John Forté

Year of Graduation: 

"Music gave me the ability to participate in a way that made me feel so empowered, and like I belonged."

John Forté ’93, a Grammy-nominated recording artist, producer and filmmaker, is asking questions. Seated at a Harkness table in a second-floor classroom in the Forrestal-Bowld Music Center, he wants to know everything about what the eight students in MUS206: Musical Structure and Songwriting are working on. What are the themes, the beats, the styles and the lyrics running through their minds?

“It’s hard for me to hear about songs and music as if it’s not the air that I breathe,” Forté tells the students. “Music is that critical to my existence, and in my life.”

The students begin sharing. Connor Drobny ’24 talks about a linked song cycle he plans to record, as either an EP or an album. “They’re all about the importance of memory, and how memories make up who someone is,” he explains.

Forté lets the silence stretch for a moment as he considers this. “The whole notion of remembering and being reminded — that’s the conversation,” he says.

Raylea Richmond ’26 is writing multiple songs from the perspective of a ghost haunting a particular place and exploring “how [the ghost] sees this space where she’s stuck transformed over time.”

“That’s really interesting,” Forté says. “What keeps us in a place, whether we’re here or not here.” He encourages Richmond to keep exploring the world of the songs she’s writing, and to ponder why that story resonates with her. Moving on to his own music-making process, he starts talking faster, with more emphasis. “Part of me showing up as a creator is explicit,” he says. “I tell myself three things: I’m here, I’m curious and I’m wide awake. Then whatever happens, happens.”

John Forté '93 participating in an Exeter music class in October 2023

On this particular weekend, Forté is “here,” at the Academy. He has taken a short break from a sold-out arena tour with hip-hop legends Lauryn Hill and the Fugees to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Afro-Latinx Exonian Society, or A.L.E.S., an organization that was integral to his Exeter experience. “I would not have made it a year [at Exeter] without A.L.E.S.,” Forté says. “It was a cornerstone for [my] sanity.” 

Having returned to campus at the invitation of the A.L.E.S. anniversary planning committee, Forté takes pride in being asked to share his work with students and fellow alumni during such a momentous event. “It’s one thing to show up and see your classmates at a reunion,” he says. “But coming here this morning I felt just how important the A.L.E.S. was to me while I was here, and I’m deeply honored to be part of the programming.”

“The committee’s goal was to highlight the success of our fellow A.L.E.S. alumni across generations and industries,” says Trustee Paulina Jerez ’91; P’21, co-host of the event. “Personally, A.L.E.S. 55 provided me the opportunity to see John again on campus, experience the unique cadence of his storytelling and musical performance in the company of A.L.E.S. alums and students."

For planning committee member Bryan Contreras ’91; P’24, Forté’s presentation of his work scoring a new HBO reboot of the civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize was one of the “magical moments” in a memorable weekend. “John’s music and passion reminded me of the special place [where] A.L.E.S. and Exeter live in my heart.” 

Forté’s love of making music began long before he set foot on Exeter’s campus. On the day they handed out musical instruments at P.S. 327 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, an 8-year-old Forté debated his options: Wait on the long line outside the rock band room and risk going home empty-handed or make the less popular choice. “I walked into the orchestra room, and I walked out with a violin,” he recalls. “I took that home and it changed my whole trajectory. Music gave me the ability to participate in a way that made me feel so empowered, and like I belonged.”

Forté rose to first chair in his school’s orchestra and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. When he arrived at Exeter as a ninth grader as part of the nonprofit educational program Prep-for-Prep 9, he expected to continue playing violin but got a rude awakening. “I was so out of my depth because I didn’t learn until I was 8,” Forté says. “My peers were doing Suzuki at 3 or 4. I was outmatched, and I pivoted.”

By that time, he was in love with hip-hop, and would order cassettes of pioneering artists like Dr. Dre and Public Enemy from a local record store near campus. Some of his friends had makeshift studios in their dorm rooms: a keyboard, some speakers, maybe a four-track tape recorder.

“That was just enough to allow us to find our voices,” Forté says. “Hip-hop felt like part of my identity, something I could really lean into, and it made me feel like home [at Exeter]. Whenever I had the opportunity to do a class project and was given free form to express myself, 10 times out of 10, I would always choose to turn it into a song.”

Guided by his favorite instructors, such as Christine Robinson of the English Department, Forté learned how to talk about art and to feel some ownership in its interpretation. “To be able to not just look at art or not just experience it passively, but to show up, to have agency inside the art,” Forté says. “My professors here really unlocked that for me.”

Even fellow Exeter students familiar with Forté’s talents as a “rapper extraordinaire” (according to a 1991 Exonian profile) may have been surprised at how quickly he soared to hip-hop fame after graduation. Midway through his freshman year at New York University, he left to take a job in A&R, or artists and repertoire, at the underground hip-hop label Rawkus Records. A friend introduced him to the music of the Fugees, and he met Hill at one of the group’s shows. Their connection led to his co-writing, producing and performing several tracks on the band’s second album, The Score, released in 1996. An electric fusion of hip-hop, reggae and soul music paired with socially conscious lyrics, the album went to No. 1 in 10 countries and became only the second rap album to earn a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. It has sold more than 22 million copies to date.

