Black History Month: Rapper James the Mormon is now a tech innovator

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One of the major turning points in the life of James Curran – who was well known as JTM or James the Mormon – came when he was 21 years old.

After being kicked out of BYU-Idaho for the second time, he moved to St. George and got a job at a local restaurant. He remembers going to a party at a friend’s house after work on Christmas Eve. He said he was drunk and high on marijuana when he made the decision to drive home.

Before he could get there, the young man was stopped by a policeman who smelled alcohol and asked him if he had been drinking. Curran lied and said no, but he had been around other people who drank. The policeman walked away with his license and registration. Curran was sure he would go to jail.

But that didn’t happen. When the policeman returned, he handed Curran his license and said, “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but Merry Christmas. Drive home right away.

Curran obeys. As he contemplated the negative direction his life might have taken that night, his only explanation was that God had intervened.

“He knew that was a turning point for me,” Curran said. “I could choose to change my life or go to prison and who knows what would happen. I decided to change my life and go on a mission.

The pivotal experience led Curran to rectify his life and opened the door to a brighter future.

Today, at 35, he is the founder and CEO of whistlepitch, a technology company that provides customers with trackable content and real-time analytics to help eliminate redundancy and focus efforts where they’re most effective. He previously launched other tech companies and has business connections in real estate, Airbnb and other businesses.

James Curran, founder and CEO of technology company Whistlepitch, J Lyons, Chris Barragan and James Choi speak during a meeting at The Shop coworking space in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A few years ago, Curran was the hit rap artist known as James the Mormon, but he no longer goes by that nickname. He still enjoys music as a hobby, but he’s more passionate about being an entrepreneur and innovating in technology these days.

“We are improving,” he said. “We’re growing up, so it’s an exciting time.”

Curran, a graduate of Brigham Young University, recently spoke with the Deseret News about his life and career path, his business experience, and how he hopes to make a difference in the technology space owned by Blacks at the time of Black History Month.

Here are six questions with the entrepreneur and technology innovator.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Desert News: You were born in Utah but grew up in several different countries. Where in the world have you lived?

James Curran: My mother, who died last September, was an American diplomat. My father served a Latter-day Saint mission in Chile, and my mother served a mission in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Then she joined the US Foreign Service. Because she spoke Spanish, they sent her to Mexico. She got pregnant by me in Mexico. They didn’t want me to be born in Mexico so they came to Utah. I was born, we stayed here for two weeks, then we moved back to Mexico.

From there we went to Ontario, Canada; then in Taiwan, Beijing, Moscow, Uzbekistan. Between those times, the way it works with the foreign service is that you always come back to the United States for about a year. So between all of these events, I was in the Washington, DC, Virginia or Maryland area for about a year, and then we were going back overseas for about three years.

DN: For the past few years, you have tried to rename yourself and move away from the nickname “James the Mormon”. How is it going for you ?

JC: Terribly. I’ve learned that, especially in niche communities, if you gain fame, that’s who you are within that community. I will die as “James the Mormon” no matter what I do in my life, even if I leave the church, which I have no intention of doing. But I will always be James the Mormon because that’s how they were introduced to me. So whatever my name is, and believe me, I’ve tried changing my name many times, they always call me James the Mormon.

James Curran, founder and CEO of technology company Whistlepitch, poses for a photo.

James Curran, founder and CEO of technology company Whistlepitch, poses for a photo after attending a meeting at The Shop coworking space in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

I also realized that making music is hard to top, no matter what that means to me. What I’m doing with Whistlepitch and these other entrepreneurial ventures is so much more exciting and successful in my mind than what James the Mormon was.

But no matter what I do – “Yeah, I do Whistlepitch, we grow, we just hit this hit metric” – people go, “Oh, cool. What about the music?” It’s funny. So I guess I don’t think I’m really going to eclipse that. I think it will follow me for the rest of my life. It’s just something I’ll have to deal with.

DN: As a musical artist, you have produced four albums and several singles. Do you still make music?

JC: I make music as a hobby. If you think back to past interviews, even when I had the #1 album in America, I said it was a hobby. It’s a hobby I loved doing. I can’t control how many people enjoy seeing what I do or create, there are waves of success with that. But yes, until the end of my life, I will probably create music as a hobby and if people like it, they can listen to it.

DN: February is Black History Month. Is there anyone in black history who has influenced or inspired you?

JC: Yes, there are several people. The one that comes to mind is Barack Obama. The reason Barack Obama is so important to me in black history is because I sincerely believed growing up until he became president that there was a ceiling for me because the color of my skin. When he became president, just the fact that he became president, there was an “aha” moment for me as a human being, a black man in America. The world is now my oyster. I can accomplish anything. Anything is possible if I work hard enough.

So that moment when he became president was very critical for my life and I’m sure for the lives of other black people in America, who probably had similar “aha” moments.

If I can offer some of the “aha” moment that Barack Obama gave me to other people, then I’m very proud of it. We hope to do so.

DN: When did you realize you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

JC: I have been an entrepreneur since the age of 12. I was selling candy at school to make money. I would pick up these fun sized bags for $5, then sell the 30 pieces there are for 0.50 each, I’d make a profit of $10.

I sold CDs at school. In college, I organized events. Before my mission, I would tour events from Rexburg, Idaho, all the way to St. George – all the college towns – and throw these massive parties. It would cost a few thousand dollars to throw the party. Then we would sell tickets and charge $5 per person. My return home was probably $5,000 per party.

I went on a mission (Washington Everett Mission, Russian-speaking) and really learned who I was. I spent every penny I had to serve a mission. When I got home, I was completely broke. I worked for Vivint to earn money. I was their #1 sales rep for an entire year in 2012. From then on, I was an entrepreneur.

I was just lucky enough to have a roommate who won the BYU business plan competition. He introduced me to the world of technology. We were the co-founders of Stickr.co. I sold my capital to pursue music for a few years and see what it had to offer, but I got right back into tech.

I think my greatest strength is seeing an opportunity and then acting on it.

James Curran, founder and CEO of Whistlepitch, a technology company, Chris Barragan, J Lyons and James Choi speak during a meeting.

James Curran, founder and CEO of technology company Whistlepitch, Chris Barragan, J Lyons and James Choi speak during a meeting at The Shop coworking space in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

DN: What gives you the most satisfaction in your job?

JC: The coolest part of Whistlepitch, especially as a business owner, comes when we demo the software. It’s cool to see how quickly they can see the value in their own processes. We plug things in and we simplify their lives so they can actually live their lives. Being able to work together to solve their specific problems and add value to their specific processes is really cool.

I also want to inspire people of color to think beyond what they said they were capable of, like beyond being athletes or musicians. They can be technology innovators or business leaders in every possible industry. It’s really important to me because I’ve seen other people do it and then I said, I can do it. I want them to see, not just me, but other black leaders or people doing things so they can say, I can do this too.

I really want to deliver the “aha” moment that Barack Obama did for me and I sincerely believe that representation is so important in changing minds of what people think they are capable of.

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