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Former Fugees Collaborator John Forté Was Given A Second Chance And He’s Using It To Make Sure Others Won’t Need One

Rapper, singer and producer John Forté’s life and career have been marked by a meteoric rise in the music industry followed by an even more sudden fall and an equally-surprising second chance.

The Brooklyn native MC burst onto the scene as an affiliate of the Fugees, appearing on their groundbreaking 1996 album The Score, as well as Wyclef Jean’s solo debut Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival in 1997. Over the next few years, poor reception to Forté’s solo work preceded despair when the young musician was arrested and convicted on felony drug charges and sentenced to prison.

However, an unexpected commutation by then-President George W. Bush gave Forté another shot at music and life. Now enjoying a family, a new home in Martha’s Vineyard and a new album, Forté is not only a musician, but an activist and family man.

The years since Forté earned fame and a Grammy nomination for his rhymes and production on The Score have been full of incredible ups and downs for the rapper. His career and life took a sudden downward turn in 2000 when he was arrested and ultimately convicted of possession of 31 pounds of liquid cocaine with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

But with the support and advocacy of famous friends, including legendary singer Carly Simon (whom Forté grew to know and collaborate with through friendship with her son, who had been a classmate), Forté was granted a second chance. After gaining support from long-serving conservative Senator Orrin Hatch, Forté’s sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush, allowing him to walk free in 2008.

Forté does not romanticize his time in prison, but sees it as a “reality check” that represented his first big failure and broke some of “the arrogance of youth” that he held during his early years of fame and success.

“It was only a matter of time before I had some sort of reality check to get me a greater appreciation for life,” the rapper said. “That’s not to say that I think that the trials and the turmoils and the stresses we go through, [that].I needed seven years of prison, I needed fourteen years of prison. I’m not saying that at all.”

Until today, Forte still sits up at night thinking about his time in prison and his gratefulness for his freedom.

“Where I’ve been has given me the perspective to appreciate, truly, deeply and profoundly where I am.”

Where he is currently cuts back and forth between his hometown of Brooklyn and his current residence in Martha’s Vineyard. In addition to starting a family after his release from prison, Forté also became an advocate for criminal justice reform, as well as a vocal proponent for the legalization and the medicinal and commercial use of marijuana. He has worked with a number of organizations to push for legalization and for Black entrepreneurs to have a place in the growing cannabis industry.

Growing up, Forté remembers his complicated relationship with cannabis.

“There was an instant attraction but there was also a heightened sense of awareness that came with fear that was associated with the persecution and prosecution of the practitioners,” Forté recalled of his youth in Brooklyn. “If you got caught with a joint, now you have a record. And that was the reality that I knew for so many years and so, to be honest, it wasn’t a pleasurable experience. It wasn’t ‘oh I can relax and have the cares of the world roll off me.’ It was very much fear based.”

As Blavity previously reported, many young Black men have shared the experiences that have haunted Forté, as Black people were often given harsh prison sentences for minor, nonviolent marijuana possession offenses.

As an adult, Forté has come become increasingly cognizant of the disparities between how Black and white people consume marijuana.

“When I had a conversation with a white friend of mine a few weeks ago talking about his relationship with cannabis growing up in New York, he said ‘oh, I’ve never feared for my safety once when I smoked a joint’ and that was a reality that was just anathema for me.” 

As documented by the ACLU, Black people are over three times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage levels between the two groups, demonstrating that the divergent experiences that Forté and his friend had growing up in New York reflect the reality for the country in general.

Now, as legalization spreads and cannabis businesses grows, Forté wants to make sure that the proceeds of this expanding industry.

“I don’t think that I can live in a state where it’s coming online knowing what I know, seeing what I see about the emerging industry of it all and the folks who are getting in and the folks who stand to get very very wealthy from it.”

Forté wants to ensure that Black people share in those profits.

He has worked with politicians and businesspeople to make sure the Black people have their proper share of this fast-growing industry.

“We have to have more than just safe access to the product,” he declared, “we need to see our involvement at every level [of the cannabis industry], from the top down to the bottom up.”

With all the ups and downs in his life, it has been Forté’s family that has ultimately brought him the most happiness and fulfillment.

“Through it all, to be their dad, that’s better than any platinum album or world tour of award show,” he said when discussing his children. “I don’t know if the 19-year-old me hearing me say this now would believe it, but it’s the truth, and everything else is icing on the cake.”

Even his musical career is ultimately a way to connect with his family; one of the greatest feelings, he described, is to play music for one of his kids and have them say, “Oh dad, is this you?”

Speaking of music, “Ready on the One,” one of the songs from Forté’s new album, presents a full-circle moment for the artist. 

Twenty-five years earlier, a 21-year-old Forté made his public debut by delivering the closing verse of the Fugees’ posse cut, “Cowboys,” off their album The Score, which went on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide. That verse now opens “Ready On The One.”

Forté’s new album, Vessels, Angels and Ancestors, was released on Oct. 22 from Soul Land Records as part of the Love Serve Remember Foundation and is available for purchase or streaming now.

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