John Forte

Mind Full: John Forté

The former Fugees producer opens up about his time in prison, his Russian tour and finding deep personal and artistic transformation

by Joicelyn Dingle, July 23, 2012

 John Forte

Andy Kropa/Getty Images

Brooklyn, New York. 1975.

John Edward Forté is present. Born era-appropriate, sun in Aquarius. Not before his time but right on it. Hip hop, the art form that would be the foundation of his career was forging its own way, defining itself for itself and its people.

Young Forté earns a full scholarship to elite boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy, a privilege that often identifies him to his white peers as an exception to all which is (perceived to be) Black. After graduating, Forté majored in Music Business at New York University. He leaves college for a job at Rawkus Records as an A&R (artists & repertoire) executive. The Rawkus imprint was famed for their underground, politically and socially informed brand of hip hop movement—the Lyricists Lounge and artists Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and DJ Evil Dee.

Forté’s good fortune continues when he meets young star Lauryn Hill and eventually collaborates as a writer and producer on the 1996 groundbreaking, Grammy-nominated Fugees album The Score. Himself a rapper of swashbuckling swagger, he gets a solo record deal. He releases two albums Poly Sci (1998) and I, John (2002). After the release of Poly Sci, Forte loses his record deal. His sophomore album I, John, recorded independently while on house arrest, receives critical acclaim but not commercial success. 

In an effort to maintain his life and his music, he makes a fateful choice that redirects his path to a 14-year sentence in federal prison. Forté was arrested in 2000 at Newark Airport with a briefcase containing approximately $1.5 million in liquid cocaine. All of his potential seemingly thrown away in an instant. He disappears away, inside —living as a prisoner in the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

Through what he calls the “incredible faith” of his mother and the tireless efforts of his loved ones, most notably, singer Carly Simon (aka Mama C), in 2008, Forté receives a unlikely commutation from President George W. Bush. After serving seven years of his sentence, he is released.

Tribeca Grand Hotel. Tribeca, NY

2012. John Forté is here. He is earnestly dressed with hints of his famous borough’s character as well as his own: a nod to the Rasta, the rebel and the gentleman. He has the peaceful intensity of a monk. Often clean-shaven, today his beard is perfectly wild and lush, his super long knotty locks coiffed into a crown.

Forté is ending a conversation with the bassist in his band, Brian Satz, who is also the COO of Forte’s new company, Le Castle. Le Castle is the brainchild of Forté and high school friend/businessman, Christophe Charlier —Chairman of the company as well as Chairman of the Board Brooklyn Nets. Only a year old, the kings of Le Castle have produced three films; signed a fresh-to-the-American-scene singer, Sunsay (already a huge star and respected musician in Eastern Europe); and the second installment of John Forté’s three-part album, WATER, LIGHT, SOUND called The Light Suite will soon be released independently. Forté directed the video for the first single “Give Me Water,” a neo-blues knockout with folk femme, Valerie June.

His standout film, The Russian Winter showed at The Tribeca Film Festival and received much acclaim earlier this year. IMDB describes it as “a film about journeys.” It’s that and more—Forté’s Russian tour becomes the ground for one of his most profound artistic and personal transformations since heading to federal prison all those years ago.

Now Forté speaks easy, but his mind is full. “What I do is deliberate and what I sing about is deliberate,” he says. “People have every right to do what they want to do and say what they want to say, but I need to offer something more.”

EBONY: Deepak Chopra once said that the secret to a happy life is to recognize that no matter what the situation is, there is a creative opportunity in it.

John Forté: It’s a profound statement. And one that feels like it’s right out of the page of my journal. I look back on my time away as so many opportunities gained, opportunities to better myself as a academician, to ask myself the hard questions, to get more into my artistry as a musician. Most importantly, it allowed me to progress as a critical thinker. I recognized myself as a critical thinker in a way that did not require external validation or a shelf of degrees, honorary or otherwise.

EBONY: What was your first performance out of prison? What was that feeling?

JF: My first performance was at Joe’s Pub, New York City. Sold out.  It was awesome, just a guitar and me on vocals…I’d evolved to being the type of artist who could accompany himself, which I wasn’t prior to going away. Ironically enough I was able to find a certain freedom while I was away by being able to teach myself to play the guitar. To be able to do something that for years I had thought about…and I envied others who were able to do it whether it was watching Fiona Apple play the piano or listening to Kat Power strum a guitar…I was able to find my own rhythm, my own sound acoustically that lent itself to what I was trying to do lyrically.

EBONY: You are a big reader. What books did you read while you were locked up?

JF: I read a lot. Biographies, scientific literature. I read War and Peace… I returned to certain books once a year including the Art of War. I read a fascinating book about [Abraham] Hannibal, the Moor of St. Petersburg. One day someone gives Peter the Great, as a gift for his birthday, a little African boy—Abraham Hannibal— in front of his entire court. Started off as a joke. But, the boy became a son to Peter. He sent Hannibal to France during the Enlightenment Period where he studied with Voltaire and a number of other thinkers. Coincidentally, Hannibal is the great-grandfather of Russia’s most celebrated poet, Alexander Pushkin. Little did I know, back then, that I would ultimately get to visit the places where the Moor of St. Petersburg prospered.

