One of the brightest lights of the Fugees multiverse has a lot on his mind
Just before the quarantine hit, I was privileged to sit front row at a festival and witness a conversation between social activist rapper Talib Kweli and his friend John Forte, who was fresh off releasing his third album and first since being released from prison in 2008 by a presidential pardon from George W. Bush.
Forte experienced breakthrough success and a measure of worldwide fame in 1996 when he co-wrote and produced two songs on The Fugees classic album The Score.
Disappointing reviews and sales of his first solo album in 1998, Poly Sci, along with his prison sentence in 2001 for possession with intent to sell of 31 pounds of liquid cocaine, meant that his second album, I, John released while he was locked up, was destined to be forgotten about despite his growth as an artist on his follow-up.
In fact, I had forgotten all about John Forte, but he quickly acquainted himself with me and the rest of the festival audience in a rapid-fire, heavy truth-filled conversation with Talib Kweli about music, growing up, and the black experience ending with a duet of the song they worked on together “Being is Believing” off Forte’s new album Riddem Drive, that brought the crowd to their feet. While I can’t find audio of their conversation, I can direct you to an episode of Kweli’s podcast The People’s Party that John Forte was the guest on, and the truth being uncovered is like finding gold.
VIDEO: The People’s Party with John Forte
After I saw the pair speak, I scrapped my plans for writing about the rest of the festival and focused my writing instead on what I realized about being black in America through their conversation. John Forte read my article and decided to reach out to me because of it, to tell me about his new album Riddem Drive.
It’s a sonic delight full of tender wisdom and stories wrapped around things like his thoughts on himself, the music industry, his wife and child, and life itself. This is an artist who has fully grown into what he wants to say, mixing elements of folk, reggae, and hip-hop behind a hard-won gratitude that’s at times heartbreaking and inspiring.
This is thoughtful music to contemplate with a smile on your face from a man with a new lease on life who after all this time very much wants to be understood.
You waited a long time after being released from prison to release a third album.
It was a long time between albums, but I made film scores, singles, collaborations. I never stopped creating. It was a question of in this new era does the album matter anymore? I kept following my inspirational druthers and finding happiness and challenges and opportunities.
But this album, much like I hoped, came together when it was time and it feels timely. It feels good, and that’s what matters. This conversation about the art is a blessing that I don’t take for granted because I know how good this body of work is. That’s why every one of these conversations means something rather than it just being a press junket for like my 16th album. I’m not saying that to be prolific is absent something, but I wouldn’t have told you in 2002 that it would have taken me until 2020 to come out with a third solo album. I wrote my third, fourth, and fifth albums in jail relatively speaking, but it was a matter of taking the time to go through the process.
What drives you now versus back when you wrote in Poly Sci in 1998 “You need to recognize John Forte”?
Time and perspective. The John Forte of 1998 hadn’t failed yet. I was on top of the world and still ascending. I knew no limits or boundaries, but the biggest change between the approach and recording then and now is what it feels like to be a partner to my wife and a father to our daughter. Having family as my grounding mechanism is the ultimate lens for me. I don’t take a walk without considering my family, and through that I relate to my community both near and far.
That’s not to say I don’t have more learning to do. I still feel like I’m dropping the ball a lot, but the opportunity to be in the game and to be present and proximate and then to use this pen to do what I’ve always done.
I’m fully inspired and if I’m not inspired then I’m in one of Dante’s rings. It took me a minute to get here, but it feels like I’ve arrived on the other side of being able to come here and use this art responsibly knowing that this is part and parcel of my calling and responsibility.
You think on some level you still have that need to be recognized?
My big failures were ahead of me, but that “you need to recognize John Forte” was ego, but it was also Ellisons plight of being invisible and needing to show up and announce yourself. That’s what hip-hop is predicated on, and that’s what that braggadocio is about. It’s about saying I shine so much that you have to acknowledge the fact that I too have an experience. It’s about coming out of the shadows and being remembered and seen and spoken of. I have moments, prior to our Corona sequestration, where I participate in a meeting and feel less than seen.
It’s not ego driven. It’s about saying I have worth. I have value in the same way that I am recognizing you. You ought to recognize me. That’s not as clear and eloquently stated as “You need to recognize John Forte”, but I assure you there was always an element of “you need to recognize me as I recognize you.”
