John Forté Talks About His Brownsville Roots, His Time in Prison & If He'll Make Another Album [Interview]
This is a sponsored post by the Brownsville Community Culinary Center, in support of its annual Brownsville NOW! Benefit. Tickets are available here.
John Forté sat down with Okayplayer to reflect on his journey; he talked about his time in prison, the projects he’s working on now, and his relationship with Talib Kweli.
Not too long ago, someone living in Brooklyn could look up and see stars. Nowadays, most of Brooklyn is clean, modern, industrialized. But that wasn’t Brooklyn in the 1980s. That isn’t the Brooklyn that John Forté — who spent his childhood years in Brownsville — remembers.
“The phenomenon of streetlights everywhere is relatively new,” Forté said. “If those streetlights went out, they stayed out. Because the chances of repairmen coming to the neighborhood and fixing them were slim to none.”
If you know the name Forté then chances are you’re familiar with the story: born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Forté would find his way to the esteemed Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, then New York University. By the age of 22, he was featured on one of the defining rap albums: The Fugees’ masterpiece The Score, taking home a Grammy in the process. Two years later he released his own debut, Poly Sci, a very 1998-sounding New York City rap album (featuring appearances from DMX, Fat Joe, and Wyclef Jean.)
And if you know that part of Forté’s story then you know what happens next. Poly Sci was a commercial disappointment, selling under 100,000 copies. In 2000, Forté, who was short on cash, was arrested at Newark International Airport for attempting to transport 31 kilos of liquid cocaine (worth around $1.4 million, at the time.) In 2001, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. While in a prison, a collection of organizers, artists, and politicians advocated for his freedom: this included childhood friend Talib Kweli, legendary singer Carly Simon — Forté is friends with her son Ben Taylor — and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (who just retired as the longest-serving Republican senator in history.)
He would be commuted by George W. Bush in 2008, after serving seven years in prison. He was 38 years old.
Forté’s story isn’t a sad one. For the last decade, Forté has thrown himself into various projects he’s passionate about. Yes, he’s released a number of songs, verses, and EPs over the years. But he doesn’t need to craft a “song in order to get a check.” Or, make music to appease a fan base.
He has transitioned to activist work, advocating for prison reform and legalizing marijuana. He’s also finding his way into the film industry: in 2017 he directed and scored a docu-series centered around people who use cannabis to treat their ailment. He also worked on Viola Davis’ seven-part documentary The Last Defense, which focuses on the death row cases of Darlie Routier & Julius Jones.
Forté now lives a long way from Brownsville: in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, with his wife, Lara, and daughter, Wren, who turns two in June. On March 12th Forté will return to the neighborhood he grew up in to headline the Brownsville Community Culinary Center’s second annual Brownsville NOW! Benefit. BCCC is a non-profit that is trying to fight food injustice in the Brownsville community by providing healthy food options in the neighborhood; it also offers a job program which trains community members to find careers in the food industry.
Okayplayer sat down with Forté to talk about his journey, how much prison stays with him today, his relationship with Talib Kweli, and if he’ll ever make another album again.
Check out the interview below.
What was Brownsville like when you were a kid?
Man, Brownsville when I was a kid was … vibrant. It was home, so it was all I knew. It contained family. It contained my community. It contained my school for a little while, until I started taking a bus out of the neighborhood and going to a school a little bit farther away because it had a gifted and talented program. But it was also dangerous. And it was dark…and with no streetlights. You know, the phenomenon of streetlights everywhere is relatively new. And, of course, I was coming up in a time when, if those streetlights went out, they stayed out. Because the chances of repairmen coming to the neighborhood and fixing them were slim to none. So I remember the nighttime being so dark that we could see stars, right? Like, when’s the last time you could look up at a New York City sky and see stars, before the light pollution? So it was so dark in my neighborhood that I have fond memories of being able to look up and see stars, which I think is pretty remarkable for any sort of major city.
I found it interesting that the first word you use is “vibrant.”
Well, because that’s home. And home, more often than not, is the best place on earth. And it can also be the worst place on earth. I remember playing tag. I remember family dinners. I remember hanging out and playing video games, and then coming out and riding our bikes. I remember what it was like to be an active, happy young man. At the same time, I also remember growing up and realizing that there was an obvious class difference and that I didn’t have access to the same livelihoods as other folks in other neighborhoods. I don’t remember when, exactly, that awareness turned on. But I remember being really young and being aware that our circumstances were different. And by different, I was definitely young enough to know and understand what it meant to have, perhaps, more of a traumatic existence, or to be exposed to traumatic instances.
