Busted: Fr. Stan Fortuna

The Franciscan Friar from the Bronx Talks About the Release of his Third Rap Album

october 6 2006 • written by Bill McGarvey for busted halo

Chances are while you were having a cup of coffee this morning Fr. Stan Fortuna had already produced a new DVD, written a chapter for a book and recorded some new songs for an upcoming cd—depending on his mood it could’ve be jazz, Brazilian, hip hop or any number of the many styles of music he’s worked in over the past 20 years.

Don’t worry, it’s not that you’re necessarily lazy it’s just that the “rappin' Capuchin” as he is known to some is an unstoppable force of nature. Now in his late forties, Fortuna has the energy of someone decades younger. He speaks in an exuberant, non-stop, New York-ese that you’d expect to hear waiting in line outside Yankee stadium before a big playoff game (minus the expletives). Makes sense, Fortuna, a native New Yorker and one of the original members of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, lives in the south Bronx not far from the House that Ruth built. He’s well-known in some Catholic circles from his frequent appearances on EWTN as well as his touring and speaking engagements around the world that take him away from the Bronx for up to eight months a year.

Between trips, Fr. Stan spoke to BustedHalo about the release of Sacro Song 3 the final installment in a trilogy of rap cds that he began in 1998.

BustedHalo: You’re a Fransiscan priest and yet you rap. How’d you get started down that road?

Fr. Stan Fortuna: Well first of all I don’t just do rap music. God gave me the gift of music and he’s found a way to integrate it into my whole vocation. The irony is that I entered the Capuchins back in 1979 and I was running away from God for about two and a half years with this whole vocation thing because I thought I wouldn’t be able to play again and I couldn’t conceive of myself not playing. But he gave me the grace to bite the bullet and face up to it and say, “If that’s what you want and that’s how it’s gonna be, that’s how it’s gonna be.” And it was like Abraham taking Isaac up to the mountain, and I took that knife out and was ready to slit that boys throat. And then the angel came and took me by the hand.

Right from the beginning the Capuchins were saying that according to Saint Francis the friars are able to use the tools of their trade. And I said, “You don’t understand. I play the bass. I’ve got my ’66 jazz bass. And if I bring that I have to take the amp. I’ve got an upright bass…” And they said, “Bring it.” To cut a long story short, they really pulled the music stuff out of me. They made me get a guitar and then had me singing. And God is dropping songs on me and the stuff is just flowing out of me.

In the summer time, I would always go into the inner city because that’s where my heart is with the poor. And in the mid-80’s I’m seeing kids doing beat boxing and freestyling and rapping on the street corner, Beat boxing is when people make a beat with their mouths with no instruments. You have two kids and it sounds like an orchestra. And you have guys coming up with choruses rapping about stuff. And as a jazz musician the improvisational character and quality of this was amazing. And it wasn’t this whole rap, hip hop culture with vulgarity and violence. I mean, the vulgarity and violence is what these people were living through and it would come out because that’s how it was but it wasn’t like it is now. There was none of that out there. And I was moved by that, and I started just doing it for fun. In fact in the early days, I didn’t call it rap, I called it rhythm and rhyme. I’d get the rhythm going and then the rhyme would flow, and it was just a matter of time.(laughs)

BH: It sounds like you’re pretty aware of what’s going on in hip hop culture. Who do you listen to?

SF: Well, I’m not a big hip hop culture hound other than the fact that I live in the midst of it. I don’t have to read about it in magazines, I just open my window. So, I don’t read the magazines or go to the websites, I’m in the south Bronx. People make the case that this is where it started; even before Brooklyn. In the early days it was going on right beneath my nose and I didn’t even know, which is kind of ironic. But then again I would hear it. You would hear the cars coming by and see the kids doing it. So I just kind of was influenced and got inspired by the hip hop culture that I was living in the midst of. And that’s the thing about our community. Living with and working with the poor. I had a front row seat, and I didn’t know what was going on.

BH: And yet you cite 2Pac and Biggie and Eminem as influences and say that you admire their talent.

SF: Well, I admire it in the same way that I admire every single human person because they’re created in God’s image. But I don’t admire how Eminem is messing with his talent. He’s got great talent, and I know he’s loving his daughter right now. But it’s going to be very interesting to see what his next CD is about because now his daughter is older, and she’s old enough to understand what’s going on.

