For the past few years, drummer “Lil” James Ellis worked a day job with a security company and supplemented his income as a member of local go-go band Let It Flow. While he enjoyed his musical career, he says his daytime gig was miserable due to racism ingrained in his workplace’s culture. As COVID-19 began to impact the D.C. area, Ellis says the company fired its Black employees first. When Let It Flow’s gigs dropped off, Ellis knew it was time to reinvent himself.
“I knew I never wanted to work at another job where someone hates me because of the way I look, or my skin color,” he says. “It’s just stupid. I told my wife I wanted to create my own business, my own dream.”
And so he considered the sweet southern-style black tea that his family had been drinking for generations in North Carolina. “My family knows me as a tea fanatic,” he says. “I used to drink a pitcher of tea a day.”
Ellis thought about the role tea played in the transatlantic slave trade and the misery his enslaved ancestors endured. When he used his tax return money to launch his new Prince George’s County-based company last July, he dubbed it M.A.S.O.N Tea & Co. The acronym stands for My Ancestors Shaped Our Nation. The company’s name was particularly meaningful to him as a member of the Prince Hall Freemasonry.
M.A.S.O.N Tea & Co. sells teas that draw on family recipes dating back six generations. Each flavor is named after a family member—the inventory includes Dora’s Black Sweet Tea, Ellen’s Strawberry Mint Sweet Tea, Ben’s Ginger Sweet Tea, Leander’s Watermelon Mint Sweet Tea, and the most popular, Mary’s Cotton Candy Sweet Tea. The teas are sold in 16-ounce mason jars and gallon-sized glass jugs.
“In the South, you drink sweet tea in a mason jar,” Ellis says. “Never ever in a plastic cup. There’s something about the taste of tea in glass versus plastic.”
A little more than four months in, M.A.S.O.N Tea & Co. has sold close to 5,000 jars, largely due to support from the go-go community. For the time being, it’s a DIY endeavor. In addition to brewing and delivering the tea himself, Ellis designed his own logo and website, shot nearly all of the promotional photos, and filmed his own commercials.
His day typically starts around 6 a.m., when he begins to sort through orders. Ellis finishes brewing the teas by 3 p.m., and then he’s out for delivery, sometimes until the early morning hours. He currently works out of his kitchen in his Upper Marlboro home, but hopes to have a storefront soon. “I have mason jars, tea, agave, honey, and sugar everywhere,” he says, noting that his wife’s cooking takes precedence in the kitchen. “I know when to get out of her way.”
Ellis spent his early years in Southeast D.C. before his family relocated to nearby Temple Hills. His mother worked as a telephone technician, and his father was a freight delivery driver. But music ran in the family. Ellis’ cousins Milt Matthews and Carlos Corley are gospel musicians, and his father has always maintained that he is distantly related to Duke Ellington. As a go-go drummer, Ellis is best known for his years with Publicity Band, and has also played with Black Alley, Lissen da Grewp, and Suttle Thoughts.
He was encouraged to pursue music as a student at Oxon Hill’s Potomac High School where he says the band teacher was like a father to him. “He inspired me to play the drums, and he actually got me into Bowie State University with a scholarship,” Ellis says.
But life doesn’t always pan out as planned, and after his daughter was born, Ellis dropped out of school to enter the workforce. Still, he has managed to keep his go-go career going and he benefits from the support of the go-go community.
A series of ads for the tea company have featured various go-go artists, including Pam “Pammy” Ward, vocalist for Let It Flow as well as Donnell Floyd’s new smooth R&B band, Push Play. “The COVID-19 pandemic has led people to support one another even more in the go-go community because most of us are kind of hurting or lacking for some income at this point,” says Ward, whose favorite, Alice’s Lemon Ginger Sweet Tea, was inspired by Ellis’ mother. “The product itself is great, and as a vocalist, I’m a huge proponent of ginger.”
Montu Mitchell, who has built a small empire with his Love DC Go-Go apparel, has recently been organizing “Blacktober” markets showcasing small Black-owned businesses, including M.A.S.O.N Tea & Co. “We believe in the M.A.S.O.N Tea Company and how he has connected the narrative of his recipes with the stories of our ancestors,” Mitchell says. “He’s selling teas like nobody’s business. I have seen guys leaving with two or three cases of tea at one time. I’m so proud of him and what he’s been able to accomplish.”
Now Ellis and Mitchell are collaborating on M.A.S.O.N Tea-shirts—tea-stained T-shirts that which are bleached and dipped in tea. “The tea stain gives it a wonderful smell and nice rosy pink [hue],” Mitchell explains. But he is not using M.A.S.O.N Tea to dye the shirts, which are available to purchase on the M.A.S.O.N Tea website. “The M.A.S.O.N Tea never lasts long enough to make it to the production process.”
As live shows slowly return to the D.C. area, Ellis hopes to find balance between tea making and drumming for Let It Flow. “For drummers, it’s all about timing,” he says. “Your timing has got to be on point as a drummer, and with tea, there’s a certain time that gives you a perfect brew. If you miss that time, you can have too-early tea, or you can have burnt tea,” he says.
“They’re both definitely linked by tradition,” he adds. “I would assume that tea goes back almost since the dawn of man. So does the drum, which has always been the beat of life.”
M.A.S.O.N Tea Company, (202) 664-7747; masonteaco.com