Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Orphanage No. 9

I wake up every day with an incredible sense of anticipation for what the day holds. No two days have been alike since I've been here, and every day has brought at least one new experience that I never thought I'd have. Honestly, this is the most amazing internship in the world. I can't think of anywhere else in the world I'd rather be right now.

The band: Brian, John Forté, Patrick, and Ryan
Today I accompanied our Public Affairs Officer to St. Petersburg's Orphanage No. 9, where the Consulate hosted and provided translation for John Forté and his band.  John has an amazing story. Having grown up in a rough, what he calls "not very affluent" neighborhood, he knew his only chance to step out of that community was academics, and so after committing himself to his studies he received a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy and then continued at New York University. He made some great connections early on, and his music career exploded. He told the kids at the orphanage today that "sometimes when you get what you think you want early on, at a young age, you don't know how to handle the pressure."  His music had taken him all over the world, but when his new album was "met with critical acclaim yet experienced commercial failure," he says he blamed everyone but himself.  He was then released from his contract with Atlantic Records, and decided to pursue a solo career as an independent singer-songwriter. Just one problem, though: by that time he had spent all the money he had earned.  He was approached by some people who said they could help him get the money he needed, and unfortunately he joined an illegal enterprise - something having to do with cocaine - and that one bad choice landed him with a 14-year prison sentence when he was caught.  The room full of 100+ chatty kids fell silent upon hearing these words from the humble, gifted musician before them. 

And yet John's message is one of redemption, hope, and second chances.  During his time in prison he recommitted himself to education: reading, studying, even teaching courses.  His good behaviour and the lobbying of others on his behalf resulted in President Bush commuting his sentence after seven and a half years. John was released, but remained on probation for five years following his commutation. His new project, From Brooklyn to Russia, With Love, is a nine-week tour (in Russia, naturally) culminating in a documentary about his life - now dedicated to mentoring kids and enriching lives through the sharing and exchange of music. During these nine weeks he will be playing and speaking to several groups of children, collaborating with Russian artists, filming a documentary, and recording both a live and studio album. hAll proceeds from this tour go straight to charities in Russia.

The kids at Orphanage No. 9 had prepared an adorable concert for John and his band (called The Best), which was followed by 
John and company playing a concert and then leading a Q&A session.  After the concert, John and the guys stuck around to sign autographs, take pictures, and play around with the kids. I feel so blessed to have had the chance to be a part of this event, and to see the kids leave with such big smiles on their faces. They were starstruck!

The kids at Orphanage No. 9 singing for John + his crew
Percussionist Ryan teaches kids how to play the Cajon
(Peruvian box drum) and various other instruments
The band invited me to a concert they're playing at a club here in St. Pete on Friday night. Even though I'd never heard his music before today, I loved it and I can't wait to see the band live again and hang out with these cool guys!!


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