James Mtume’s musical journey took him a lot of places during his life, from his African roots, through Jazz, R&B and Soul, and into his own heady blend of music that he liked to call “Sophistifunk.”
As a percussionist, he supplied the conga beats to Miles Davis’ electro-funk in the early 1970s.
As a keyboardist, he co-wrote the silky R&B ballad, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” for Stephanie Mills that won a Grammy in 1981.
And as a songwriter, he gave us “Juicy Fruit,” the tune that became a hip hop staple after The Notorious B.I.G. sampled it in 1994.
The South Orange resident, who died on Sunday at the age of 76, lived in a big musical world, one rooted in Blackness and constantly evolving. When he wasn’t making music, he was making change as community activist in his adopted city of Newark.
“More than his music it was his mind that I admired,” said Bashir Muhammad Ptah Akinyele, a Newark teacher and activist who worked with Mtume. “He was about making sure that Black people knew their history and their culture. He told me he came to Newark because of Amiri Baraka.”
Born James Forman into a musical family in Philadelphia—his father was jazz saxophonist Jimmie Heath—Mtume went off to college in California in the mid-1960s on a swimming scholarship. There, he was awakened to the teachings of Ron Karenga and the Black Power movement and changed his name to Mtume, which means “messenger” in Swahili.
He came to Newark in the years just after the 1967 riot, where Mtume, the musician, joined up with Baraka, the poet and playwright. First, they worked to get Ken Gibson elected 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 serving on the organizing committee of the 50th Anniversary Black National Convention, which is to be held at NJIT in Newark from Aug. 4 to 7.
Ironically, Baraka and Mtume both died on Jan. 9; Baraka in 2014, and Mtume this past Sunday.
The irony was not lost on Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, son of Amiri.
“What I loved most about Brother Mtume was the love that he had for his people and his commitment and never-ending fight for justice,” Baraka wrote on his mayor’s blog. “As one of the lead organizers of the upcoming National Black Political Convention, Brother Mtume hoped to create actionable steps to move our people forward.”
Mtume spent 18 years as a co-host of “Open Line,” a weekly community call-in radio show first broadcast on Kiss-FM 98.7 and later WBLS-FM 107.5.
Mtume stopped doing the show about four years ago, when he was stricken with cancer, his publicist said. But he still remained active in Newark.
When NJIT announced in December that it would host the 50th anniversary Black National Convention, Mtume joined the press conference remotely. And recently, Mtume was a guest on “All Politics is Local,” a radio show broadcast every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. from WRNU at Rutgers-Newark that is live-streamed on Facebook.
“He was really committed to passing the torch of leadership to a younger generation,” said Ed Riley, the show host who also heads Unity Without Uniformity, the nonprofit that is sponsoring the Black National Convention at NJIT. “Mtume was a giant among men, and someone who was always giving.”
Riley said a memorial tribute to Mtume will be held at the convention, which will attract Black leaders from all over the country.
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; a brother, Jeffrey Forman, and six grandchildren.