John Forte in Forbes

A few months ago I wrote about the remarkable story of John Forté, the Grammy-nominated musician freed from prison two years ago by way of a last-minute pardon from a very unlikely source: George W. Bush.

Today, Forté approaches life with a mixture of wonder and urgency that perhaps only someone who’s making up for lost time could muster. Since the end of 2008 the former Fugees-affiliated singer/rapper/producer/songwriter has recorded more than 60 songs, performed over 40 concerts, started work on a memoir and embarked on a lucrative public speaking career. That’s not enough to earn a spot on our annual Hip-Hop Cash Kings list (at least not yet), but the new gigs have given Forté plenty of flexibility.

His latest venture: a two-month tour of Russia that will yield a feature-length documentary and a new album conceived, written and recorded on the trip.

Starting in late February, Forté and his band will take their act to cities including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Ekaterinburg, as well as smaller locales along the Trans-Siberia Railway in Siberia and beyond. Forté will perform with musicians ranging from local folk singers to (possibly) the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, concluding with a charity concert in the capital before 3,000-4,000 people on Easter Sunday.

“I wanted to make myself privy to what was happening on the ground in Russia, as part of a sort of cultural and sociological exposé,” he explains. “And I’ve been afforded a unique opportunity to take my brand of music there.”

That opportunity traces its roots to the friendship between Forté and Christophe Charlier, the deputy CEO of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov‘s Onexim Group. The two men attended the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in the early 1990s, and when Charlier suggested a tour of Russia, Forté leapt at the chance. Charlier agreed to provide funding in exchange for a 50/50 share of the profits.

“Partnering with John in this unique project is a real honor,” says Charlier. “We are not just bringing John to Moscow for a concert: we are creating a true exchange of John and his music with both the contemporary and classical Russian cultures and music audiences.”

In addition to typical scheduled concerts, Forté will be doing a number of “pickup gigs” as he traverses Russia with an ear tuned to hear the rustlings of spontaneous inspiration. “It might be 12 people in some pub,” he says. “There’s something really beautiful and romantic and nostalgic about that. There’s no telling who will turn up to my gigs in Siberia.”

(To read the full story of John Forté’s most unlikely benefactor, click here).

The other members of Forté’s band — bassist Brian Satz, percussionist Ryan Vaughn and keyboardist Patrick Firth — are fortunately already used to the fluid operating style of their frontman. “I know it’s cliché, but my band is family,” he says. “I don’t even do setlists, I just call out a song.”

Forte hopes his trip to Russia can become a template for lengthy creative excursions to other countries, mentioning Japan and South Africa with hurried excitement. Regardless, Forté should return to New York in the spring with plenty of content — the documentary of his travels as well as a full-length studio album and a full-length live album, to go along with two albums’ worth of content he’s already recorded and a memoir he hopes to finish by April.

“If fate shines on me,” he says, “it looks like we’ll have a lot of content for 2011.”

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