November 24, 2010 2:28 PM
Thanksgiving Second Chances for Fugees Star John Forte
Posted by Neil Katz
(CBS) For many, Thanksgiving is about food and family. For Fugees star John Forte, it’s also about second chances.
Two years ago to the day, the Grammy-winning producer was released from prison. He was serving a 14-year sentence after being caught with $1.4 million in liquid cocaine in his suitcase. President Bush commuted his sentence six years early.
Forte, 35, recently sat down with CBS News to talk about his unbelievable rise from a kid playing violin the Brooklyn ghetto to touring the world with Wyclef Jean and Lauren Hill and his shocking fall from grace.
Now, as Forte rebuilds again and readies a new album, he says he has much to be thankful for.
CBS: What was it like growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn?
Forte: Brownsville as a kid was blight. If you looked up urban blight you would see a picture of Brownsville back in the early 80s. This was a time when drugs, particularly crack hit the streets. So there was that as an epidemic… violence became pretty pervasive.
We knew there was always a threat but we didn’t live in a state of fear. I actually equated it to living in Beirut in the 80s.
CBS: As a promising young student, you were chosen to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious New Hampshire boarding school. Was it culture shock?
Forte: Walking on the campus, I was more taken aback by strangers smiling at me and saying hello than anything else. I am from an area, a hood, a discipline, if you will, where you don’t look at strangers, you don’t speak to strangers. And here I am on this beautiful campus, this beautiful sprawling campus and walking by people I knew I hadn’t met before and they are smiling at me.
I was suspicious. I had that Brooklyn cynicism and street smart edge… it was a defensiveness; something that I felt kept me protected until I learned over time to let that guard down.
CBS: You became a hip hop star, but you began as a violinist in the hood.
Forte: Carrying a violin through Brownsville was a very, very early lesson in being comfortable with being who I was and who I am. It wasn’t necessarily a cool instrument… here I am with this little violin case. It’s not really a tough instrument… I had to learn how to take pride with what I did as a musician. The beautiful thing for me was knowing that I could make that instrument make a sound… It was empowering.
CBS: You eventually joined the Fugees, helped produce the Grammy-winning record “The Score,” and toured the world. What was that like?
Forte: I am the consummate student and working with the Fugees was no different. It was an amazing opportunity especially because I got to see the world at such a young age and I got to experience different cultures and to experience business and to make a living off of doing something I loved.
We came from modest beginnings only to achieve great successes. It was an amazing thing and journey to witness as we were introduced to new socioeconomic enclaves.
I remember being on a yacht in the South of France at the Cannes Film Festival and the Spice Girls were to my right, the Bee Gees are right in front of me and Howard stern is to my left and I am sitting there drinking a mimosa as the sun setting, like this is living.
CBS: What about the music?
Forte: Everyone brought something to the table… We felt like the Special Forces. We each had a specialty and we contributed that and that’s what made us an entity, as a creative spirit, stronger.
It was a dream for me to not just harp on what was happening in the streets, to not just talk about the grime and the grit of the hood but to also talk about the intelligence and the beauty of what I saw.
CBS: Tell us how you went from a rock star to a convict.
Forte: When my solo album came out to critical acclaim but commercial disappointment… the problem was I didn’t have any money. In earning more than I ever had I also spent more than I had ever had.
That led me to a pretty destitute situation… I thought to myself, I need some cash. I need it quickly… I meet someone who offers me cash quick and the illusion of independence.
I involved myself in this criminal enterprise.
CBS: In 2001, Forte was arrested with $1.4 million in liquid cocaine in his suitcase. He said he chose to be “willfully blind” about the specifics of the drug running operation he had involved himself in. At his sentencing, the judge told him willful blindness was not a defense and handed down 14 years.
In prison, Forte said he gave up music and hope. But when an inmate handed him a guitar, which he didn’t know how to play, he found himself again. Soon, he was giving guitar lessons to other prisoners and writing music close to his heart.
Shortly before his surprise release, he wrote the song that he now says means the most to him, “The Breaking of a Man.”
To hear Forte’s song and his incredible journey from jail to redemption, watch the video above.
“The song tells the story of having to be broken down in order to be rebuilt,” he says. “We live in a cycle of building and destroying. There is no ending without a new beginning. There is no beginning without a new ending.”
For this Thanksgiving, Forte’s ending is far better than he could have hoped. He is free, living in New York and making music again. His album Water, Light, Sound is coming out soon.