And as far as 2Pac goes and Biggie, Biggie was one of the best word crafters, and it’s unfortunate you can’t listen to much of his stuff because it’s just so vulgar. 2Pac was much more revealing. He would go into deep levels of his soul and almost on a confessional level. And certainly on a level of crying out. I made a study of some of his lyrics. This was after he was dead. I wished I had done it when he was alive because I would have tried to reach out, and I would have said, “Brother, let’s go for a walk man.” But I never had a chance to do that.

BH: Actually, there’s a cut on your new album, Sacrosong 3, that is called “Daddy Wound” and it does specifically reference Eminem. Can you tell us a little bit about this song. It sounds like you’re criticizing him. Do you expect a backlash from him? (laughter)

SF: I’m talking about the daddy wound that’s hurting a lot of kids. And his daughter is definitely going to have a daddy wound, and he’s trying to protect her from that.

But Eminem has a daddy wound because his father wasn’t there in his life. And now, he’s hollering about honoring the beautiful blessing that is his daughter Hailie daily. And it’s odd. At one point, he even mentions God. So, I don’t expect any backlash because I’m not dissing him, I’m wishing him good things. I’m even piercing into his heart because I’m paying attention to what he’s saying that’s actually worthwhile because he’s expressing love to his daughter and trying to protect her from the daddy wound. I give him credit for that. I’m praying that he would shock everybody and come out with something amazing because he’s got the capability. It’d be interesting to see how he’ll split the difference. He doesn’t need any more money. He’s got enough money for all of us. (laughter) He’s got the strength and the courage. He’s not embarrassed to say what he wants to say.

BH: Any thoughts on anybody out there in hip hop who’s doing stuff that’s constructive? Any thoughts on Kanye West and “Jesus Walks?”

SF: Well, the “Jesus Walks” thing if you listen to my CD, I’ve got a song on there called “Jesus Talks,” and people had been telling me for a while I should listen to Kanye West, but I didn’t know who he was. Like I said, I’m not up on the scene. But people said, “He’s got this song called ‘Jesus Walks’”. And I thought, ‘well that’s nice.’ I wasn’t interested. But last November I was on a pilgrimage. And some kid had his iPod on and I said, “Hey what are you listening to?” because I’ve always got to check that out and take their headphones off and listen. And he had the Kanye West stuff on there so I put it on, and initially it kind of bothered me. I was like, I’m going to do a song, “Jesus Talks” and I’m going to come at this, boy. And it kind of got me a little angry to tell you the truth. I started jotting down these lyrics, and they were kind of ferocious. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way it felt, where it was coming from. I just made a decision, I’m not doing this song. And it’s like when I made that decision, it was almost like God was saying in my heart, “Okay son, now that you’ve made that decision, can I please get in a word here.” It was like God said, “I want you to do this song.” And I was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to do this song.’ And God was like, “I want you to do this song.”

So, I was in San Diego, and I was exhausted working out there. And it got me up at like six in the morning. And these words you hear on the song came out in like 10 minutes. And the funny thing was when I got the lyrics, I was like, ‘Oh my Jesus.’ I got the goose bumps. I called Fran who runs our web site and said, “Fran, check this out. Look, I got up this morning and Jesus put the this all over me.” And when I was sharing it with her, I was reading some of the lyrics and I was like, Yeah, you know. We got blindness/We can’t even see where Jesus be walkin’/Even though he right behind us/I want to remind us/That’s how the devil want to shake us/Breakin’ you down/Makin’ you think you’re so good that you want to wear the crown/Wantin’ to trade places with the master with the disaster that knocked that fallen angel down/So I want to see you stick around…

So when I told that to Fran, she said, “Father Stan, do you know what happened today? I got an e-mail Rolling Stone is doing a cover story on Kanye West and it’s called “The Passion of Kanye West” and he’s portrayed on the from cover with a bloody face crown of thorns like Jim Caviezel portraying Jesus. And I’m saying, the devil’s gonna want to break you down making you think that you’re so good that you want to wear the crown. And when she told me, I said, “No you’re kidding.” And she sent an e-mail, and I got to see the front cover of the magazine. I got the chills on my back. And that was like God’s way of confirming, “Okay son, I know you didn’t want to do this but you see why I wanted you to do this.” And I was like, whoa. And it probably won’t make a difference except for a few little people who listen to it. Will Kanye West ever hear it? I don’t know. And I’m not slamming him. Will he ever call me and say, “Hey man, let’s talk about this. Let me write you a check for your work with the young people in the south Bronx. Let me support your cultural center.”

