Before He Caught His Plane to Russia
You are likely aware of John Forté if you, well, owned a radio in the 90s. From co-writing and producing a couple of tracks on The Fugees’ groundbreaking album The Score and being featured in Wyclef Jean’s album The Carnival to his own solo work on his album Poly Sci, the decade was about as good as you could get for a rising music industry star. You could say that his azimuth was shooting up.
The compelling story of the unexpected turn his odyssey took has been told in both our Brooklyn episode, Change Happens and the video podcast SOTRU produced about him. When Al last spoke to him for the Brooklyn show, he was at work on a new, acoustic based album, Water, Light, Sound. He is now on the “From Brooklyn to Russia with Love” tour, taking his music all over the former Soviet Union. The tour culminates in a big concert with several musicians on April 24th. We were able to catch up with him the day before he departed.
“In terms of Water, Light, Sound, I mean the album itself is recorded and it’s terrific, it’s mixed and all. I’m not too keen on a specific release strategy right now because I don’t think that I have to follow the old paradigm, not to say that I’m not going to put other music into the marketplace,” John said of the album. Since returning to recording music, John has had an aversion to major labels and enjoys the freedom of marketing his work the way he sees fit. “I’m in a great space right now as it relates to how I’m moving and what I’m doing. I don’t feel that it’s broken. I’m just going to keep going until the wheels fall off.”
John was recently presented with the opportunity to go to Russia “with what was supposed to be a sort-of pub crawl.” But the itinerary and magnitude has grown well past that. “We’re playing at the U.S. Ambassador’s house in front of 300 dignitaries and beacons of culture over there. Later that night, I think we’re in the Red Square doing something for the Sochi Olympics and then we’re doing Miss Russia. There is so much and the beauty of it is that it culminates in this huge concert on April the 24th when we’re back in Moscow,” he told us. All proceeds from he concert on the 24th will benefit three charities: The Happy Hearts Fund, set up by a survivor of the 2004 Tsunami disaster; the Naked Hearts Fund, which builds and supports safe play areas in Russia; and Operation Smile, which provides surgeries for children with a cleft lip or other facial deformities.
“The cool thing for me is that I get to collaborate with Russian artists. So I’m not going over there with any expectations beyond the fact that I’m going over there to meet people that make music. It’s a cultural exchange.” John said that he does feel like an ambassador of sorts, but more “To the little brown boys and girls from hoods like Brownsiville,” where he is from. He said, “It’s no mistake that we called this ‘From Brooklyn to Russia with Love.’ I come from an area where we weren’t always instructed to believe that what was happening in Russia was any of our business. We were very territorial in our upbringing and I think that could have stifled many of our paths. If we’re not taught that this world is ours, not just our immediate six-block radius, then there’s no real joy or purpose beyond what our immediate surroundings resemble.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, John is very much aware and even involved in the massive changes taking place in the city. “I think that nothing can be built without being destroyed and nothing can be destroyed without being rebuilt in some shape form or fashion. So it’s this sort of cycle of living the vicissitudes of living.” And while acknowledging the dramatic facelift the city has undergone, he pointed out that Brownsville and East New York have not.
“So there are still parts deep into Brooklyn that have not been affected by gentrification and people have not been displaced yet. But those areas are being affected with something else and that’s a matter of containment. When these hoods get so out of control to a point where it almost resembles lawlessness. Instead of combating that or dealing with that as an issue, it becomes an issue of containment.”
John spoke further about the issue in addressing a huge development project in the neighborhood that he is involved in, “The Barclays Center is the perfect example. My partner [Christophe Charlier] in this endeavor is also the Chairman of the Nets. He and I, we’ve discussed this. He won’t have a conversation about Brooklyn unless it’s about getting the people. Not the new folks that would come in with the building of the Barclays Center, but the people who are on the ground now, getting them really excited about and owning this new center.”
John has recently released the ‘From Brooklyn to Russia with Love (The Sampler)’ as well as The Bloomingdale’s Acoustics EP. On a track called “I’ll Give You Me” from the From Brooklyn Sampler there is a lyric that goes, “He went away, what he think he conscious now.” John said of the lyric that no one has approached him in that way but said, It’s human nature to be skeptical and I think it’s a valid criticism, one that I did not want to act as if did not exist. So I wanted to bring it to light. I knew there would be listeners out there who are saying, ‘Whatever, give us the old John that was talking about partying,’ but I’m not into that anymore.”
John has an active social media presence of which he says, “Our online realm represents our newest dimension of a reality. For so long we’ve limited ourselves to this sort-of 3D sphere recognition. Now we’ve got this 4th dimension by way of our online presences. A person can be as bold, as bright or as beautiful as they want to in this dimension.” You can follow him on his Facebook page and listen to new tracks on his SoundCloud page.
In closing, we posed the question of, “What’s the one thing you’re hoping to get out of the ‘From Brooklyn to Russia with Love’ tour?” He answered quickly and deliberately, “An education. I’m here to learn.” Now that’s something we can all learn from.