In the music world, prodigies are special commodities. These exceptional ones are so naturally talented that they become masters of that particular specialty, begin to excel as children and rise to great heights as adults. James Mtume was a textbook definition of a prodigy—and he was multi-dimensional. He was a musician, songwriter, producer, bandleader, cultural trendsetter, humanitarian and freedom fighter. He died Jan. 9.
“Mtume was a musical prodigy, and his music shows he was prophetic,” Bernie Hayes, a media studies professor at Webster University, told The Final Call. “He believed in freedom for his people. He wanted to educate Black folks, he wanted them to be liberated and free. That’s why he went to Newark, to work with Amiri Baraka,” he said, referring to the famed poet and writer and father of current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
“When he went to California, he met Maulana Karenga and changed his name. He was not only a social activist, a political activist, he was a human activist,” added Professor Hayes.
James Mtume was the son of music great and jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath. However, he was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and stepfather James Forman, a jazz pianist who played with Charlie Parker.
Young James grew up in a home filled with love and music. That home welcomed regular visitors like music legends Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. Music came naturally to Mtume. He grew up playing piano and drums. His uncle, jazz drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, gave him his first conga drum.
“When you have that kind of exposure on the highest level of music as a kid growing up, you’re influenced by the music of the times,” William Patterson told The Final Call. Mr. Patterson is a producer and musician who worked with Mtume. “He was able to follow through different kinds of music during his life span. He had the platform to do it because of the nature of his virtuosity that allowed him to perform on a real high level because not anyone can play with Miles Davis.”
Black consciousness and musical sensibilities
As a young man, the musician was also a champion high school swimmer. He won the Middle Atlantic backstroke title and attended Pasadena City College in California on an athletic scholarship.
While a student there he met Maulana Karenga and joined the Us organization. Mr. Karenga gave him the name “Mtume,” Swahili for “messenger” or “prophet.” Music and its messages became an even more serious force in his life.
Mtume’s music career includes playing with a list of Who’s Who of jazz greats. He played with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Don Cherry, Jimmy Heath, Art Farmer, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard and Gato Barbieri. His debut album came in 1972 with “Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks” on the Strata-East label, credited to the Mtume Umoja Ensemble.
“As he developed intellectually, and his musical sensibilities increased, the fiber of Black consciousness was pervasive throughout,” said Faulu Mtume, in describing his father. “That would speak to his early recordings, Alkebu-Lan all the way through to his final ones. With ‘Juicy Fruit,’ though the lyrics were provocative, the percussive and driving force was an African rhythm,” Faulu Mtume told The Final Call.
“Even though the lyrics wouldn’t suggest that it was always to elevate the Black cultural experience without having it be right in your face or an apparent or obvious message. It was that feeling, it was the spirit that was important,” explained Faulu Mtume.
Mtume’s musical talents evolved to his producer skills. He partnered with guitarist Reggie Lucas to form Mtume-Lucas Productions to write and produce songs. They wrote songs for Roberta Flack, Phyllis Hyman, Teddy Pendergrass, the Spinners and Stephanie Mills. Singer Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” won Mtume and Reggie Lucas, his partner and talented guitarist, the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.
His song for Roberta Flack, “The Closer I Get to You” was later remade by Beyoncé and Luther Vandross. His 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit” has been sampled in more than 100 songs that include works by Alicia Keys, Warren G, Jennifer Lopez, Keyshia Cole, Faith Evans, Notorious BIG and many others. His other songs can also be found in use by different musicians. And, “Juicy Fruit” is favorite on the Tik Tok social media platform.
From producing for artists, Mtume moved to producing scores for movies and the hit TV series “New York Undercover” in 1994 which featured “Natalie’s Nightclub.” The show allowed Mtume to reintroduce an older generation of musicians such as Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and B.B. King and showcase younger performers like Mary J. Blige, Gerald LeVert and Boyz II Men.
“I was the band leader for ‘New York Undercover,”’ said Mr. Patterson. “Mtume incorporated something different with that show. Young people were exposed to an elevated consciousness of music. He was able to connect generations of musicians with that show. I’ve known Mtume since we were teenagers and his whole body of work has touched all types of genres. This show connected everyone young and old.”
A dedicated and generous man
After “New York Undercover,” Mtume turned to more activism. He became a co-host on a New York radio station’s “Open Line” show on WBLS-FM. The show lasted for nearly 20 years. He used the show to speak to the needs and concerns of the Black community. It was his bully pulpit and he was a righteous minister.
