MTUME MUSICIAN, SONGWRITER, ACTIVIST DIES AT 76 THOUGHTS ON SIDNEY POITIER
James Mtume, the Grammy-winning percussionist/pianist, songwriter and activist whose jazz and R&B music was every bit as empowering as his long stint as a feisty newscast radio host, died Jan. 9 at his home of South Orange, NJ He was 76 years old.
His death was confirmed in a statement from his family. His publicist Angelo Ellerbee said the cause of death was cancer.
“When I heard the news ‘MTUME is gone,’ I stopped what I was doing and started reminiscing about images and memories of this media warrior of musical, cultural and political genius,” said said Imhotep Gary Byrd,
Radio Griot. “From the first time we met, we were kindred spirits, brothers of the battlefield, where art and activism collide.”
The South Orange resident was steeped in African music roots as a record producer, film score composer (“Native Son,” 1986) and music supervisor for TV series like “New York Undercover.” When he wasn’t immersed in music, he was creating change as an activist in the community and his adopted hometown of Newark.
His activism began in 1966, as a student at Pasadena City College (swimming scholarship) where he became interested in the Black Power movement and joined the American organization, founded by Ron Karenga. Mtume means “messenger” in Swahili. The musician was part of the original group that celebrated the first Kwanzaa in 1966. Over the years, he remained dedicated to the party and hosted a large family Kwanzaa party at his New Jersey home for over 50 years.
Mtume was able to expand his fanbase once he became a weekly talk show host (Sunday mornings, from 1995 to 2013) on “Open Line” dissecting politics, culture and music with his co-hosts , radio personality Bob Slade and Dr. Bob Pickett, on WRKS-FM and later on WBLS-FM. The hard-hitting talk show was a gem in the earlier tradition of legendary committed radio personalities Bob Law, Ken Riley and Imhotep Gary Byrd. Through his relationship with Minister Louis Farrakhan, he has traveled to Cuba, Libya, Sudan and South Africa.
After college, he arrived in Newark, where he met poet and playwright, author and activist Amiri Baraka. They worked together to elect Ken Gibson as Newark’s first black mayor in 1972. That same year, Baraka organized the first black national convention, which was held in Gary, Indiana. At the time of his death, Mtume was on the organizing committee for the 50th anniversary of the Black National Convention, which will be held at the NJIT in Newark from August 4-7. A memorial tribute to Mtume will be held at the convention.
Ironically, both Baraka and Mtume died on January 9; Baraka in 2014.
Mtume was born James Forman on January 3, 1946 in Philadelphia. His biological father was Jimmy Heath, the tenor saxophonist, who died in 2020 and his uncles were bassist and drummer Percy and Albert “Tootie” Heath. He was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and stepfather James Forman, a former pianist in Charlie Parker’s band. In his youth, musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk would stop by the family for dinner, as Mtume recalled in a 2014 interview with Red Bull Music Academy. “I was never plugged in enough to know how great it was, but what I knew about jazz musicians was that they were an amazing group.”
As a teenager, Mtume’s early compositions were on his bassist uncle Tootie’s “Kawaida” album in 1969; the band included saxophonist Jimmy Heath, pianist Herbie Hancock, trumpeter Don Cherry with Mtume on congas. After college, he returned to the East Coast and began his professional career playing with musicians like pianist McCoy Tyner and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Miles Davis hired Mtume as a percussionist after seeing him perform at the Village Vanguard in 1972. He immediately recorded Miles’ jazz fusion album “On the Corner” and “Get Up With It”, during his stay there. five years (1971-75) . While with Davis he released his first solo album, “Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks” (Strata East Records, 1972).
After Davis, he formed his band Mtume with guitarist Reggie Lucas, who died in 2018, and singer Tawatha Agee. Together they released five albums through 1986, injecting the bandleader’s innovative style which he called “sophistifunk”, a blend of jazz, funk and R&B music. The group scored modest R&B hits with “Give It On Up (If You Want To)” and “So You Want to Be a Star” in 1980, before going gold with the album “Juicy Fruit” in 1983. , the title track hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts for eight weeks and the following year the album spawned another hit with “You, Me and He”.
In 1994 Bad Boy Records executive Sean “Puffy” Combs sampled “Juicy Fruit” on Notorious BIG’s “Juicy”. “Juicy Fruit” has been sampled on over 100 songs by Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Alicia Keys, among others. Ironically, the Wrigley Gum company took legal action against Mtume for using the name “Juicy Fruit”, but the evidence did not support their claim.
Mtume’s co-songwriting team and band members Lucas and Mtume enjoyed writing hits for other artists like Stephanie Mills’ single “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (for which they both received a Grammy Award for Best R&B Songwriting and Production). ), “Two Hearts” by Mills and Teddy Pendergrass, “You Know How To Love Me” by Phyllis Hyman and the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit singles “The Closer I Get to You” and “Back Together Again”. During an interview with the “Breakfast Club” a few years ago, Mtume noted, “I never made music for awards, I made music for awards. We share awards when people love my music and share my creativity.
After his band Mtume, the percussionist continued his successful producing and songwriting career, which included R. Kelly’s “Freak Tonight” and producing Mary J. Blige’s “Share My World” album.
The first time Mtume heard hip hop, he said to his son Faulu, “What’s that music you’re listening to on the piano that’s out of tune.” Once the songwriter sat down with his young son and they started listening together, he got the beat. “My dad was always tuned in to what was next with the younger generation. He understood that the sound of music was changing and sampling was the new form,” Faulu said. “Once he Heard Public Enemy and Chuck D., he was all in, to him it was another expression of black consciousness.”
As the music supervisor for the crime drama television series “New York Undercover” which aired on the Fox television network from 1994 to 1999, Mtume took this opportunity to bridge the musical and cultural divide. He knew how to merge hip hop, jazz and funk under the Black music banner. “The music has to match the look of the show,” Mtume said in a 1994 interview. Mtume turned Natalie’s, the show’s fictional nightclub, into a hangout that helped bridging the generational music gap. New York Undercover was recently picked up by BET and now airs weekly. “I’m glad he landed at BET,” Faulu said. “It’s another way to continue my father’s contribution.”
Mtume is survived by his wife, Kamili; two sons, Faulu Mtume and Richard Johnson; four daughters, Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume and Sandra Lee; one brother, Jeffrey Forman, and six grandchildren. Due to COVID restrictions, the funeral will be private.
Condolences from around the world continue to pour in for actor and author Sidney Poitier. Without being redundant, what more can I say than watching his memorable film “To Sir, With Love” made him realize. He was his character “Mister”, a charismatic teacher, who offered sincerity, wisdom and advice; never judgmental, always eloquent in her robe with empowering words wrapped in a distinct, demanding accent that we listen to without hesitation. It was Sir Sidney Poitier who spoke, playing a part on a stage that held the attention; his upright stature, his walk that said he was in control, he acted in real time for the whole world to witness in captivity and discuss. He, without raising his fist or shouting Black Power, was the man of the hour in Hollywood, a black man in America on the tightrope, persevering, decisive, the eternal mentor. We’re better off having Sir Sidney cross our paths, whether in person or on the big screen. Memories will live on.