Forté performing in the Goel Center during the A.L.E.S anniversary celebration

Forté scored another hit with “We Trying to Stay Alive,” a cut from Wyclef Jean’s debut solo album that sampled the classic Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive.” Amid all the hype, Forté signed with a major label, Ruffhouse Records, and was given a year to make his debut solo album; he completed it in just eight months.

“There was the pressure of finishing it, not to mention the pressure of everything else going around, because I was part of a very, very successful machine,” Forté says. “My first album was so aspirational. There was a lot of braggadocio, which is what hip-hop is about, and a lot of youthful ego, because I had a lot to prove to the world.”

That album, Poly Sci, came out in 1998, featuring collaborations with Fat Joe, DMX and Pras. It was critically acclaimed but sold just 80,000 copies. The album’s commercial failure, and the subsequent break with his record label, led to a series of events that changed Forté’s life forever.

Determined to earn money so he could continue recording his music, he became involved in a criminal operation. In 2000 he was arrested at Newark International Airport in connection with a conspiracy to sell $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine. Found guilty of possession with intent to distribute, he was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 14 years in prison.

During his first few years incarcerated, Forté focused all his energy on appealing his conviction. Though he had recorded a second album, I, John, by then, he felt the music industry had turned on him. As a result, “I kind of turned my back on it,” he recalls. But while Forté was at Loretto, a low-security federal prison in Pennsylvania, another inmate brought him an unexpected gift: an acoustic guitar. “He was so excited because he knew I was a musician,” Forté says. “What he didn’t know was that I didn’t know how to play the guitar.” Forté stashed the instrument under his bed and left it there for months, until he was offered the opportunity to give music classes to his fellow inmates. “I had to learn two chords a week, just enough to be able to teach,” he says. “That motivation — having people depend on me week in and week out — taught me to learn my chords.”

John Forté's Playlist

Collaboration is key to Forté’s creative process. Here are five of his favorite collabs and the artists he “played with in the sandbox.” Listen to the playlist here:

In rediscovering music, and collaborating and performing with other musicians, Forté found a much-needed outlet. “It was wonderful to be able to find access to music, and to feel that as its own sort of opportunity to be free in a very not free place.”

Meanwhile, a group of people devoted to Forté’s cause, including the musician Carly Simon and her son, Ben Taylor, had been working to secure his release. In November 2008, President George W. Bush commuted Forté’s sentence, and he left prison after serving seven years.

After his release, Forté threw himself into activism, advocating for prison reform and working to change federal and state drug laws, including the legalization of marijuana. He currently serves on the board of the Transformational Prison Project, a restorative justice organization that aims to help people affected by crime and incarceration, including ending recidivism.

“I think I immediately felt duty bound as soon as I received word that I was going to be in receipt of clemency. ... I felt that there was work to be done to get more people home,” Forté says. “Some of the best people that I met in life have been from Phillips Exeter and my time at prison. Irrespective, I think, of what folks would like you to believe, character transcends geography.”

Today, Forté’s life looks far different from his early days of hip-hop fame, but he is no less dedicated to making music. Most of his work takes place in a studio adjoining his house in Martha’s Vineyard, where he lives with his wife, Lara, and their two young children. “My studio feels like my life’s work,” he says. “Every day that I walk in there, I’m just so grateful.”

Forté composes first on the piano, though he doesn’t consider himself a pianist. After spending his early years in hip-hop reliant on DJs or bands to perform and record his music, now he relishes being able to accompany himself on the guitar. “It allows me to be a self-contained unit,” he says of the instrument. “I feel all the more empowered and capable.”

As it has been throughout his career, collaboration is key to Forté’s creative process, and he enjoys welcoming fellow musicians into his studio to work together. “I’ve never, ever put out an album that has not included a bunch of other people in the mix, either explicitly or implicitly,” Forté says. “Playing in that sandbox is like a mirror: It allows me to see myself and my growth and my contribution.”

Much of Forté’s newer music is quiet and calm, far from the boasting and bluster of his early work. Forté plays guitar and alternately sings and raps, touching on themes of family, gratitude, redemption and reflection. Riddem Drive (2020) was his third album, though he has worked steadily and productively for years, putting out singles, videos and collaborations. He quickly followed up with Vessels, Angels & Ancestors (2021), written and recorded amid the response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the mass movement for racial justice that followed.

Vessels deals with difficult themes, but Forté considers that album just as much a testament to his children, whom he regards as the motivating force behind his creativity. “It’s like a diary to my kids, first and foremost,” he says. “Secondarily, it reminds me of the journey, and I try to honor that. And then it feels like it’s for the rest of the world.”

Near the end of the Exeter songwriting class, Forté muses on the differences between why he made music as a younger man and why he makes it now. “What will inspire you as songwriters and deliberate co-creators will and should change over time, but what you might want to check into is why you’re doing what you’re doing,” he says, as he prepares to spend a warm fall weekend sharing his work and reconnecting with old friends and fellow alumni at the A.L.E.S. event.

“The creative process, whether you’re writing a poem or a song or a piece of music, allows you to check in on your humanity ... again and again and again,” Forté tells the students. “So, keep writing songs. Don’t ever stop.”

- Sarah Pruitt

Editors Note: This profile was originally published in the Winter 2024 edition of The Exeter Bulletin.

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