Just to dovetail, (being from) Brownsville, Brooklyn so close to these storefront churches next to Rastafarians hanging out and the Five-Percent Nation hanging out, there was a coalescence of people from different traditions and faiths that were influencing me from a young age. Getting back to recognizing me, recognizing you, the Rastafarian tradition of I and I is as Old Testament as you can get, do unto others… . There is no other and ultimately I am having this conversation with myself and hopefully I will treat my neighbor as myself.
Your daughter saying “Riddem Drive” opened and ended your song “Mercy”, which seemed to be about the theme of gratitude. How has she changed your songwriting?
Most of the music I write if it’s not about her it’s for her to listen to. It’s an oral tradition of passing on my legacy. I create this art with her in mind, knowing that it belongs to her. When we celebrated Easter and my wife wrapped up jelly beans and bunnies, it was all for her with nothing to do with us. How has my art changed since meeting Wren Zazie? It’s a light switch.
For a kid from Brownsville who didn’t know his father, and shares his name, to now have the opportunity to have a day with my daughter feels like the ultimate gift and everything pales in comparison. I wanted it to be like this when I was younger. And I thought maybe I won’t meet someone and this won’t happen, but life did happen.
Could you explain what the Five-Percent Nation means to you briefly and how it’s influenced your music and art?
The Five-Percent Nation is an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. It was Clarence 13X, known as the father of the Five-Percent Nation, who took what was implied and wanted to make it more known. The belief was that we are a divine people and we have divine attributes. Let’s call us what we are, the fathers of civilization, and the gods of the universe.
You can take that to mean that your spark of consciousness is enough to give you a connection to infinity where you shoulder the responsibility of your actions and you have no scapegoat in the event that you don’t meet your best self. You can’t say the devil made me do it or this mystery wasn’t there to help me out. This is full accountability for showing up. You’re in it now. What do you want to do with it? That was revolutionary to me. That was radical thinking to own your existence to say that your word is your bond and I will give my life if my word shall fail and to be able to say that there are things that I will not do like eating pork. It’s a boundary, and everything’s not for everyone.
At the root of it was empowerment. In the 80s I saw more young black and brown men in my neighborhood speaking a language that sounded eloquent and familiar. Not anybody could speak this; you had to learn this language, and I had a real attraction to something that empowered me and others in a world where clearly we were the have-nots. It didn’t take advanced degrees to feel classicism. So to see dignity and intelligence and integrity in what could have been any old street gang was powerful to me and influenced me and many others.
When you were found guilty of possession, did you feel at the time that you had let down those founding ideals when you went to prison?
Sure. In one way or another these tenants, you can call them medals of what you would like to be or aspired to be, they kind of fused into one coat of armor. It stopped becoming about the gods in the earth or my second grade teacher or my big sister or my mom instead that fuses into I’ve let everyone down including myself.
You said you were writing songs in prison.
Only for the last five plus years. The first two I didn’t write music and turned my back on the music industry. I didn’t want to hang my hat on this quasi celebrity. It didn’t feel honorable to me. When people asked me to tell the stories of “did you know so and so in the club,” I didn’t want to do that. I told people I felt like the industry turned its back on me, so I turned my back on it, and I didn’t want to talk about going on tour or what it was like, so I did a lot of reading. I fought my case. I went in as a standup guy. I did not testify against anyone or take any deals. I came into the system on my feet, and the people in my community for the most part were other standup guys. Prison is like any other system or construct. You could invest in race or geography like “I’m only going to hang out with people who look like me or think like me.” There are many ways to find your tribe. My tribe found me and they were a bunch of guys who knew about my predicament because it was very public. There was no question about my paperwork and I could prove my position. I would show up to institutions and the other stand up guys made sure I was okay with shampoos and little soaps.
Most of my friends did a bunch of time. My friend Rabbit, who works in the recreation department, was Italian from a different faction. He knocks on my cell and he says “John I got you this guitar.” He thought I was a musician and that I would want it. I didn’t know how to play the guitar. I was a producer. I’m a classically trained violinist and I was telling other folks what to play. When I got that guitar and within a few weeks later started learning how to play, I began writing music again which was a wholly liberating thing. Learning to play that guitar gave me wings. I didn’t play to become a soloist. I play rhythm enough to make me happy.
