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Heshima Moja Biography

An 8-year-old sits quietly watching an interview with Paul Simon, discussing his life as a songwriter. He is absolutely mesmerized and decides in silence that this is what he wants to do. By the time he was 12 years old,  he announced at a family gathering, that he was going to pursue a life in music. So while most children his age were busy enjoying the carefree days of their youth, Heshima Moja was busy digging into record collections at his local library, saving up money from his summer job to buy as many books and albums as he could to listen, read, and absorb the sounds, and stories of musicians from around the world. He had begun playing percussion at the age of 9 with the encouragement of his godmother, and had already tried his hand at the violin, and started singing in the school chorus. But at the age of 15 when he decided to play bass, he found the instrument which would help him begin to shape his artistic identity and voice. In less than a year, his high school music teacher gave him the responsibility of being a music director for the talent shows, while the theatre director allowed him to compose short musical interludes for the plays that were being produced. Moja devoured anything he could, expanding his record collections to include classic rock, soul music, funk, a wide range of music from the African continent, India, Hip Hop, Salsa, Rumba, and even symphonic music. So it was no surprise that he began to also explore the history of these art forms as well as the people and cultures that were creating them. 


By the age of 17, Heshima was performing, writing, and planning his next steps. He left to go on the road for the first time with a regional artist, Jo Sallins, who allowed the young and eager bassist to explore and apply all that he had been studying in front of audiences up and down the East Coast and Midwestern part of the United States. Sallins also saw something else in his young protege as he utilized him in artistic residencies at high schools and universities. He saw that Moja's passion for learning, scholarship around issues of the history of the music and social justice movements was as strong as his love of music. So he encouraged him to continue to develop his ideas and figure out ways to incorporate them into both his writing, his performance as well as the educational presentations. This was not a difficult concept for Moja to grasp because his mentors and teachers were all connected to the lineage of artist/scholar/activists. He held deep admiration for people like Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti Public Enemy, and for a bassist, composer and world-renowned jazz musician Avery Sharpe. 


So a major opportunity came when Moja was asked to do a recording date with Avery Sharpe who was in need of a vocalist for a new recording he was working on: Thoughts of My Ancestors. He jumped at the opportunity. this wa the doorway into the world of jazz that he had been working toward. It was also the beginning of what has developed into a professional association that has lasted for over two decades and served as the springboard for so many of Heshima's career opportunities. Sharpe once asked for a recommendation concerning Moja, simply said: "he's a bad cat!". To those in the jazz world, it's understood exactly what that means. Heshima explains the extent to which Sharpe has influenced his life. "Avery is a model for how I choose to live my life both artistically, and personally. The strength of character, integrity, and the dedication to his personal principles go hand in hand with his approach to music. Music and life are really the same things for Avery. And his selfless devotion to music and humanity are things I try to emulate in my life and work". 

Since that association began, Heshima has gone on to work share the stage with some of the greatest names in the music business and crossing the boundaries of genre. from Patti Labelle, and La India, to Guru, Qwest Love(of the Roots), Onaje Allan Gumbs, William Cepeda, Jose Valentino, Salim Washington, Arturo O'Farrill, Hi-5, West African Superstar Pape Diouf, Rene Harris and Pure Movement, The National Dance Company of South Africa, The National Dance Company of Mozambique, and tap Sensation Jason Samuels as well as Sitar Master Shafat Khan. "I've never been one to stay within the boxes that people try to stick me in..", says Moja when asked about how he moves so freely between genres. "I am very adamant about respecting traditions, legacy and truly studying in order to create a solid foundation to work from. But at the same time, I see all things as interconnected. So the Griots of West Africa, the masters of the music called "jazz", hip hop, and Salsa are all connected by common threads. If we take time to really understand and research, we will find them. They have been left there for us to find by the masters who created and left the music for us". For Moja this means not only exploring the technical and theoretical aspects of music; the craft, but also spending time researching and developing an understanding of the lives of those who have come before, but also the complexity of the issues that are interwoven into the musical expression of these artists. "Every time I play, sing or write a note of music, I am not only expressing my own experiences, but I also feel a deep sense of commitment to telling the stories of those in this world that don't always have an outlet to tell the stories. If I'm not interested in WHY Marvin Gaye asks "what's goin' on?", then how can I say that I really love his artistry. He is writing about and singing about the reality of the daily experiences of millions of people around the world. Music and art should serve as more than a delightful diversion. It should be informing, inspiring, inviting, evoking, and yes, even making people feel uncomfortable. All art should be didactic".


Apart from his life as a performer,  Heshima is very  active as a music director and composer for several experimental theatre groups such as Teatro Vida, under the direction of award-winning playwright, an influential member of the Nuyorican Poetry movement, and educator Magdalena Gomez. Moja spent 5 years composing music and teaching members of the company how to become one with music and to allow music to be a vehicle for their own journey into the development of their characters, which can sometimes be very cathartic. "Magdalena allowed the freedom to explore my own capacity as a composer without restriction. She also encouraged me, just as years before, Jo Sallins had done, to open myself to the possibility of combining my musical ability with my passion for scholarship, and for the healing power of music and art. She allowed me to discover that I really am an educator. She gave me the gift of being able to really connect with the legacy of the artist, scholar, an activist that I so admire and aspire to continue. She also walked me into a world filled with amazing playwrights, poets, actors which expanded my view of what I could be as an artist. She got me my first gig at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe which to the average person may not seem like a big deal. But to me, a student of histoy, as a  Nuyorican, and as an artist,  this was life altering. It connected me to something bigger than myself; to legacy". In fact, it created a bridge for Moja that lead to him working with and composing music for "La Madrina" of the Nuyorican Poets movement, Sandra Maria Esteves, and so many others. 

Another important collaborative partner over the years has been Darryl Moss. Moss, a Spoken word artist, activist and event promoter, began to call Moja to accompany artists at his spoken word events. Along with keyboardist Richard Byrd, Moja and Moss began moving away from the traditional beat-style poetry utilizing solely jazz as the foundation for poetry and began to draw on the musical influences of Hip Hop, Soul, and R & B to create what is now recognized as the New England Spoken Soul Sound. During this time, Heshima worked with renowned poets like Mahogany Brown, Jive Poetic, Crystal Senter Brown(with whom he recorded and wrote music for two albums), Talaam Acey, and began to really grow as a music director, taking on more and more of the responsibility to write arrangements, hire musicians, and work with Moss to construct shows. "Heshima brought his really theoretical and schooled approach to music to that scene, and slowly learned to let that flow through him without being so stiff and calculated. We really made magic". 

Since then, Heshima has gone on to score music for films such as the award-winning film, Rhythm in Blue, an adaptation of the book by the same title, written by Crystal Senter Brown, for several theatrical works, experimental films like Dear Death, and El Barrio. He has also written music for PBS, and for the Nickelodeon Network. He also has two projects that garnered international acclaim as a leader. Round and Round, which highlights Moja's songwriting and vocal ability, and The Awakening, which highlights his work as a composer in the jazz tradition while combining so many of his varied influences. 

Heshima combines his passion for performance, and composition  his love of education, activism and his desire to leave a mark on future generations through his series of artistic residencies, masterclasses, clinics, and speaking engagements where he shares his years of experience, expertise, and knowledge with audiences while fostering the spirit of a safe and creative learning communities wherever he goes.