You don’t have to be a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, to know that when you hear gunshots at night more often than not, that that’s not the norm. And that a lot of folks don’t have to live like that. But that became the norm for us, and we made those adjustments. And you learn to not see — or hear — things that made you feel uncomfortable or less fortunate. You learn how to tune certain things out. You learn how to adapt. You learn how to survive. You learn how to get your satisfaction. Either from alternative sources, meaning that you learn from a very early age that you’re going to make yourself happy, or you’re going to make yourself suffer.
How much does music play in your everyday life?
Music…plays a huge role in my life. I’m still writing it and creating it and making it myself. I still feel like I’m in the creative trenches, even though…I don’t necessarily need to write a song in order to make a check these days, which is rewarding and freeing. And it allows me — when I do feel the need to write a song — to be able to write that song for the song’s sake, rather than for the outcome of the song. And so to be on the other side of that, as a necessity, is significant and meaningful for me because it allows me to really embrace the artistry the way that I’ve always wanted to. Because I can say anything that I want to in a song, and have it come from my heart, and from an authentic experience, without worrying, “Will this somehow not get radio play, or will this somehow offend my fan base?”
Like, I stopped making music for my so-called fan base 15 years ago. So the fact that anybody comes up to me and tells me, “Oh, man, I heard such and such a song, and I really like it.” I’m like, “Oh, wow. That’s really great.” That’s icing on the cake because I don’t expect that anymore. I don’t actually walk around expecting folks to necessarily check for me.
I had a great year musically last year that allowed me to kind of be and do what I’ve been doing since I’ve come home from prison, and that’s just making qualitative music, and find great opportunities to marry that up and share it with whoever the listening audience might be. I had one independent film that I [scored] the entire thing outright. And then I had another HBO film that I did the theme song for, which is actually a great film, Momentum Generation.
When you tell your story, do you tell it with this sort of sense of pride of what you’ve overcome? Or is there still some shame?
You know, when I tell my story, it doesn’t feel like I’m telling how I won the Super Bowl. Because telling my story doesn’t feel like a Super Bowl victory. It feels like an odyssey of these magnificent discoveries. Right? And I choose those words very, very deliberately. Because they weren’t necessarily all great discoveries. And they weren’t all horrible discoveries. But they were magnificent discoveries that led to me having a more fulfilling and qualitative experience.
Seems like you have a very positive outlook on just sort of where this journey sort of has taken you.
I feel like positive and negative would imply some sort of metric of judgment, at least within society as we know it. And I distance myself a little bit from that because I also know that everything is relative, right? I really wanted to learn how to play the guitar when I was producing for The Fugees. But I said to myself, “I don’t have the time to learn how to play the guitar. I’m never gonna learn how to play the guitar.” And then I went to prison. And then I learned how to play the guitar. So I extracted exactly what I wanted from a situation that I could not have predicted. So I planted the seed, and the universe heard me. And the universe said, “All right.” So with just like the old adage, “Be careful what you wish. It just might happen.” So as long as I feel like we are not determinant about how we get what we request, we’re going to be OK.
And I think that is the right lesson for me. That I’m living in the moment right now. Know that everything has a germination period. And there is no such thing as instant manifestation, although everything that we look at, everything that we see and experience is the result of thought.
It’s just a question of, one, how badly you wanna see that, or how badly you personally want that, and the efforts you’re willing to go through, the steps you’re willing to take. But, also, I feel like there’s an energetic voltage, wattage, or amount that goes into that gestation, and to that reification, into that materialization. And so, yeah, it may not happen from the time that you go to sleep to the time that it wakes up. But if and when it is meant to happen, be assured that it is going to happen. And so, when I kind of occupy that lane, I feel like the discoveries are magnificent and they’re rewarding and they’re inspiring. And they’re really, really judgment-free. It’s like these Eureka moments.
It’s going on 10 years since you’ve been home. Is prison something you wear with you to this day?
