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.