Newark remembers James Matum, Grammy Award-winning musician and activist

James Muttom’s musical journey has taken him many places during his life, from his African roots, through jazz, R&B and soul, to his own mix of music that he liked to call “sophistphonic”.

As a percussionist, he supplied conga beats for Miles Davis’ electric funk in the early 1970s.

As a keyboardist, he co-wrote the silky R&B song “Never Knew Love Like This Before” by Stephanie Mills which won a Grammy Award in 1981.

As a songwriter, he gave us “Juicy Fruit,” the tune that became hip-hop after The Notorious B.I.G. took it as a sample in 1994.

The South Orange native, who died Sunday at the age of 76, lived in a major musical world, a world rooted in black and constantly evolving. When he wasn’t making music, he was making change as a community activist in his new city, Newark.

“More than his music, I admired his intellect,” said Bashir Muhammad Ptah Akineli, a Newark teacher and activist who worked with Matomy. “His goal was to make sure blacks knew their history and culture. He told me he came to Newark because of my prince pool.”

Born into a musical family in Philadelphia—his father was jazz musician Jimmy Heath—James Foreman went 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 Matumi, which means “messenger” in Swahili.

He came to Newark in the years immediately following the 1967 riots, with musician Matumi joining Baraka, the poet and playwright. First, they worked to elect Ken Gibson as the first black mayor of Newark in 1972.

That same year, Baraka organized the first black national convention, which was held in Gary, Indiana. At the time of his death, Tom was serving on the organizing committee for the 50th Anniversary of the Black National Convention, to be held at NJIT in Newark from August 4-7.

Ironically, both Baraka and Matum died on January 9; 2014 pool, and died last Sunday.

The irony was not lost on Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, son of a prince.

“What I loved most about Brother Matum was his love for his people, his commitment, and his endless struggle for justice,” Baraka wrote in the mayor’s blog. “As one of the main organizers of the upcoming Black National Political Conference, Brother Matum was hopeful that practical steps would be taken to move our people forward.”

Matumi spent 18 years as a co-host of “Open Line”, a weekly community-connected radio program that first airs on Kiss-FM 98.7 and later WBLS-FM 107.5.

Matumi stopped hosting the show about four years ago, when he developed cancer, the publicist said. But he remained active in Newark.

When the New Jersey Institute of Technology announced in December that it would host the 50th anniversary of the Black National Convention, Matomy joined the press conference remotely. Most recently, Matumi was a guest on “All Politics is Local,” a radio show that airs every Friday from 6-9 p.m. from WRNU in Rutgers-Newark and is broadcast live on Facebook.

“He was really committed to passing on the torch of leadership to the younger generation,” said Ed Riley, presenter who also chairs Unity Without Uniformity, the nonprofit that sponsors the National Black Conference at NJIT. “Mtome was a giant among men, and he was always one to give.”

Riley said Matumi’s memory will be honored at the conference, which will attract black leaders from across the country.

Matom is survived by his wife Camille; two sons, Volo Matumi and Richard Johnson; four daughters, Mtome Boys, Ich King, Eve Mtome, and Sandra Lee; A brother, Jeffrey Foreman, and six grandchildren. Due to COVID restrictions, the funeral will be private.

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Richard Quinn can be reached in rcowen@njadvancemedia.com.

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