Tonight, The Fortune Society will throw a gala at the Trump Soho. One of the performers will be John Forte, known for his production of the Fugees and a fall from grace that ended with a 14-year prison sentence. He served seven years until George W. Bush, on his last day in office, commuted his sentence. John served time in Fort Dix Federal Correctional Facility, a sad place. I spent time in Schuylkill, another sad place. I made the most of it and came out a better person. I used my time to learn to write (a little), design a little, and prepare myself for a productive life. If not for friends, family, and business partners who believed in me, my return to society would not have been as easy. It wasn’t easy and life as you know it isn’t available to me. The simple things – like opening a bank account or renting an apartment – became huge obstacles to normalcy. There is the sentence you get from the judge and then there is the sentence society continually exacts beyond the time and fines. A person without a support system can find help with The Fortune Society.
Before his arrest and conviction, John Forte was VIP at my joint LIFE and every place everywhere. He was a brilliant success and a great guy with a zillion-dollar smile. I haven’t seen him since we both took our hits. Here’s an e-mail chat with John.
I haven’t seen you in a while, since we last hung out which, I believe, was at Life. We both have spent some time inside. This experience has had a profound effect on both of us. We have some talents and support systems and are now doing our thing but, for most, they reenter society without much help or chance to prosper. Tell me about your reentry and your dedication to changing a very flawed system.
I felt like the invisible man when I came home (in a post 9/11 era, no less!). Walking into a building in New York City without identification and having to explain to the security guards that I’d just returned from prison and was going through the process of getting a driver’s license, passport, etc. was demoralizing and a bit humiliating. But I had/have, as you mentioned, an incredible support system of friends and family who refused to let me get down on myself when I felt alienated and unsure of my footing in the world after being gone for more than seven years. My sentence was commuted – not pardoned, as it is widely reported. I was also fortunate enough to have a probation officer who was thorough, albeit supportive. In prison, I witnessed egregious abuses of power. I have heard about similar abuses of power within the probation system after convicted felons reenter society. I was truly blessed not to have suffered from that.
As a public figure, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of pretending that what happened did not. Instead of telling people (young people, in particular) how they should live their lives, I felt duty-bound to tell my story. Perhaps by conveying the mistakes I made that led me to receiving a 14-year prison term, the audience might think twice before they do anything that would risk their freedom. I was and remain determined to produce qualitative and substantive art that encourages the listeners to question everything, to speak truth to power, and to take nothing for granted.
None of us are perfect and neither are our systems – our criminal justice system included. There is a great deal of work that needs to happen in order to make our criminal justice system fairer and less discriminatory. The task can seem daunting, but that is no excuse not to try to make a difference. Every little dent makes an impact. While some dents might be larger than others, they all contribute to a reformation of the initial structure; therein lies the art and the beauty of collective dissidence.
Tonight’s The Fortune Society event has you performing. Tell me about what they do that gets you inspired to be involved.
The Fortune Society stands on the platform of second chances. Who among us has the right to say that a person cannot change? The Fortune Society’s message exists within my core. Through my ownership of responsibility and my acknowledgment of the poor choices I made, I was able to reassess who and what was important to me. It was a dialectical process that allowed me to redefine the meaning of personal success. Stopgap measures, like giving a person a glass of water when he or she is thirsty,is transient. The more sustainable model of activism and philanthropy empowers the recipient to find a water source of their own.
From Fugees producer to Fort Dix, how did you deal mentally with potentially a 14-year bid? How did you adjust to the elation of early release? I know when I was leaving my prison it was hard to not be sad for those left behind.
Everything changed the day I was convicted. The sentence was secondary. I was a first-time, non-violent drug offender. I had the blessings of a great family, supportive friends, a tremendous education, and a successful career. My arrogance and sense of entitlement deceived me into believing that I was above reproach. I accepted the fact that my conviction would always be a part of my history, but I would not let it define me. I spent the first few years away studying the law.
One of my mentors inside gave me a jewel: "No one knows your case as well as you do. No one will fight harder for you than you can fight for yourself." I spent hours in the law library and sent my research to my appellate attorneys. Of the three appeals, however, we lost them all. I used my time away to learn and to grow. I returned to school (I was accepted to an undergraduates program studying politics and international relations at the London School of Economics) and I also facilitated a weekly discussion group in critical thinking. I taught myself to play the guitar, and then I taught other inmates how to play, as well. My situation notwithstanding, I did not want to lose my sense of dignity.
When I found out that my sentence was commuted it was one of the happiest days of my life. The news spread like wildfire throughout the prison. I was elated but I was also nervous. I knew the world changed (I read about it every day in newspapers and magazines). I didn’t know what to expect. I was also saddened to leave the friends I made – some of them grew as close to me as brothers. When I expressed this sentiment, the responses were practically the same, "Get out there and make us proud!"
How did the bid affect your music?
I didn’t engage in music or think about it for the first few years. I was focused on fighting my case. I reconnected with music when I learned how to play the guitar; that was one of the most liberating experiences of my prison term. I learned how to accompany myself! I spent more time with my lyrics, making every word count. Without being preachy or pedantic, I wanted to reach a depth with my songs that evoked a deeper emotion… and it had to begin with an audience of one: me.
What, besides the time, did you lose and what did you gain from your experience?
I lost the opportunity to share some of the most significant moments with friends and family while I was away – the good times and the bad. It was difficult not to attend weddings, births, and reunions. It was equally difficult not to be there when friends and family needed my support when they suffered. I gained the knowledge of how important it is to exist within the moment. For years, I lived in the past or the future and I took the moment for granted. In prison I learned that all we have is the moment, and it is up to the individual to savor every sweet second.
What are you working on now, and what is Le Castle?
Besides telling my story (in speeches or song), I have expanded my creative vision. With my friend and business partner, Christophe Charlier, I formed a multimedia production company, Le Castle. Our goal is simple: to make beautiful and substantive art (music, film, and other collaborative endeavors) that inspires people to effectuate change. We co-executive produced SXSW 2012 Audience Award Winner Brooklyn Castle. We also premiered The Russian Winter at the TriBeCa Film Festival 2012. It chronicles my 9-week, 5-city tour throughout Russia last winter. It is part tour-documentary and part bio-pic. We have new music to be released on the horizon – my own, as well as other artists I have produced.