It’s something I think about every single day. Sometimes multiple times throughout the day. And more often than not, when I think about those times, I mean, it’s because I’m relating to not being in those times. And therefore really, really appreciating what it feels like right now to be standing in my kitchen having a conversation with you. Because I’m not in an environment right now where somebody’s controlling my movement, my ability to see and experience time with loved ones. Dictating that I get out of my bunk, or stand next to my bed over the course of five times a day, or seven times a day, or not having the choice of my diet. You know, all of these things that are just like, “Wow.” Man, I can sit here and just pour my glass of water right now and strum my guitar and have this conversation. What in the world could be better?” Seriously. I’m not being rhetorical. I’m not being facetious. I’m not being falsely grandiose, like, “Oh, well, that’s some really cool shit to say.” I really, really feel that way. Because it’s all I have right now. The moment is all I have. And the moment feels amazing.
And I’m not saying that’s always the case, right? I’m not saying that people are not suffering, people are not going through it, people are not experiencing hard times. I’m not saying that. I’m not blind to that. Somebody’s like, “Oh, John is unplugged. He’s living on the Vineyard.” No, are you kidding me? But I also know that I’m responsible for manifesting my reality for as much as I can. Because I could be bitter. I could be angry. I could be envious. I could be all of these things. But those things feel horrendous. Those things feel so heavy, to walk around and try to navigate life bumping into shit because you’re carrying all of that around? No thank you. I’m making a conscious decision to just feel better.
In the past, you talked about the hubris you had after your first album didn’t meet expectations…and how it led you to this path where you ended up in prison. When did you realize your pride was the problem?
I think there is an implied question within that question. And that is, did I have regrets? And I think that, yes. Actually, it’s not even “think.” I know that I had regrets. But I think that there are different degrees of regret. I feel like there’s the immediate regret, which is, “Holy shit. What have I done?” But then there’s the longer sense of regret. Like, “Oh, wait a minute. Have I completely ruined, not only my life, but the lives of others? Family? Strangers?”
For me, it was [facing] ownership of my actions, and no longer being able to say it was somebody else’s fault. Yes, I had the immediate regret of, “How did I get here? What have I done?” But that wasn’t as important to me, in what needed to happen, the sort of absorption and the processing, and hopefully the transcendence of the particular lesson at hand.
I certainly don’t prescribe or recommend prison for that. You know, I’m more cautious about telling my tale. Worse than telling my tale my with pride is telling it with some sort of romanticism as if any of that is cool. Like, it wasn’t cool to be going to prison, at all. It wasn’t cool to be walking the track, at all. It wasn’t cool with me being in that situation. I tell people,”Yeah, I feel tremendous growth happened. But it didn’t have to be so extreme. So daunting.”
So, yeah, on the one side, it was a series of really, really unfortunate events. And it could have gotten worse, were it not for my own willingness to examine what I could do, in order to ameliorate my condition. And I mean internally. I mean, like, what can I do to just feel better right now? Not like, “What can I do to be rich?” You know, as long as you’re feeling better in the moment, everything else will come, man.
Do you plan on putting out a full album in the near future?
I’ve planned on putting out an album for the last 20 years. But that hasn’t happened. That hasn’t happened. I’ve put out a few EPs. I’ve put out singles. I’ve put out a bunch of music on SoundCloud. The album just didn’t happen. I wrote stuff as of last week that I listen to now. I’m like, “Huh. I can hear that on an album.” But for whatever reason the album, as a format, as a body of work, has just not materialized. So I don’t know if that’s in the cards, man. What I do know is I’m really looking forward to Brooklyn Bowl on March the 12th. Because I get to play music and make some good noise with some great players, and be up on that stage with my brother, Talib Kweli.
You call him your brother. Tell me about your relationship with Kweli.
So Talib and I have known each other since we were probably 12 years old. He was in Flatbush. And I was going to junior high school in Bushwick. But one of my best friends was also one of his very good friends. I would hang out with Talib. We started linking up in the summertime, hanging out in the village, in Washington Square Park. He went away to boarding school. I went away to boarding school. But we obviously stayed in contact on those vacations. And then we said to each other, “Hey, what school are you applying to after school?” “NYU.” “Oh, I’m applying to NYU too.” And we both got in. And we were roommates. I’ve known Kweli for 32 years. So that’s my brother.