It sounds like you played guitar in prison because you wanted to feel alive again.
Yeah, and I was forced into a situation where I had to teach others and I couldn’t quit if I wanted to and there were others showing up week after week and they depended on me and I didn’t take that responsibility lightly.
Redemption has been a big part of your life. Did people ask you to play “Redemption Song” in prison?
That was one of the first songs I learned how to play. I wanted to learn it. I still can’t play the chorus the way that Bob plays it. I play it with inherent limitations because there was a barre chord, and I couldn’t play the chorus so I bastardized it. I haven’t played it in a few years, but I do this thing where I walk it down as a workaround to chords that were too difficult for me to play at the time.
What does the title Riddem Drive refer to?
It’s patois. “Riddem Drive.” Rhythm Drive. It was a street sign that said “hidden drive” and someone graffitied it. When I saw it, I thought that’s it, that’s the name of the album. I saw that sign before I knew what the album was going to be, and my wife got out and took a picture of the sign. That’s the catalytic spark to what it was going to be. What it has become is something more beautiful. Yes it’s the album, but it’s also a genre of music where it’s minimal and a lot of the instrumentation is implied. A lot of what you’re hearing was birthed with heaps of production and programming and stacked with a lot of instrumentation. But we’re talking about years for these songs to gestate and exist in their simplest form. Just because we had the opportunity to have more didn’t mean we needed to have more. It was listening to a track that had nothing but the acoustic guitar, but you could swear that somebody was tapping along to it, or was there a kick drum in there? But no, it’s the suggestion of what could be all around and instead what it does is it puts that scope onto the lyrics. Okay, now that it’s just us what are you saying? And so there are flubs that are left, vocal imperfections and cracks, but that’s there. It was about capturing very intimate performances that were as authentic to the moment as could be and being able to say, that’s it. That feels good.
And I’m not the first person to talk about removing the snare or the kick. That’s why it feels like a genre, like Jose Gonzalez he has this percussive acoustic driving guitar, and I played Jose Gonzalez radio before some of my live performances just to set the scene and setting because even though we come from two different disciplines or genres supposedly, there’s still that connectivity that relation. So I’m not as gassed about cutting us up and separating us into these genres as much as how does this music make me feel? I think that for me “Riddem Drive” is the album experience, and it’s thematically cohesive. Without giving it away too much, the production on the very first song “The Price to Be Paid” is interesting because it’s the one song where at the beginning of it there’s the threat that we are going into this cacophony of sound, then it just tapers off, then we go back into where I think we’ve been all along which is just me and a guitar maybe a few other elements around, but it’s very percussive without the full drum kit.
It’s safe to say that the death of George Floyd has been weighing heavily on all of our minds. Many of us, and black folks, in particular, are having trouble processing our emotions be they anger, grief, exhaustion, or more likely, a combination of all three. We don’t have a president to hold us by the hand and tell us it’s going to be all right or give us the hard truth that it isn’t alright and might never be. We’re hoping for a change, hoping that this is finally maybe the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that at least lessens the violence, puts fewer black bodies in jail. We’re looking for something maybe that we can’t put into words.
In the midst of his pain, John Forte was moved to write a brand new song about all of this called “Shame Shame.” He just released it on YouTube as a slideshow video with images of George Floyd, the officer that killed him with a knee to his neck Derek Chauvin, protestors, lynchings, and the song itself is stuffed with lyrical imagery as well of the song “Strange Fruit” about the lynching of a black man by Bille Holiday to Nietzsche philosophy to how all roads lead to Minnesota where George Floyd died.
VIDEO: John Forte “Shame Shame”
The ending of the song: “Let it breathe. Let us breathe” is a prayer of catharsis for John, for us, for society, for black people, in general, to be able to breathe without fearing for their life. It’s a wish that nothing like #icantbreathe will happen again.
It’s a powerful, devastatingly beautiful anthem for this moment in time and Ari Melber of MSNBC just had John Forte on as a guest on his Instagram Live feed where they got deep into the lament of our times and the meaning behind the words of the song “Shame Shame” that so moved John Forte that he had to release it into the world. You can watch it here.