R&B Legend James Mtume Passes Away at 76

Image: Chance Yeh /Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

James Mtume, legendary songwriter, producer, and activist has passed away. He was 76.

His passing was confirmed by his niece Lisa Lucas in a post on Twitter

“So much loss. So much grief,” her post read. “Rest in power to Uncle Mtume. My late father’s partner in crime, the co-creator of the songs of my life (and about my birth!). He was an essential part of the life of the man who made me, therefore me too. Gone now. He will be dearly, eternally missed.”

As of yet, no cause of death has been given.

Born James Forman on January 3 1946 in Philadelphia, Mtume was the son of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath, jazz royalty. Hewas raised by his stepfather, James “Hen Gates” Forman, a jazz pianist. A who’s who of legendary jazz musicians frequented his home as a child and would deeply influence him as producer and instrumentalist.

A tremendous swimmer in high school, he became the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke and in 1966 he won a swimming scholarship to Pasadena City College.

As a student, Mtume joined the US Organization, a Black empowerment group founded by Hakim Jamal and Maulana Karenga. There Mtume received his name which means “messenger” in Swahili, from Karenga, who gave members of the organization names to match their personality traits. Mtume co-edited The Quotable Karenga with Clyde Halisi, which has been called “the best expression of Karenga’s ideas”.

Mtume came to prominence as a percussionist while playing with Miles Davis who discovered him playing jazz clubs in Greenwich Village in New York City. He toured with Davis from 1971 to 1975 and contributed to some of Davis’ most progressive, boundary-pushing albums such as On the Corner, Big Fun, Agharta, and Pangaea. Mtume would also appear on numerous projects with a variety of other legendary musicians, including Lonie Liston, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, and several others.

After leaving Davis’ band, Mtume formed a production partnership with the late Reggie Lucas. The duo crafted classic compositions such as Stephanie Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before” and  Roberta Flack’s and Donny Hathaway’s duet “The Closer I Get to You.”

As a bandleader, his group, Mtume, is widely known for their 1983 R&B hit “Juicy Fruit,” which eventually went to number one on the R&B chart and became a blueprint for the meteoric rise of rap music. Since its debut, the song has been sampled by The Notorious B.I.G., Keyshia Cole, Alicia Keys, and many others. The band also had a top 5 R&B hit “You, Me, and He.”

Later in life, Mtume wrote the theme song for FOX’s hit show New York Undercover, was an on-air radio personality at New York City’s KISS 98.7 FM, and was a global ambassador for the genius of Black music.

Mtume is survived by his children Damu Mtume and Fa Mtume.

We extend our prayers and condolences to the family and friends of James Mtume.

Newsletter

Sign up for the EBONY Newsletter

Newsletter

Sign up for the EBONY Newsletter

When you sign up for the EBONY newsletter, you’ll be the first to know about all the latest news and updates that are important to you. Gain access to exclusive interviews, videos, special events, and product giveaways delivered right to your inbox!