that sentence was gone. But it had burrowed into my mind and claimed space there, the way that annoyingly catchy pop-music earworms do. Why would he even say that? I just didn’t get it. If anyone in that room was the exact opposite of normal, it was him.
Greg was one of the premier writers for America’s first and most influential alternative weekly newspaper, the Village Voice. His style was unique, employing an effusive Afro-linguistic phraseology and embracing multivalent reference points. He hopped from Roland Barthes to George Clinton to Cy Twombly, stopping wherever he wanted along the way. He called himself Iron Man, which was more about the Eric Dolphy album than the comic-book character. He was the prose version of Wayne Shorter, his generation’s answer to the Charlie Parker-level literary innovations of Amiri Baraka.
When Greg moved to New York from D.C. and started writing for the Voice, various cultural innovations in the Black communities in New York City were emerging into public consciousness. Music, the visual arts, linguistic manipulation, and dance—particularly the set of practices that came to be known as the “Five Elements of Hip-Hop”—were growing and mutating in front of our eyes. As a top writer for the nation’s top alternative paper, he became one of the world’s foremost windows into what was happening.
There were no rules for writing about hip-hop when Greg started doing it. That gave him license to just do what he did, to maximize his normal. He didn’t have to conform to an established style. He didn’t need to attenuate his expression to color inside an outline that others had drawn. He was able to be fully himself.
Addressing and grappling with the Five Elements in print required exactly the skillset Greg had honed. His textual leaps and cross-cultural connections became the map others used when addressing hip-hop culture. His writings became the foundation, the canon, and his way of working with words became the norm. That was the “normal” that he had reserved the right to be.
This effusive multivalence permeated his music as well. Greg gathered the sonic ingredients, then assembled musical cauldrons to cook up his own Bitches Brew. His first band, Women in Love, was a notable presence in NYC’s Black queer underground in the ’80s. After that, he formed Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, which he co-led with bassist Jared Nickerson.
The second half of the band’s name also serves as its manifesto. “Arkestra” lets you know that Greg’s an Afrofuturist charioteer. “Chamber” lets you know that his band is an archival space where the ingredients for his brew are cared for and kept fresh. He cooked it using Conduction, the method developed by Butch Morris for directing spontaneous composition. For 20 years and over the course of 20 albums, they were a reliable source of Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future.
On December 7, 2021, Greg became an ancestor. But his normal, his dedication to a reality where Black people can wake up in the morning and just be who they are, without pushback, lives on.