John Forte

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.

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Give Me Water - John Forte & Valerie June

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