With decades of balance between his music and sociopolitical awareness, James Mtume proves a musician’s profile can reflect more than just their art. A master at pressing the boundaries—whether as a composer, producer, songwriter, or activist—he has carved an indelible impression since the 1970’s. An informed orator, he underscored it as a political commentator having represented delegations internationally and via his former #1 black talk radio show in New York—Open Line. Growing up, the Philadelphia native makes the distinction that while he is the biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, he was raised by his mother, Bertha Forman and James “Hen Gates” Forman—a pianist with Charlie Parker’s band. In a household permeated with jazz, by the time he was 14, he had already met an enviable number of music legends—as well as saw Malcolm X speaking live. With such an array of influences—including his mother’s adult-like discussions with him—he formed into a mature thinker early on. Although surrounded by music, his future direction was aimed toward athletics, with his parents discouraging the struggling career of a jazz musician. Instead, he achieved the title of the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke. In 1966, he entered Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship, where his coach trained his competitive skills toward the 1968 Olympics. The West Coast— timed with the 1960’s Black Power movement—offered Mtume an atmosphere for his own socio-political awareness to come of age. His activism took shape once he joined the nationalist organization called Us, led by Maulana Karenga (founders of Kwanzaa). The Advocate’s embrace of original African culture inspired an evolution in his lifestyle even down to his name— “Mtume”—Swahili for ‘messenger’. This environment also encouraged his development as a percussionist while playing with African dance troupes. After sitting in on sessions when his father and uncle would play Los Angeles with artists like Herbie Hancock; Mtume’s name began to circulate back east. Mixing musically among the upper echelons of jazz, he inevitably fulfilled his wish list of the top three talents he wanted to work with—McCoy Tyner, (a piano player with John Coltrane), Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis.
When asked to join Poet and Activist Amiri Baraka and the Committee for Unified Newark in electing the first black mayor in Newark, he relocated to New Jersey. Still, music was never far once he was invited to play with major acts. This opened the way for his recruitment by Miles Davis and he joined his band, internationally touring as a percussionist from 1971-75. Known for his militantly passionate views, Davis was a distinct influence on Mtume, confirming that an artist could be successful in their art form yet still hold true to their ideals. Mtume never hesitated to go where no one else had dared to before, adding culturally conscious themes interspersed with avant-garde jazz compositions. He progressed steadily from contributions on albums with artists like Harold Land and Bobby Hutchison to playing on over 80 albums with a variety of other notable musicians—including recording with the great Duke Ellington on the Flying Dutchman label, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Roberta Flack on Blue Lights in the Basement, and Lonnie Liston Smith on Astral Traveling.
His own first three albums were acoustic jazz compositions recorded when he was still performing with Davis. In 1972, the Mtume Umoja Ensemble released Alkebu-Lan - Land of The Blacks, followed by the independently produced albums, Kawaida in 1973, Alkebu-Lan in ’75, and Rebirth Cycle in 1977. By the 1980’s, the transition from analog to digital found him blending the best of both into his signature sound. Born of jazz’s complexity and color yet using technology’s drum machines and synthesizers, he states his goal was to “reduce all the notes to their highest common denominator”. This jazz/funk/R&B sound fused into his own “Sophistafunk” whose characteristics are woven into songs like the Grammy-winning “What Ya Gonna Do With My Lovin?” by Stephanie Mills. Whether composing for The Spinners or Lou Rawls, Mtume’s flavorful orchestrations brought unique tones to R&B. In acknowledging technologies contributions to art, he introduced landmark sounds that resonated well into the new millennium.
With almost a decade performing and recording with other bands, he inevitably formed his own namesake group—Mtume—by adding singer Tawatha Agee, co-writer Reggie Lucas, bassist Raymond “Ray” Jackson, and keyboardist Phil Fields. The resulting albums on the Epic Label between 1978-1986 included Kiss This World Goodbye (1978), In Search of the Rainbow Seekers (1980), Juicy Fruit (1983), You, Me and He (1984), and Theater of the Mind (1986). They collectively yielded 11 charting singles and earned critical acclaim with hits, "Juicy Fruit"—a #1 R&B chart-topper for eight weeks, and Billboard’s Hot 100 at #45 as well as being Certified Gold. Quickly followed by the success of "You, Me and He"— hitting at #2, and "Breathless" from their final album Theater of the Mind landing at #9. Their single, "Give It On Up (If You Want To)" reached #26 on the R&B charts and helped define R&B’s funk-jazz roots.
His earlier albums had always been done between other projects, yet by 1978, he decided to take time off completely and follow advice given by Miles that when you begin to hear new music—you change your band. With the exception of lead singer Tawatha Agee, he adopted not just a new band but an entirely new approach. Gone were the big horn and string arrangements of his earlier tracks, now replaced with what he called neo-minimalism. On “Juicy Fruit” he also broke new ground as a man writing lyrically risqué sensuality from a woman's point of view, as sung by the group’s powerful female vocalist. A composer consumed with sound, the studios became the laboratories for his musical experimentation. Such as example is found on You, Me, And He where Mtume deterred from the sterile quality of digital by recording it in analog and then mixing it digitally—bringing a completely different warmth to it. The track became a Hip Hop and R&B sample of choice. He makes it clear he has never been against sampling, and emphasizes his early opinion (leading to Stetsasonic’s 1988 track, “Talkin’ All that Jazz) was that any done without compensation/credit undermined the creative abilities of many artists. His own song, “Juicy Fruit” is found liberally used by artists like The Notorious BIG and Keisha Cole. It continues to find a new generation as it now circulates through video games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, while the group’s track “C.O.D. (I'll Deliver)” off the You, Me and He album was featured in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.
As a prolific songwriter/composer, Mtume has penned for motion pictures with James Baldwin’s Native Son and hits for various artists from Phyllis Hyman to Teddy Pendergrass. Co-writing with guitarist Reggie Lucas, they crafted one of music’s greatest hits in 1978 with the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s Billboard R&B chart topper, “The Closer I Get to You”. The Mtume/Lucas duo won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for writing and producing Stephanie Mills' 1980 top-ten hit "Never Knew Love Like This Before. Mtume’s later credits include R. Kelly’s "Freak Tonight" from the A Thin Line Between Love and Hate Soundtrack, and co-producing Mary J. Blige's Share My World, and K-Ci and Jo-Jo’s Love Always in 1997. He rounded out 1994-1999 with TV’s New York Undercover. There his compelling musical themes masterfully assembled generations of artists at the show’s featured nightclub, Natalie's, and blended eras—from Mary J Blige doing, “Natural Woman” to legends like BB King being reintroduced to younger viewers.
Noting the problems that an artist faces with the inability to keep pressing forward, he refused to allow repetition to become an excuse to continue once he reached a plateau. Instead, his intellectual dexterity allowed him to shift into another familiar arena—activism, this time via the New York airwaves. There his astute awareness of the socio-climate created a #1 popular talk radio show with many memorable conversations—including his astonishing prediction that Trump would win the primary election. In recent years, James Mtume has continued to share both his musical journey and his brilliant insights on music culture and social progression—such as in a popular debate with critic Stanley Crouch on Miles Davis' Electric Period at the Amistad Center for Art & Culture in Hartford, CT in 2010 and at the 2014 Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo. In addressing the potential of the industry and artists today he states, “I believe that every generation produces its own music, and actually, this is one of the most fertile times ever for young artists, with the Internet and social media. But we are reaching the point of considering ‘how are we defining and redefining originality?’ One of the things that is missing is people having their own fingerprint on their music. And that's the most important thing—having your own voice.”