James Mtume, jazz musician who became an R&B hitmaker, dies at 76

James Mtume, the musician best known for his work with Miles Davis and for his R&B hit Juicy Fruit, has died. He was 76.

As a percussionist, Mtume rose to prominence as a sideman for jazz greats McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Albert “Tootie” Heath and Miles Davis. He ended up joining Davis’s group and recorded seven albums between 1971 and 1975.

He then founded his own R&B group, also called Mtume, with which he developed a blend of soul, jazz and funk that he dubbed “Sophistifunk.” The band is best known for their 1983 hit Juicy Fruit, which went on to become a staple among hip-hop producers and was sampled in songs by Alicia Keys, Lil’ Kim, Snoop Dogg and, most famously, the Notorious B.I.G.

As a songwriter, Mtume wrote hits for a variety of artists including Phyllis Hyman, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Stephanie Mills, Mary J. Blige and Teddy Pendergrass.

His death on Jan. 9 was confirmed by his publicist, Angelo Ellerbee. The cause of death was not provided.

Born in Philadelphia on Jan. 3, 1947, Mtume was the son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, but was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and stepfather James “Hen Gates” Forman, a pianist with Charlie Parker’s band.

In addition to his work as a musician, songwriter and producer, Mtume was also an activist, radio personality and political commentator who prominently promoted Black empowerment and racial justice.

His sociopolitical work began in his college days when he joined the US Organization, a Black empowerment group founded by Hakim Jamal and Maulana Karenga. There, he adopted the surname Mtume, the Swahili word for “messenger.”

Mtume’s own embrace of African culture and roots proved influential on other musicians throughout his career.

“We called each other by our Swahili names, and over time we started embracing other visible symbols of the Black diaspora,” Herbie Hancock recalled in Possibilities, his autobiography published in 2014. “I had never spent much time thinking about my African roots, but all of us became increasingly influenced by African culture, religion and music.”

James Mtume leaves his wife Kamili Mtume; brother Jeffrey Forman; sons Faulu Mtume, Richard Johnson; daughters Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume, Sanda Lee; and grandchildren Sukari Mtume, Yamani Mtume, Craig McCargo, Mazi Mtume, Aya Mtume and Jhasi Mtume.