There was a time when the name, “John Forté,” was said on the radio at least once every hour, for probably three or four years. From the mid-‘90s until 2000, Forté was on tracks or getting shouted out on them with The Fugees, which, of course, includes Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras. On songs like Wyclef’s “We Trying To Stay Alive,” or working behind the scenes on production on The Fugees’ album The Score, Forté was a major player in hip hop by the end of the 20th century. But then, as he says, his life took some major right and left turns. Forté was arrested for drug possession and spent a number of years incarcerated, and sentenced to the mandatory 14 years. Songwriter Carly Simon and Senator Orin Hatch fought for Forté, who was later released, commuted by then-President George W. Bush in 2008.
Ever since then, Forté has lived a life of renewal. He’s focused time and energies on reformation, on rehabilitation. His music has talked about the search for knowledge, no longer focused on more capitalistic and hedonistic gains. Forté is, in many ways, a new person. Yet, his path is also a return to who he was as a younger person, thirsty for knowledge and experience before the road wended wrongly.
“My lived experiences,” Forté says, “that and my children are central to my art. It’s all in there.” For Forté, his newest album, Vessels, Angels & Ancestors, which is out Friday (October 22), is his best to date. “If only,” he says, “because I think it and I’m okay with that. I know what went into it with regard to the process and I bear witness to the output.”
Forté expressed bravado on hit singles back when he was “aspirational,” even if it got out of hand. For Forté, who grew up with a single mother in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to hustle and make him and the names of his friends big in lights seemed the way to enlightenment. Now, though, that position is quite different. Yet, the ability to sway people, to influence and inspire on the microphone—that remains.
“That’s the stuff,” Forté says, “that’s out of dreams.”
Despite tough circumstances, Forté grew up in a nurturing environment at home. His mother encouraged him to make music, to explore his interests. Forté listened to the radio a lot, growing up in the Big Apple in the ’70s and ’80s. He remembers neighborhood kids taping shows and songs with early cassette players. He remembers having to wait to hear a new song. Forté played violin at eight years old. Not long after, he became infatuated with the wordplay and skill of the burgeoning underground hip-hop community. One of his teenage friends was the famed rapper, Talib Kweli.
“That’s my guy,” Forté says. “I remember having the conversation, like, ‘Where are you applying to school?’ He was like, ‘I’m thinking about NYU?’ I said, ‘You, too?’ I applied early and got in, he applied and got in. So, we said, let’s just be roomies.”
Today, Forté says, he doesn’t much look back, not in a nostalgic way, not like that idea of the stereotypical high school quarterback, reflecting on the glory days as the starter. The past informs, guides, but it’s not a source for wallowing. His current search for joy, art, song, and connection is what he prides. If not, the weight of his teens and 20s could negatively overtake.
“I guess, which is why,” the 46-year-old Forté says, “I don’t do my ‘greatest hits tour’ yet.”
He’s focused on his current projects. To be alive today is enough to focus on—especially if you’re someone like Forté, who is just as ready to talk about the weather as he is about concepts like the “multiverse” and multiverses within multiverses. However, Forté makes clear, suffering is not the prerequisite to joy or any particular understanding.
“I don’t believe,” he says, “that folks have to suffer in order to find happiness or enlightenment. I’m sensitive to folks having their own experiences and extracting the best parts of them, hopefully.”
Forté says he started writing the new album almost inadvertently. It began after the murder of George Floyd. Forté began writing a single song, “SHAME SHAME.” And then the songs continued to tumble out. While he wasn’t one of the people picketing on the front lines, Forté did what he knew he could, write music about the moment. Before he knew it, he was in the middle of an album.
“I didn’t set up for that exercise,” he says. “But once I realized where I was and I was in that current, I knew the best thing I could do for myself and for the art was to get out of my way.”
The record was produced in part with the help of the Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation, which created Soul Land Records, as a new marketing and distribution arm specifically to help Forté, and to potentially put out more releases in the future. The foundation reached out, Forté says because the artist’s music resonated with Ram Dass’ central teachings. For someone who pushed so many boundaries as a young person—and paid a severe price—now is all about recognizing feelings and expressing them, nuanced as they may be, in music.
“We never have the daunting challenge of needing to reinvent the wheel,” Forté says. “We only need to feel. That’s what music reminds me again and again. Every song is inspired by another song. But in the pursuit of what? Of feeling. So, every time I sit down to write a song, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I just have to feel something.”