Artist, Activist, and Legend – James Mtume
James Mtume grew up alongside some of the best musicians to ever live and then went on to transcend the genre of jazz, assist in the evolution of R&B, and create some of the most memorable sounds in hip-hop. Not only was Mtume a talented artist, but also a valuable political voice and an avid activist.
Mtume’s magnum opus was the hit song “Juicy Fruit,” which was a chart-topper in the 1980’s and then went on to be sampled in one of the most prolific rap songs of all time “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G. Similarly, Mtume co-wrote “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which won a Grammy award for Stephanie Mills.
Long before Juicy Fruit or the Grammys, Mtume had been working with musical greatness. “He played about four or five years with Miles Davis,” explains Fatiyn Muhammad, a friend of Mtume and producer of WBLS’s Open Line, “he comes out of a jazz family and you know, he was a percussionist. Most of the time, the percussionist are on the back of the stage, (but) Miles Davis had Mtume on the front of the stage and he played off of Mtume.”
In Miles’s 1989 autobiography titled Miles, Davis mentioned Mtume’s impact on his band: “With Mtume, Heath, and Pete Cosey joining us, most of the European sensibilities were gone from the band. Now the band settled down into a deep African thing, a deep African-American groove, with a lot of emphasis on drums and rhythm, and not on individual solos.”
From a young age Mtume was rooted in music, however his expression spanned far outside the realm of rhythm. On KISS-FM and then WBLS, Mtume worked alongside Fatiyn Muhammad, Bob Slade, and Judge Bob Pickett on “Open Line,” a program focused on engaging the New York City community that began in 1989. Mtume joined Open Line in 1994.
“He really made another career for himself through activism and in politics on the Open Line program,” Fatiyn Muhammad explained. “He’s very well read, very articulate, and he’s able to not look at something, but rather look into it and explain it, and also give a different viewpoint on it.”
Mtume’s ability to understand and express complex ideas, through both music and discussion were remarkable. Former New York Daily News writer David Hinkley noted Mtume’s willingness to call out corruption, abuse of police power, and issues facing the Black community on Open Line. “They focused on inequities in the judicial system and the lack of community representation in decisions that affected neighborhoods. They analyzed imbalances in the public school system.” writes Hinkley.
James Mtume was a modern Renaissance man, he was a man born to make history. According to journalist Ericka Blount Danois, “when Mtume was 14 years old, his father took him to see Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X speak.” Later in his life, Mtume would go on to produce music for television producer Dick Wolf. He got into activism with Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka, who is the father of the current Mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka. Mtume was not only a part of history but he was brave enough to try and influence history.
“He was able to connect with all generations,” explains Fatiyn Muhammad. “He could connect with the young and connect with his age. He connected with folks all up and down the age spectrum. And I asked myself, why was that? And it just came down (to the fact that) what he was saying was profound. It was truthful and it hit another note and the way he said it, you understood it. And a lot of times when somebody can break things down for you to understand or make you look from a different perspective, they are connecting with you. That’s what Mtume was able to do.”