John Forté Talks New Solo Album & Coming ‘Full-Circle’ With the Fugees
Among the set’s 12 tracks are lead single “Ready On the One” featuring Spills, Five and Miss Brittany Reese. Forté describes the empowerment anthem as the album’s “through-line” and a “multi-generational conversation” that harkens back to his Brownsville, Brooklyn, beginnings. Other notable selections include the guitar-driven, meditative “Ancestors” and the Floyd-propelled “Shame Shame.” Adding to the album’s full-circle vibe are the contributors and guests who helped Forté navigate his downstream ride: producers Preservation and Emil McGloin and artists including Everlast, Billy Woods, Ben Taylor, Rising Appalachia and Fielded.
“All this life was happening that I was responding to,” adds Forté. “I wasn’t the captain of the ship; I was being guided the entire way. Hence the name of the album.”
Forté, whose last release was 2020’s Riddem Drive, came to prominence in 1996 as a producer on the Fugees’ seminal debut album The Score. After releasing his own solo debut Poly Sci in 1998, he was found guilty of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance (cocaine) in 2001. Pardoned by President George W. Bush in 2008, Forté stays steadily busy investing in projects and passions from recording (I, John, StyleFREE the EP) and writing featured music for film and TV (HBO’s Momentum Generation) to social justice, prison and cannabis legalization reform initiatives.
Next up, as he relates to Billboard: writing music for a documentary about Breonna Taylor and “coming full circle” again — this time celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Score.
Who’s behind Soul Island Records?
I first encountered the three tenets of Ram Dass — love everyone, serve everyone, remember God — when I was in federal prison. And they’ve stayed with me ever since. About four years ago someone asked about my mention of Ram Dass in a song I’d done. I ended up sharing some of my new music with Raghu Markus, executive director of the Love Serve Remember Foundation. He said, “I’d love to figure out a way to help whenever you’re ready to share this with the world.” We kept the conversation going and now Soul Island has partnered with me to market and promote this album.
You’re also working on music tied to a forthcoming Breonna Taylor documentary.
I just wrapped Bree Wayy: Promise, Witness, Remembrance with producer Dawn Porter and her company Trilogy Films [showing at November’s DOC NYC film festival]. Music from Vessels, Angels & Ancestors will be heard in the doc and I did the original score as well. I’m now working with Dawn on the video for the album’s next single, “Begin Again,” which will also open the Taylor film. The new video will come out in time for the album’s October release. And taking it one step further: we’re turning the entire album into a film with Dawn also producing through Trilogy.
You most recently worked with cannabis firm Rose Capital. How has cannabis reform impacted your post-pardon outlook?
There was no expectation of a pardon, given the administration at the time. I’d lost every appeal before that as well as time and access to family, friends and opportunities. So when I got the news, it hit me hard. Even talking about it to this day, I can still feel the ghost of that vibration when the news landed on me. To me, cannabis is the linchpin to criminal justice reform in this country and it’s also critical to wellness.
I’m not saying that cannabis is a panacea. It may or may not be for everyone. But now in 2021, I can cultivate and consume this plant without fear of persecution or prosecution. OK, but is that enough? I don’t think so, because there are still people who are in prison for this plant, people being persecuted and prosecuted for this plant and people getting rich from this plant. There are people who will never ever see a dollar earned from this plant because their rights were taken away when they were arrested for having a relationship with this plant. I also sit on an advisory board working with a brilliant group of former prisoners. The Transformational Prison Project is dedicated to promoting restorative justice practices. These men have been going back into prisons and schools to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and also working with corporations and CEOs. Even though I’m the so-called adviser, I’m still learning from their commitment to transforming society.
So as the Fugees reunite to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Score, will you be reconnecting with the group at some point?
Talk about coming full-circle. I am humbled and thrilled to be connected to that album. We will see where the calendar for the tour dates coordinate as I have things going on myself with this new album. I wasn’t there for the pop-up show [Sept. 22]. But I was there in spirit. And while maybe not in the same room, I have stayed in touch with those guys over the years. Time heals.