EBONY: Perfect transition. Let’s talk about your documentary film, The Russian Winter.

JF: Christophe has been in Russia for more than a half a decade. He’s married to a Russian woman, he has five Russian boys, a sixth one on the way. It was a simple suggestion…Come to Moscow for a few days and maybe do a couple of shows…I thought it would be nice to spend more time there. With that suggestion he ran with it. Within a couple of weeks, from what began as a seedling of an invitation blossomed into a two and a half month Russian tour–in the middle of winter.

EBONY: How did Russia receive you?

JF: So well. Generally when we were dealing with the press, there were two questions in the exact same order: “Why are you here?” which meant why us? And the second question was, “What do you think about us?”

EBONY: What did you think of them?

JF: I don’t believe I’ve met a kinder, more generous, giving, gathering of folks. We made friends over there that I believe will be friends for life. To be invited to someone’s house in Russia is a very big honor and we were invited in to many homes.

EBONY: Besides Raekwon (on his own tour date) and writer dream hampton (Creative Producer of The Russian Winter) I saw no people of color in your film. Did you see any other Black people in Russia?

JF: I saw one other Black person. I think he was Nigerian. I stood out, but I wasn’t stared at.  When I’m in Stockholm or Germany, I get these long glances. In Russia, where I expected stares, that didn’t happen. That goes back to the Cold War where you didn’t know who was friend or foe, so you minded your business. You went from home to work and back.

EBONY: What was the most meaningful part of your Russian winter?

JF: Beyond the amazing musical collaborations and the way we were received? Being able to give to children’s hospitals, charities and orphanages. There was one little boy in an orphanage in St. Petersburg who came up to me and said, “Hey man, what’s up?”  And gives me a high-five.  Five minutes later, the same little boy comes up to me:  “Hey man, what’s up?” High-five. When we were saying goodbye, here he comes, “Hey man, what’s up?” Another high-five!   I realized that’s the only American phrase he knew! I was like, that’s my little dude! It was the cutest thing ever.

EBONY:  Going back to your Fort Dix years, how did you stay up on current affairs? You seem not to have missed a beat.

JF: I read newspapers everyday. I had several subscriptions to newspapers as well as magazines and journals: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Economist, The New Yorker, Harvard Business Review, Columbia Business Review. And then I ended up going back to school. I applied to Harvard, which did not accept me. I kept going and I got into The London School of Economics. After finishing the first year of LSE, my sentence was commuted. I’m still enrolled in LSE, so now that I can I’m contemplating going to London and work toward finishing that degree.

EBONY: Your relationship with legendary singer Carly Simon is well- known—she lobbied President Bush on your behalf– but what isn’t well-known is how this friendship came to be. Can you explain?

JF: I met Carly through her son Ben Taylor, who’s like my little brother. We met in the 90s, both finding our way as artists. I was in some metaphorical shadow of the Fugees and he was in the shadow of coming from the folk music world of  (Ben’s father) James Taylor and Carly Simon. One day he invited me home in Martha’s Vineyard. Carly embraced me as soon as I walked in—I think that spiritually she never let go. They are nothing short of family to me. Carly put a lot of her time and money on the line and was one of a handful of people who made my bail possible. I didn’t have those resources.

EBONY: You endured so much emotionally—prison isn’t meant to be easy. Who comprised your community of support?

JF: While I was inside? My mom and my immediate family came to see me as often as they could. Carly, Sally (Carly’s daughter) and Ben would come to visit. I had a few friends who would just pop in from time to time. Strangely enough, perhaps my greatest support was from strangers. I received mail every single day I was away, mostly from people I didn’t know. I could wake up feeling low about myself and my situation, then I’d go to Mail Call and get a postcard from someone in Japan saying how much they loved a song off of I, John. Or “we love How Could I?” which was a song I did with Esthero. Or “I just want you to know that you’re missed and you’re loved.”

* * *

Forté gets a text from Prazwell, The Fugees’ Prazwell. It reads, “Get at me! Before you get all Hollywood on me!” There is uneasy laughter. “Did Wyclef, Lauryn or Praz contact you while you were in prison?” I ask.

His response is quick and without eye contact, “Not one."

* * *

EBONY: So now here you are, the king of Le Castle. How did this new business come about? 

Le Castle is my baby. Le Castle is a company I started with Christophe Charlier almost at the end of our tour in Russia. We had dinner one night and he was like “Man, I’m having the time of my life!” I’m thinking, “You are? I’m stressing out. I’m about to have a nervous breakdown! This is the biggest endeavor I’ve ever undertaken.” He said “Let’s just do this, let’s make good art.” And the idea is really simple. We have a 50-50 partnership, where I have complete creative control. He is the Chairman and I am the CEO. Our relationship is predicated on respect, history and trust.

EBONY: What’s next for Le Castle and John Forté?

It’s mind-blowing. We have people pitching scripts to us, theater and music ideas. It’s nice to be seen as a reputable home. ‘Cause I’m not doing this to walk away as one of the fat cats. I’m doing this because I believe in opportunity, and that when you get like-spirited people together, magic happens.

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