When the music you’ve made since grade school has led you to concert stages around the world, and you’ve spent the past 40 years performing with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Dave Matthews, Santana, and the Fugees, it can be tough to pinpoint the moment you first realized you’d made it big. So when the question is put to Leon Mobley - master percussionist, drummer for Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, and proud Roxbury native - he hesitates, not quite sure how to answer.
There was the time in 2001, when he went off to rehearse alone before the Grammy Awards and realized the singer he was backing up had followed him, dancing to his beat with abandon. It was Madonna. Then again, decades earlier, there was the night in the late 1960s when a mysterious family friend dropped by, pulled the 7-year-old Mobley into a waiting limo, and brought him on stage to perform at Franklin Park’s Playhouse in the Park.
That was Duke Ellington.
“The thing is, I didn’t know who Duke Ellington was. I didn’t know the mega-ness of him until much later,’’ said Mobley, 50, who spent a lot of his childhood making history without realizing he was doing it. “The biggest thing I knew as mega-success was being on [the 1970s PBS kids’ show] ‘Zoom.’ I’d walk down the street in Boston and people would stop their cars and start singing the ‘Zoom’ song, wanting my autograph. It was crazy.’’
As a kid, Mobley didn’t just make music history, sharing the stage with jazz greats like Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and taking lessons from legendary Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji at Roxbury’s Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts. With his schoolbooks and backpack, Mobley also made Boston history: In the third grade, he became the first student to attend elementary school in the affluent suburb of Dover under METCO, the state’s 46-year-old voluntary desegregation program.
This week, the drummer boy who broke barriers in one of Massachusetts’ wealthiest enclaves has returned to his adopted hometown as an artist-in-residence at Dover’s Chickering Elementary School, where he’s exploring West African culture and music with students. The weeklong visit, years in the making by local resident Judith Schultz and other Chickering parents, culminates in a performance with Mobley and local students today.
“I’m really honored to be coming back,’’ said Mobley, who recently wrapped up touring with rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley on their Distant Relatives tour. “It’s a joy to be honored by an institution where I learned so much, and hopefully with the accomplishments I’ve made, the children can see that and be inspired that they can possibly do the same.’’
As part of his visit, Mobley is also meeting with students in the METCO program at Dover-Sherborn Regional High School to talk about his experience during the state’s tumultuous era of desegregation. It was a time when violence and turmoil over forced busing in Boston brought the city to its knees and sowed seeds of deep resentment toward affluent suburbs insulated from the court-imposed sanctions.
But in the shadow of Boston busing, Mobley and other black children in the voluntary METCO program also endured isolation, slurs, and school days that began before dawn.
“I used to get up around 5 a.m. and take the MBTA to meet the other students at Egleston station for the bus to Dover,’’ Mobley recalled, “which wasn’t actually a bus. It was a station wagon. On some days, we would get to Dover so early the principal would not let us in the school. It could be winter, unbelievably cold, and he would tell us to play outside.’’
The theme of Mobley’s visit, “Around the World and Home Again,’’ reflects his literal journey but also a deeply symbolic one: Despite moments of intense racial hatred - and the daily psychological challenge of moving between his struggling housing development and the stately homes of Peabodys and Saltonstalls - Mobley still cherishes his METCO experience to this day.
He doesn’t just remember Dover fondly as part of his past; he holds it close and very much in the present. Not just because his music teacher bought him a drum while everyone took recorder. Not just because he found a brother and lifelong friend in one of his classmates. And not just because he got to let loose with a minibike on the sprawling estate of his host family’s nearby neighbor, then-Governor Francis W. Sargent (as Mobley recalls, he eventually got chased down by security).
METCO, Mobley said, opened a path to a career he could not have achieved with his drumming alone. With its bucolic farms and rare wealth, Dover offered him a priceless gift: the ability to navigate disparate worlds while holding on to his sense of self. If he’s been able to perform on “American Idol’’ or travel in remote stretches of Africa, Mobley said, it is in part because by age 10, he understood the importance of wearing an Izod shirt in one place, and the importance of not correcting friends who pronounced the silent ‘w’ in ‘sword’ in another place.
“You have to understand, I come from the projects. We ate mayonnaise sandwiches and chicken out of a can,’’ Mobley said. “I remember having a poached egg for the first time in Dover and saying, ‘What is this?’ because at home, my eggs were powdered. But you know, I came from a family where my mother was Muslim and an activist. There was a very strong sense of black pride in our household culture. So I wore the penny loafers and the rope bracelets, but I also had my identity.’’
His unbridled spirit and ability to blend in amazed classmates. Here was a kid who walked in as the ultimate outsider and almost instantly became a star, the musical prodigy from “Zoom’’ everyone watched on TV.
“To think about how young he was when he first came to Chickering, I think about how courageous that really was,’’ said classmate Steve Arndt, who shared countless Halloween outings and pool dips with Mobley after the Arndts signed on as his host family. As adults, the two men have been in each other’s weddings and stay in close touch. “And now he’s been to, I don’t know, 60 or 70 countries. He’s able to adapt and bring people together in this multitude of environments, but never losing himself.’’
Arndt, who lives in a New Haven suburb, recalled a telling moment in the sixth grade, when a substitute teacher used a racial slur in the middle of gym. After Mobley confronted her, his classmates backed him and the teacher was fired.
“We knew it was wrong, but at first we were immobilized. We didn’t know how to react,’’ Arndt said. “But Leon, even that young, knew exactly what to do, and it empowered all of us to do the same. . . . Looking back, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Leon is coming to Dover to learn. And at some point I realized, ‘No, this is reciprocal.’ In so many ways we learned so much from him.’’Francie Latour writes about race and culture for the Globe, Boston.com, and on her parenting blog Caramels on Maple Street. She can be reached at email@example.com.