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

Joicelyn Dingle

by Joicelyn Dingle, July 23, 2012

 John Forte

Photo courtesy of Andy Kropa/Getty Images

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

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