It was a June Martha’s Vineyard morning when I received a text from my friend John Forté asking if I was around to come over and listen to his “just finished” new project. I hadn’t seen John in over a year-and-a-half due to COVID-19 but knew he was working on something special. I knew this because a year before, back in June 2020, John released “SHAME SHAME” — a protest song in the spirit of Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott Heron, and Public Enemy — in loving memory of George Floyd. I knew then that “SHAME SHAME” was not a one-off single for the moment or the movement, but instead, it was a catalyst to unleashing a treasure trove of John Forté’s feelings. John is an intuitive, sensitive person who has this uncanny ability to seamlessly meld his observations, experiences, and emotions into our collective observations, experiences, and emotions. When he lets himself go there with his feelings, it’s unique. It’s extraordinary. It’s poetry at it’s finest. There was no way John was going to stop at “SHAME SHAME.” He feels too much. So as I sat in a basement studio listening to John’s new album Vessels, Angels & Ancestors, which features “SHAME SHAME,” clinging to every word and trying not to awkwardly sway that way,I kept saying to myself, “this is the best music John has ever put together.”
Vessels, Angels & Ancestors, in short, is an album about John Forte’s feelings. He, the vessel, is guided by his angels and ancestors, who help him express and also process those emotions. The past two years have not been easy for anyone, especially a black, formerly incarcerated father of two young kids. The dichotomy of the hate and fear that John saw on television or read about in the news with the joy and love he saw day in and day out at home with his wife and kids during the pandemic lockdown is evident throughout the introspective Vessels, Angels & Ancestors. It is part somber and part bright. It is part pessimistic while staying confidently optimistic. And as it toys with our back-and-forth emotions, Vessels, Angels & Ancestors is genuine because nothing is just one emotion; it’s our contradictory emotions that don’t always make sense until we learn how to process them and, in this case, deliver them as an authentic album.
Vessels, Angels & Ancestors has many highlights. There is the encouraging “Begin Again” where John’s lyrics are the main show, and he reminds us that “In the presence of grace and grief the sun rose again / We face the east, take a breath, hold it in / you’re precisely where you’re meant to be.” In the impassioned “88” featuring the angel-like voice of Fielded, John seems to take issue with the track prior, “Begin Again.” It is not enough to wait for the next day to come; you must look in yourself and not run away from who you are to to begin again truly. There is “Good Money” featuring Billy Woods that tells the story of a young guy who thought “a check meant more than respect” and his struggle to gain the respect he deserves — as the status quo is out of his grasp. With lyrics like, “When the caged bird sings you will know when to set it free / Be what you want to see / you are what you want to be / good money you can head on through / when you bet make them bet on you,” John melding experiences with those of his angels and ancestors. It is a constant conversation between him and generations past and him and his kids. There is the upbeat, “haters gonna hate,” “Gas” with the catchy riff, “the proofs in the pudding it’s a new day too / this believer said we couldn’t but that’s what they do / haters don’t break me, they make fuel / gas, gas, gas, gas, gas, gas.” And empowerment anthem, “Ready On the One,” featuring Spills, Five, and Miss Brittany Reese and some of the most memorable handbells, is a multi-generational conversation about one’s past struggles and where they are today. Would John or any of us be who we are today it hasn’t gone through what we have gone through?
But it is “So Quiet Thereafter,” which is, in my opinion, the seminal song on Vessels, Angels & Ancestors. It is the song that affected me the most when John first played me his new album on that summer morning in June, and it is the song I have listened to over and over again in both astonishment and in fear. It is a haunting masterpiece that looks at America’s demons that many Americans only started to see the past year following the January 6th Insurrection where a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the United States Capitol. In his iconically raspy voice, Forte rather bluntly paints the picture that we have all seen on our screens over the past year but does so invoking our feelings in ways we haven’t been able to properly process yet, “Look at here, look at this country / there are some things you can not unsee / mass prison, manless, this is caste division / in the inevitable words of Mrs. Wilkinson, if not for you read it for the children / they scream ‘cooo”,’ and then they left the building / I saw that same thing as you, so how are you feeling? / That’s not the floor, baby boy, that’s the ceiling.”
In the opening track, “Scenes and Setting,” Ram Dass tranquilly says, “We need to have a lot of compassion at this point for our own predicament. If you are going to see love in another being, you must see love in yourself.” John, a self-proclaimed work in process, clearly sees love in himself and in us, whether we deserve it or not. With the release of “Vessels, Angels & Ancestors,” John Forté has joined the pantheon of great poetic musicians on this side of the planet. Not with The Fugees. Not with Wyclef Jean or with Lauryn Hill. Just John Forté. Exactly where he has always belonged.