In 2009 when murders were rampant in Newark, Fredrica Bey, then head of Women in Support of the Million Man March, asked Mtume to come to her headquarters. She also invited women who had lost sons to violence.
“One after another, the mothers spoke,” Mrs. Bey told The Final Call. “They had heart wrenching stories of their sons’ lives and how they died. They were mothers and grandmothers at odds with the deaths of their sons. Mtume listened to it all.”
“He started Mothers of Murdered Sons. Then every Saturday at one o’clock the sisters came and reviewed the assignments Mtume gave them for the week to stop the killing. That was Mtume’s goal, to help the women help their community stop the killing. Mtume was a man dedicated to protect, maintain and provide. He was the epitome of the pledge the men took at the Million Man March.”
Mtume’s activism took him around the world. He was a Pan Africanist concerned about Black people everywhere. He traveled with Abdul Akbar Muhammad, International Representative of the Nation of Islam, to the Motherland, including stops in Ghana, Sudan and Libya when Muammar Ghadafi invited traditional African chiefs to Tripoli for a conference to encourage them to join the African Union.
Min. Akbar Muhammad remembers Mtume fondly on that trip. “The trip was during Ramadan and one day we decided to take a walk around the city. There was a rare store open. One of the brothers went in the store and bought some ice cream sandwiches. As they were walking down the street eating them Mtume was wondering why the citizens were looking at him.
I told him in Libya Ramadan is very serious with people, even those that are not fasting. They don’t eat in the public,” he said. “If you are wondering why they are looking at you, they’re looking at you because you’re eating that ice cream sandwich. He immediately dropped the ice cream sandwich and said, ‘I get the message.’ I was impressed with his response.”
Mtume traveled to Cuba with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Videographer Duane Muhammad was his roommate. During the trip, Duane Muhammad was running low on money and Mtume, whom he had just met, came to his rescue.
“He said, ‘Brother I’ll give you whatever you need.” I responded I’ll need a few hundred dollars. He said, ‘I’ll give you a thousand dollars and you don’t even have to pay me back.’ I said, ‘Brother, no sir. I appreciate the gift brother, but no, I couldn’t do that. And if I did, I’d have to pay you back, and maybe then on a payment plan, if you want to give me that kind of money.’
“He chuckled. He said, ‘no, brother, you don’t have to pay it back. There are a few other people, on this tiny, island nation, I gave them some money to help them get through. I don’t worry about money. I’m retired from show business. All I do is go to my mailbox and it lets me know how much money that I get from all of the music about producing. I’m very well off, but I’m fine. I can give you whatever you want.’ ”
Mtume’s generosity was matched by his kindness and willingness to serve to his people. His last public event was Dec. 30, on a Zoom call with 23 nations in preparation for a Kwanza Fest event in Atlanta sponsored by Bureau Bullies that he was supposed to attend as the keynote speaker.
“During the call he spoke about the Kwanza Principles of Umoja (Unity) and Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) to countries like Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Rwanda. He was getting them ready for the big event we had planned for Jan. 8. His message was very powerful. He was a genius and mentor to me,” Hassan Ali, Kwanzaa Fest organizer, told The Final Call.
But that event was not to be. Mtume got sick and was unable to travel.
“The Minister was the last person my father spoke to before he passed,” Faulu Mtume said. “We were able to set up a call and they spoke for about 40 minutes. It was the last, truly conscious, engaged conversation my father was able to have. It was a beautiful thing to witness this exchange of love and respect.”
Mtume will also be remembered at the upcoming Third National Black Political Convention April 28-May 1 in Newark as a co-sponsor.
“Young Black people must demonstrate ‘Unity Without Uniformity,’ their implication will showcase various elements of Black excellence (and) … will call for a change of the guard in Black leadership,” Mtume said before his passing. “The ‘now’ political generation must be the ‘now’ leadership.” He was 76 years old at the time of his death.
USA Today reported that Mtume is survived by his wife Kamili Mtume; brother Jeffrey Forman; sons Faulu Mtume and Richard Johnson; daughters Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume and Sanda Lee; and grandchildren Sukari Mtume, Yamani Mtume, Craig McCargo, Mazi Mtume, Aya Mtume and Jhasi Mtume.