John Forte came to my mind the other day, and I have no idea why. Maybe it was all the Fugees’-related songs I heard on VH1’s “Top 40 Songs of the 90s” last week. Who knows.
As it turns out, Saturday was the fourth anniversary of his release from federal prison following his conviction on drug trafficking charges. If you don’t remember that case, Forté, a native of Brooklyn, managed to get a presidential pardon from George W. Bush of all people, with the aid of longtime friend, mentor and his “spiritual godmother” Carly Simon, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
I’ve been fascinated with Forte since high school. His ‘hip-hop with a semi-scholarly world view’ approach to music was incredibly appealing. And he could rap his face off. But, when he was arrested, I’m not sure any of his fans were surprised. As if anyone could allegedly attempt a drug-courier run while being a famous musician, for Forte, with his obvious street and book smarts, it seemed plausible.
But I wasn’t concerned about that. I wanted to know how Forte has managed to stay grounded and focusedsince the day he walked free after getting nabbed with a briefcase full of liquid cocaine in a Newark airport.
I caught up with him on the phone as he had lunch in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a day before the anniversary. It’s his home away from home, where he feels safe. It’s where Simon and her son, Ben Taylor, are, two members of his small circle of support.
Even for a Grammy-nominated recording artist with connections on Capitol Hill, the pressure of going back to jail is a daily struggle. “I’ve seen some of my friends come home, and I’ve seen some re-acclimate into society and adjust very, very well. I’ve seen some friends come home, get caught up and go back,” Forte said. “And that breaks my heart. It’s a war. It’s more of a personal war.”
But what has the guy that many of us remember partying with Wyclef Jean on “We Trying to Stay Alive” while “eating mangoes in Trinidad with attorneys” been doing all this time? The answer is a bit of everything.
He’s recorded a ton of music — to the tune of a couple more albums, worked with at-risk youth and ex-offenders and got involved with a couple movie projects. He also did a tour in Russia, playing gigs in the dead of winter. He’s even entertained ideas of a one-man show to tell his story.
But it’s Forte’s long-standing goals of making it out the Brownsville neighborhood where he grew up that he’s trying to espouse to kids now. You can hear it in his music and in his outlook. “It means a lot to me to try to get into neighborhoods that resemble mine. That they too should do their best to see their world and to see our neighbors and at most, our distant cousins. That’s who we are biologically, and we’re all connected,” Forte explains.
“And I don’t say that in a sort of pre-natural, hippie sense,” he continues. “But we are genetically connected. And I think that we probably do ourselves a greater service by having more of a view and not forgetting about our brothers and sisters who might be a few more miles away than it’s usually comfortable for us to travel.”
His sound now is far from what it was when he came on the scene. He mastered the guitar while behind bars and does as much singing as he does rhyming. His songs range anywhere from bluesy rock, to reggae-ish funk, to simple love songs.
But amid all the work, the time in jail, the rebuilding and the performing, there’s always been a hobby: chess.
“The one thing that I did before, during and after [incarceration] that I have an absolute love for and an infinite connection to is play chess. Immeasurable joy. So suffice to say, when my company Le Castle had the opportunity to co-executive produce this amazing documentary ‘Brooklyn Castle,’ I leapt at the opportunity,” Forte, 37, said of the movie billed as a film about a chess team “at a below-the-poverty-line inner city junior high school that has won more national championships than any other in the country.”
“To be reminded of what it was like to be a teenager in Brooklyn during those years and see them use chess as an outlet [was moving]. But even beyond that, [it’s fulfilling] to see them winning . . . and to see what happens when human potential is activated, especially within school districts that are pretty much forgotten by a greater system, that is sad and suffering for a whole slew of reasons,” Forte said.
Coincidentally, my dad told me Tuesday that a cousin of mine that I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years was getting out of jail. He’d be moving to a halfway house in North Carolina and then, hopefully, in with another cousin of ours. I immediately thought of Forte..
Because in a nation where the recent recidivism rate hovers above 40 percent, according to the 2011 Pew Center on the States’ study, it’s refreshing to see Forte giving an honest effort to making sure others don’t follow his path.
It seems his career goals have come full circle. These days, as he once rapped on Jean’s 1997 hit, it’s simple. “We strive to teach youth baby, and stay alive.”
Yates is a columnist for The Root DC.