John Forté, a Haitian rapper from Brooklyn who wound up going to Exeter Academy and hanging out with Carly Simon and the Fugees, was pardoned yesterday by President Bush. He’d been in jail for seven years on a drug trafficking charge that he had long disputed.
Here’s the piece I wrote on him in the Boston Globe six years ago, which is trapped behind their paid-archive firewall. I wrote it as a tryout for a job I didn’t get.
FACING JAIL TIME, FORTÉ FINDS THE MUSIC WITHIN
RAPPER’S ARREST STIRS AN EMOTIONAL RELEASE
BYLINE: By Ben Sisario, Globe Correspondent
At a time when rap is becoming increasingly one-dimensional, John Forté is a fascinating study in contrasts. He is the Haitian boy from the streets of Brooklyn who won a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and ran with the Martha’s Vineyard set. He studied classical violin, but dropped out of college to pursue a career in hip-hop. He is the bleary-eyed player in dreadlocks who wears a knit sweater, silk tie, and crisp white shirt.
“Balance is a way of life,” he rapped on his debut album, 1998’s “Poly Sci.” “Right, Left / North, South / Two sides balance out/ Black, White / Either or.”
Now there’s a new kink in Forté’s double life. In November, he was sentenced by a federal judge in Houston to 14 years in prison for drug trafficking. Forté was arrested at Newark International Airport in New Jersey in July 2000 on charges of accepting more than $1.5 million worth of liquid cocaine, and he is currently preparing an appeal while serving out his sentence in a Texas prison.
Meanwhile, his second album, “I, John” (Transparent), recorded while he awaited trial last year, will be released Tuesday. Far from rap’s usual jailhouse boasts, it is one of the most complex, introspective hip-hop albums to come out in years, with an emotional depth and musical vision that rivals the work of Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, his mentors in the Fugees.
“While I awaited trial, emotions ran through me like never before, and they weren’t all bad,” Forté says from prison, where he can communicate with journalists only by written interview. “There was a realization that took place, and for perhaps the first time in my life I was able to see what was important. Love was at the top of a very short list.”
Forté has his defenders, among them Carly Simon, who has forged a special bond with the 27-year-old rapper. Forté met her through her son Ben Taylor, when he visited the family on Martha’s Vineyard one summer a few years back; he spent six weeks there.
“We have a really close relationship,” says the woman Forté calls “Mama C.” “It’s like this happened to my child,” Simon says, adding that Forté has sent her some 60 long letters from prison.
When Forté was arrested, his one phone call was to Simon, who rushed to pay his $250,000 bail.
He is not the first hip-hop artist to go to jail, of course, nor is he the first to record an album while awaiting incarceration. Two members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Ghostface Killah, for example, have had repeated run-ins with the law, complicating the release of solo and group albums.
Forté is no thug. He was raised by his mother in Brownsville, a tough section of Brooklyn, but won a full scholarship to Exeter. He enrolled in the fall of 1989 and soon was rapping about Dostoyevsky. He dropped out of New York University after just a semester to devote himself to hip-hop.
After meeting a girl named Lauryn Hill, he joined the Fugees’ extended family, the Refugee Camp, and worked on the group’s 1996 smash, “The Score,” as a producer, writer and performer.
Wyclef Jean of the Fugees took Forté under his wing, giving him guest spots on his solo album “The Carnival” and coproducing Forté’s own solo album.
Like the Fugees albums, Forté’s “Poly Sci” has melodramatic, vaguely spiritual lyrics and slow, luxurious tunes that borrow from reggae and drippy R&B. It was not an original approach, and in a marketplace flooded with Fugees copycats, it sold less than 100,000 copies, a respectable number for an underground rapper, but a failure compared to the 6 million sold by “The Score.” His label, Columbia, dropped him, and he began DJ’ing in Manhattan, trying to regroup and redevelop his skills.
According to the prosecution’s case, this is when Forté made his connection to the underworld. He is accused of procuring young female couriers to pick up packages of drugs coming in from Mexico and Central America as part of an elaborate smuggling ring.
When Forté was arrested, prosecutors charge, two women handed him packages containing about 14 kilograms of liquid cocaine. The women had been caught before they boarded their plane in Houston, and the meeting with Forté was a setup.
In taped phone calls with the women before they left, prosecutors said, Forté gave them instructions on how to care for the cargo, telling them, “put the ice cream on ice.”
But throughout the ordeal Forté has maintained his innocence. “I dispute the charges wholeheartedly,” he says.
Forté says that he knew nothing of cocaine and that he thought he was only receiving cash to deliver to a third party who Forté’s lawyers say was a known and trusted business associate.
During his trial Forté was offered a generous plea bargain deal by prosecutors but rejected it because he was certain he could win in trial. Forté was charged with several crimes but in the end the jury rejected a conspiracy charge and only convicted him of the relatively minor charge of possession with intent to distribute. His sentence was so great only because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Simon insists that Forté is innocent. “John has been victimized,” she says, “It’s a Sacco and Vanzetti case. It’s being tied to other things, not for the crime they think he’s committed.” She said Forté’s case has alerted her to the injustices of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, and she says his fame can help raise awareness for the cause. “It’s good that John’s case might be one to be focused on,” she says. “It might make people aware of what’s going on.”
The experience has had a humbling effect on Forté and has inspired him to do his best work so far. “I, John” has a depth and maturity not found on “Poly Sci.” It begins with “What a Difference,” which samples Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” and finds Forté rejecting the macho hip-hop code for a simpler life.
“I’ve evolved to better things,” he sings, rather than raps. “I want homes instead of rings.” Elsewhere he says, “I’m disgusted with rap.”
Indeed, Forté raps very little on “I, John.” The album is mostly sung, in a cool, thin tenor that makes its first appearance here. He says it was Simon who encouraged him to sing. “She pushed me to take things up a notch, and, oh, yeah, sing them myself,” he says.
Simon seems to have learned something from the collaboration, too. She contributes an angry rap to the song “Been There Done That,” saying, “Do not underestimate me / People have before and ended up looking so silly!”
The album is structured as a series of reflections on Forté’s life and on what he calls his “trouble,” imagining the ramifications of one fateful day. He imagines loved ones left behind, lost pleasures and happy times in the past. Some rage comes through in “Been There” and “Trouble Again,” in which he complains about media coverage: “Heard the words in the paper / Now what will they think up?” He makes peace with a parent he has never known on “Dearest Father” and prays for freedom on “Reunion.”
There are few overt references to his incarceration; instead, he uses the situation as an opportunity to reflect on his life. His producer, Joel Kipnis (who is known as J.K.), sees the album as an exploration of universal themes. “It holds true to everybody’s life,” Kipnis says. “There’s one moment, one day, one minute, when everything changes. As a storyteller, John takes the event and describes the different roads it leads him to, directly or indirectly.”
Forté is rightly proud of the album, but is careful to hang on to his newfound humility. “Would this record be as strong, had I not gone through this? I have no idea,” he says. “The only thing I know is that everything happens for a reason.”