BH: That’d be nice.

SF: Not just to write a check, but I’d love to talk to him. I’d love to work with him. I mean he has an interesting way of doing things. But it’s another question of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. He’s got the “Golddigger” thing going on. But then he wants to talk about “Jesus Walks”. And Jesus does walk with the goldigger but Jesus is going to want to tell the goldigger, “Honey, put your clothes on.” (laughter)

BH: As much as rappers in the secular world get criticized, do people in the church ever say, “what’s up with what’s Fr. Stan’s doing? Is that really ministry?” Do you ever get criticized in the church?

SF: I’m sure it’s going on. I’ve heard a couple of people say that I’m referred to as the “Irreverend Fortuna”. Some people say, “You’re a disgrace. You’re not a priest. You don’t look like a priest. You don’t sound like a priest.” I was doing a radio show one time, and I gave the guy that example, and I said to the guy, “Do you want to tell me what a priest looks like and talks like?”

I’m sure when they saw Jesus they said, “If he’s supposed to be the Messiah, right now he doesn’t look like one or act like one or sound like one.” I’m sure when they saw Saint Francis, they didn’t know what the heck he was. So I don’t get the criticism directly straight to me. It might come behind me.

But for the most part from the kids, even from their parents and grandparents. From the young to the old who don’t like rap music, when they hear the content of the message, that’s the thing. And there are people who legitimately out there question the whole notion of a beat.

There are people who are quoting musicologists from the ‘40s and the ‘50s that say things like the syncopation of jazz rhythms is from the devil. And it causes sexual temptation. If someone hears sexual temptation from the da-ding-ding on the cymbals, they’ve got some serious issues. You know what I mean? (laughs)

I mean, it’s a crazy world out there. I know what gives me sexual temptation, and it’s not the cymbals. (laughs) I’ve heard some really devout Catholics and Christians who say it doesn’t matter what the content is. You cannot redeem this beat thing. And that’s when I start saying, 'hold on Charlie.' Because then are we putting restrictions on the Gospel. So much of what John Paul II has said and done becomes null and void from that point of view because John Paul talks about taking the Gospel to the heart of the contemporary culture. Even our new pope, Benedict XVI is talking about eros and people are criticizing him historically and theologically that Christianity has taken eros out of the agape. You can’t have eros as part of agape. And Pope Benedict says, “Uh uh. Eros must be purified and elevated. But you can’t take it away. It’s the core of agape.”

BustedHalo: We heard from some people at Vatican Radio that as a gift they gave Pope Benedict an iPod. Do you think he’s got any rap on there?

Fr. Stan Fortuna: I bet you he doesn’t. No, I bet he’s got Mozart. I mean, I love Bach. I would love for him to hear my song called “Bach Me Up”. And I’ve got this nun playing for a minute and thirty-five second the fourth movement of Bach’s French Suite. And then at the end I looped this thing around it and the chorus is like “Yo, Johann Sebastian/ It’s hard to imagine music more beautiful this side of heaven than yours/It’s like doors/” And then I go into this whole celestial thing. I mean, it’s quite cool. I think if he heard the Bach he would love that. Then he would hear the beat coming in. A little cymbal coming in and I’ve got this element like samples of boys’ choirs chanting. And it’s quite interesting how you edit these things together. And then the message of saying that Bach’s music this side of heaven is hard to imagine music more beautiful than his and then it goes into the celestial. So, I think that would be a good thing to introduce him. Maybe once it gets up on iTunes we could have download him that one. Although of course, I’d gladly send him a CD.

BH: Did you go to music school right after high school or did you go right into your vocation?

SF: No, I was going very far away from the vocation during and after high school. My father with the threat of breaking both of my legs made sure that I went to college. I did not even finish a semester. I got a scholarship to the Westchester Conservatory of Music. I was studying privately. I started taking lessons in the tenth grade with a really great bass teacher and a really great man. He introduced me to really great music and that’s when I really started sinking my teeth into the best stuff. I got a scholarship playing Bach from the First Cello Suite on the bass, but I didn’t even last a semester because I went on the road with my band. It wasn’t long after that that the Lord said, “Enough of this. Okay now my turn.”

BH: Our audience is young adults, many who are trying to figure out where God is calling them in their lives. Many of them see a religious vocation as completely separate from or opposite from anything in the world we might do, like music. What advice do you have for people who are trying to figure out where God is calling them?

