John Forte is a highly acclaimed hip-hop writer, producer and performer who has released four solo albums and worked with the Fugees, Wyclef Jean and Herbie Hancock. Forte co-wrote and produced two songs on the enormously successful Fugees' album The Score, which won Best Rap Album at the 1997 Grammy Awards. A year later, Forte released his own critically acclaimed debut album, Poly Sci, which was produced by Wyclef Jean. In addition to rap and hip-hop, Forte is also classically trained, having studied violin at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Forte is also a convicted criminal, who served eight years in federal prison after he was found guilty of drug trafficking in 2001. He released his second album, the confessional I, John, in 2002 while serving time at Pennsylvania's Lorreto Federal Penitentiary. President George W. Bush later pardoned Forte's 14-year sentence in 2008. Since his release from prison, Forte has become an activist for criminal justice reform, and is particularly passionate about America's juvenile justice system.
"I saw the worst reflection of our society as evidenced in our prison system," he says. "We are hemorrhaging right now."
Forte openly admits he did the wrong thing involving himself in criminal enterprise, but says he shares his story in the hope of affecting positive change in the lives of other young people who may also be susceptible to such a path.
"My activism towards criminal justice reform and towards juvenile justice is very, very personal," he says. "I do it by telling my narrative as opposed to trying to preach to people. I think that as an artist, it's my responsibility, self imposed or otherwise, to tell my story as honestly as I possibly can."
The U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. About 1 in 35 adults were supervised by the adult correctional systems at the end of 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Those same statistics showed that black males ages 18 to 19 were almost 9.5 times more likely than white males of the same age group to be in prison and overall, black males were 6 times and Hispanic males 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012.
Forte's activism in this area manifests as wanting to see the nation pay more attention to the issues surrounding incarceration; youth mental health, education and how, in his words, "we're failing our kids."
"I don't want to play the race card, but I would be a fool to say I did not notice a disproportionate number of children of color in the juvenile criminal justice system," he says. "How are we failing these kids, and what can we do to make it better?"
Forte's compulsion to try and bring attention to the issue stems from his own experience; for him, the personal is political.
"When I was away, there was a number of guys I served time with who said, 'The first thing I'm going to do when I get out of here is forget this ever happened,' and for me, that wasn't an option," says Forte. "I don't have the luxury of being able to forget about my past, for better or worse."