A couple of years ago, I was on the 7 train heading home into Manhattan. I was very down on myself. Sometimes you have those moments in life where you realize not everything you envisioned for yourself is possible. This was one of those times. As the train entered Long Island City, providing me with a view of Manhattan, John Forté’s “Cherry Blossom Water Love” came up on shuffle. I am not a spiritual guy, but there are moments in my life where I have wondered how the universe knew that that was the song I need to hear at that moment.
Now, John Forté coming up on random isn’t that strange. I’ve known him for many years. John is a friend of mine. I have followed his career, both highs, and lows, and in many ways, I have watched closely how he confronts challenges, and in some ways I have tried to emulate his spirit when applicable.
John is one of the most gifted musicians. I challenge anyone who disagrees. But, surprisingly, that is not what inspires me about him. What separates John from so many of his contemporaries and what makes so many of us seem so meager compared to him, is his resiliency. John’s ability to chart his course, to take complex issues in the world and turn them into poetry, and his ability to not allow the past hinder him from his future, are just some of the qualities that make him such a meaningful human.
During this summer, I saw John perform in front of a small and friendly audience at The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard. Earlier that day, Martha’s Vineyard saw it’s the first Tornado in a while. There is still debate on whether it was a Tornado or a Waterspout, however, you can imagine it was what everyone was talking about before John’s show. Then John got on the stage, poured his heart out, told intimate stories, played some songs off his upcoming album (which ended up being the just-released, Riddem Drive), and, in ways, only John could, calmed an island down.
I often think about the Toni Morrison quote, “you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” Over the years, I have watched John shed himself of some of the things that weighed him down so he can fly. And fly he has. I had never seen John happier then when we started telling his friends that he was expecting his first child. That was until his daughter, Wren Zazie, arrived. Then you couldn’t knock that smile off his face. Lara and Wren have helped John get on the path to put out Riddem Drive, which he told a City Winery crowd last month that it is coming out on Valentine’s Day. No doubt a tribute to them.
Riddem Drive, which dropped last Friday, is a more comfortable and confident John Forté. The album begins with the powerful “The Price To Be Paid” with personal and self-reflective lyrics like, “Although I wanted to stand here and promise you nothing we do it from fear the truth is I fallen hard, and said this calling card and the price to be paid is unclear.”
The tracks “Mercy” and “Shiva” gives the listener an inside look at John’s years in prison and the years following advocating for criminal justice reform, and using his voice to call out injustices. “Shiva” starts, “lack of leadership, babies holding heaters, with every intention of making it hot and keep it there, light up the night shorty bent my year, ‘the only time they see us is election year’ they neither serve or protect us here, so why the hell should we think they care. and on the count, if we vote, disenfranchised lives still suffer, yeah, we are tough for broke.” A truthful and emotional track.
The album includes friends Ben Taylor and Talib Kweli (which you should view and listen to Talib’s conversation with John on People’s Party below) on the self-reflective track “Being is Believing” that melds John’s childhood with his adulthood. However, it is “Running Up That Hill” and “Those Who Know” that highlight John’s evolution and my favorite tracks on Riddem Drive. “Running Up That Hill” is a song where we get inside John’s head during challenging times in his life. The hook, in the iconic John Forté raspy voice, “If I only could make a deal with God and get him to swap out places, be running up that road, be running up that hill, Be running up that building,” is mind-blowingly poignant. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s human.
John ends Riddem Drive with an ode to his wife and their future. What shines is John’s boundless happiness. His infinite amount of love that he projects. You always want your friends to be happy, and for the past couple of years, every time I see John, he’s happy and at peace. He sings, “I love her. I love my girl in the worst way/ I cele, I celebrate like it’s my birthday/ I tell her no matter whatever they might say, you be better be served tea in the first place/ It’s like heaven on earth, look at her face/ I am too old for the skirt and the skirt chase/ bad advice is perverse to take/ those who know love, show love great.”
John Forté shows love great.
You can find John Forté’s Riddem Drive on all music platforms. We encourage you to purchase the album.
Listen to ‘Riddem Drive’:
Watch John Forté on “People’s Party with Talib Kweli”