SF: Well, I mean you gotta trust God. That’s the bottom line. It’s like the coach saying, “We’ve got to take it one game at a time.” I mean, he’s not being cute when he says that if he’s a great coach. And I’m not being cute when I say that is true. That God is really worthy of our trust. I didn’t go shopping around saying, “I’ve got these gifts, now I’ll find the order that will let me use them.” I was ready to give it all away. And then I got it back in a way that I never expected. So, really, the way to trust God and God’s providence is really the key. Now, taking concrete steps to doing that, sometime later you’re going to need to see somebody, talk to somebody, make a retreat with somebody, test something to find if you should continue to move in that direction or see if you need to move in another direction. And that’s the thing you need to do at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the vocation because that never ends. And that’s the beauty of the thing because God calls. And even once you’re in the community and you’ve made these vows, “Ha ha! Finished!” No, no. Congratulations. You’re just beginning now baby. Now we’re just getting going.

God made it all and when he was done he said it was all good. All the mess up comes from us and with a lot of help from the other side. But it’s all good. And then especially for the service of the church, which needs every unique aspect, every single person without exception. God wastes nothing. It’s beautifully surprising how God can and will do once we give him permission.

BH: In the south Bronx where you are, you’re surrounded by a lot of poverty. With the kids that you’re dealing with where do you begin? How do you get through so much that might be poisoning peoples’ minds and peoples’ hearts early on? Do you have any thoughts on how you do that?

SF: Yeah, truth. Truth cuts through. It cuts through everything. It cuts through the darkness and it cuts through the lies. These kids are so wounded. They’ve been so abused, and they’re constantly thriving on this lie thing. And with truth it’s refreshing.

BH: How do you give them the truth so the medium doesn’t get in the way of the message?

SF: Well, first of all, through the encounter. They’ve gotta meet somebody who’s going to be true with them and speak the truth with them. Plus they can tell right away. Especially with poor people. They will look at you and size you up to tell if you are authentic or not. I got some people I would love to see on a formation staff in seminaries because they would have something to say to the staff and the students. They just have the God-given ability to cut through stuff, and it’s wonderful. People can sense authenticity and sincerity. And if you speak to somebody, especially in a language that they understand. That’s why kids are so moved by the beat. Kids will say, “You rap?” And I say, “Yeah, I rap.” Especially if it’s about
abortion. A lot of times people will be at these abortion mills in the south Bronx. They’ve got these guys dropping off their girlfriends to have their babies killed and they’re marching back and forth listening to these CDs.

A nun one time said, “Hi.” A cute little white nun in a very violent black neighborhood. And she said, “What are you listening to?” And the kids said, “I’m listening to music.” And she said, “Put this on. You like rap music?” And he said, “You’re kidding me.” She gives him my song “Never Been Born” and in the third verse the kid puts the headphones on and the concept of this song is that the babies that have been killed are talking to the world from heaven. In the first verse they’re talking to the world about the whole process. The second verse they’re talking to the mother. The third verse, they’re talking to the father. And he says, “What about my father/He gave me no protection/Aborted my conception/The world and nation need a new direction/They make it political/Congress getting critical/Daddy tell the world abortion ain’t just physical/You call us a fetus/You can’t defeat us/Daddy stand up for the truth because you need us/ Break down the politic/Crack down the heretic/Be a man/Face the Pain”. The man took off the headphones and went inside and ripped his girlfriend out of that abortion clinic and said, “You ain’t killing my baby.”

BH: It sounds like your music is making a difference in people’s lives.

SF: Well, even when I’m not there…The technology of making the CD and the technology of being able to play the CD and then the courage of some nun to walk up to a kid and tell him the truth. “I’ve got some rap music I want you to listen to.” I mean, it doesn’t happen every day like that, but it’s happened on a number of occasions.

BH: So apparently the truth is penetrating through that beat…that sexual beat you were talking about before. (laughs)

SF: Well, I don’t see that sexual beat, but there are some people out there who want to reduce it to that. And they want to truncate the word of God and the redemptive power of the word of God. And with all due respect we have a profound disagreement. Some people say, “Well, you’re going down to their level. We must raise them up.” And all I have to say is, ‘how are you going to get down to their level? At least throw them a lifesaver.’ And then I say, “You all just gave me the best comment ever because what did Jesus do? He not only entered into the womb of the Virgin Mary, but then he descended into the realm of death and then into hell. And then he rose from the dead.” So when they say that about me, I’m glad.