Very Much Like a Death

On Monday, September 3, 2001, shortly after John Forté completed his second album, i, John, he and some friends from New York were in a swanky Houston hotel called the Lancaster having a party. They stayed up late eating french fries, drinking White Russians, and listening to Reasonable Doubt over and over again. Forté spoke of a party he was going to throw at the end of the week in New York at Spa. He would buy out the bar as Mark Ronson spun. The day after he would fly off to Dublin with his girlfriend. He had that New York of-course-we’ll-conquer-the-world swagger. He repeatedly said, in a female lilt, “More champagne, Mr. Forté?” There was no champagne around, he just meant the partying and high living would not, could not stop. The next day everyone put on suits and went to court.

Forté is a child of Brownsville, his mother’s only son, who won a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the most prestigious prep school in America. After a year at NYU, he found his way into Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill’s Refugee Clique. His debut solo album, Poly Sci, had a few great moments, but the Hiphop Nation paid no mind. He was a rapper more book-smart than street-smart and that’s never been a winning combination. Since then, he’s become friends with Carly Simon, learned how to sing, and been arrested for possession of 31 pounds of cocaine worth $1.5 million.

On September 4, Forté testified that he’d met a man with no day job who thought nothing of buying thousand-dollar shirts and multiple bottles of multi-hundred-dollar champagne. The two began talking about helping one another professionally. In July of 2000 a pair of girls from New York traveled to Mexico to pick up something. On their way back they were arrested. At a motel near Houston they called Forté repeatedly, frantically. He told them, “Put the ice cream in the tub.” The phone was tapped. A day later, the girls arrived at Newark Airport. Forté testified at length that he thought the suitcase they handed him was filled with money. I testified that “cream” is, indeed, hiphop slang for currency. But the suitcase did not contain money. And Forté was surrounded by ATF agents.

On the stand, wearing a double-breasted, high-necked black suit a bit too stylish for the occasion, he seemed neither sad, nor sorry, nor scared, but smart and smug. Back at the hotel, the party recommenced. Perhaps it was a blues mentality, an urge to laugh in the face of unfathomable tragedy. Perhaps it was overconfidence. Perhaps it was an act: In private he was quiet, moody, afraid, drinking, not eating, and taking antidepressants.

On the 5th, in her closing, the prosecutor said, “These New Yorkers think they can come down here with their money and their celebrity and fool us hicks.”

On the 6th, moments before the jury came back with their verdict, a juror’s daughter told Forté’s girlfriend not to worry. The jury had liked him. When Forté heard that, the clouds that had engulfed him for over a year suddenly lifted. He could see himself at Spa. He could smell Dublin.

The 12 filed in. On the charge of possession he was found guilty.

Forté had spent the previous year in fear of that moment. He’d been on house arrest, planning his defense and writing and recording, knowing he had to be finished before the trial, knowing he might not get another chance to speak publicly. Where Jigga and Puff responded to their trials by boasting of their innocence on wax, Forté found himself focused by the pressure and reinvented his musical voice to accommodate his new mind. On i, John he is primarily a blues singer, working his way through mournfully mellow songs about the pointlessness of celebrity, the pettiness of club life, the juvenile excesses of hiphop, and the new loneliness of his life. “My cigarette smoke has long since dissolved,” he sings. “Nothing to hide behind/No one to give applause/Now I’m humbled.” He details his new reality, his sense that time is not a friend. “The only thing I’ll ever miss is kisses from Mom,” he sings. “I don’t club no more/ I smoke a cigarette, drink, then we write a new song so that/my spirit’s here even if I’m gone.” He closes with a searing ballad in which he faces his family. “Even after all of your warnings/we still managed to meet with harm.” He asks if he will remain part of the family, if they’ll accept him when he returns from his long exile. “Will you still remember us as family?/Will you not place judgment upon us?/When we one day join you at the reunion?”

Whatever keep it real means to you—repping your hood or wearing your own jewels in the video—nothing is more real than putting the facts of your life all up in your art the way Pryor, Biggie, and Jigga have. Nothing is more real than the rhyming and singing of the man deathly afraid of what is ahead of him, the John Forté of i, John. If ever a piece of art has shown how the caged bird sings, it is i, John.

A life-shatteringly long prison bid is very much like a death: Something terrible happens and suddenly someone’s not around and everyone struggles to know what to say. But in letters from prison Forté has refused to cry. In late September he wrote, “I was shown love from the moment I walked in here, Exeter’s ‘art of diplomacy’ course did me well. Hah! . . . One good thing about Houston is the weather has been decent—from what I can tell. But I am in need of some outdoor time. This detention center is just that—a holding facility where we are detained until we can get to the ‘joint.’ It’s small and repetitious. I am told it gets better than this. Shit, it has to.”

In late October he wrote, “All is well in exile. . . . We are treated like junior high school science projects—open the cage, and the mouse awakens. Turn off the lights, and the mouse grows weary. Scream about ‘chow’ and the mouse comes running. . . . My ‘cellie’ is a real good guy. He’s recently found Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. . . . He’s trying to get medical treatment for his snoring, but until then I deal with the earth-shattering noise. I’ve never had a problem sleeping through din. But reading and writing become increasingly difficult when someone snores so loud and awkward it gives you the chills; like when the kids in elementary school would run their nails on the chalkboard! Eeek!! . . . I’ve met some brilliant minds behind these walls. . . . The best thing I can do now is prepare myself for the long haul. I cannot allow myself to think about the likelihood and chances of coming home on appeal.”

Just before Thanksgiving, Forté was sentenced to 14 years. Federal guidelines mandate he serve at least 85 percent of his sentence. He won’t drink champagne before 2013.

It would be easier if he was a bad person who’d done numerous crimes, a menace who deserved a long bid. Or someone who had little to offer society. But to think of an artist with something to offer, to think of a boy from the ghetto who made it to the most prestigious prep school in America and then came back to hiphop to share what he’d gleaned, to think of a man who dug his own grave, that is to think of a cry for which there aren’t enough tears.

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