Grounded in Fortitude

Station staffer discusses bouncing back from religious suffocation, cruel racism, near-death experiences and depression

Keith Fort steps up to the mic. Photo Credit: Shannon Carter/


On a typical day when you tune into Mt. Rock, 90.1 FM, the student-run radio station of Mt. SAC., you will hear a variety of random hits. Jams from the 80s to the 90s with plenty of top 40 singles in between. There’s a growing team behind what you hear, the ones that spend hours preparing broadcasting content to transmit into the radio airwaves. One individual, in particular, Keith Fort, 54, Mt. SAC student and radio station staff member, who is currently the process of achieving certificates in Radio Broadcasting: Behind-the-Scenes and Radio Broadcasting: On-the-Air.

He stands 6-foot-6, wearing a baseball hat and a pair of plastic-framed eyeglasses. When I first meet him, my neck cranks upwards to make eye-contact.

“I’m standing in front of a giant,” I think to myself.

He smiles warmly, puts his hand out for a shake, and opens his mouth, and what proceeds next as he speaks is a deep and rich baritone-voice that melts upon the ears. We meet in the radio station; you can tell he’s comfortable in his element. Each person that walks into the station, he kindly acknowledges, as if he was excited to see them and ask them how they are doing.

When looking for a story to cover for our local publication, I received a recommendation from a professor at the college, who told me to reach out to Fort. The only information that given was Fort is an “exceptional” student. I planned to get the most out of the interview and attempt to write a fluff piece on a station staffer that worked in the college radio department. It took approximately 16 minutes and 51 seconds into the interview to truly understand why I was there and the story to tell.

One may wonder, why so long? After speaking about his day to day activities in the radio department, the layers — like an onion — began to uncover the core of Keith Fort.

Fort considers that this period of his life as the fourth phase, both personally and career-wise. However, the road hasn’t always been easy. From a strict upbringing to depression, to repeated encounters of racism, the journey has many twists and turns. Still, the lessons he’s learned along the way have shaped him into the respected and resilient individual that he is today.

“When I think about it and talk about it — if I hadn’t lived it — I would think it was a lie,” Fort said.

I asked myself, “Where did it all begin, and what led him here?”

The Early Days

Growing up in La Puente, Fort was a chubby, nerdy kid — that loved reading a wide range of books and comics. His mom was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and raised him within the zealous and rigid church. In between Bible studies, spiritual training, and church fellowships, Fort developed a skill for playing music such as the drums, followed by the piano and bass.

At ten-years-old, he connected with the music of the singer-songwriters of his time. Tunes from Stevie Wonder, Carol King, and Billy Joel, paved the way for the life-long passion he would have for music. He recollects his first album was “Songs in the Key of Life,” the eighteenth studio album by Stevie Wonder. The title alone fits perfectly as the soundtrack to Fort’s life.

In high school, Fort sprouted to 6-foot-6 inches and took advantage of his height by playing varsity basketball for Nogales High School as a center forward. However, he remained musically connected throughout high school by being in the choir and playing in a few bands.

He started attending Mt. SAC in 1983 as a music major. During this time, his perspective began to change in many areas of his life.

He told his mother that he didn’t want to be a Jehovah’s Witness any longer, and he would be leaving the church. He met a girl, she wasn’t a witness baptized in the church, and he knew this would be a conflict. Before falling in love, he moved up ranks in the church, attending ministry school, and was in the process of elder training. Fort recalls it as a tough transition and likens it similar to Scientology, his childhood friends and acquaintances stopped talking to him as if he had the plague. In the church of JW, a person is an outcast until the church reinstates you. Fort was never reinstated.

The church was intense and an abnormal environment for him. He attributes his articulation skills to his time there because it taught him how to speak from a platform. Still, the teachings of the faith didn’t allow him to figure things out for himself because it didn’t teach him the needed skills of critical thinking.

By the first semester in college, he wasn’t prepared mentally for the challenges he would face in a new academic environment. He felt overwhelmed, wasn’t asking for help from his college counselor, and believed he wasn’t “mature enough” to make school a priority. For three years in a row — semester after semester- Fort would drop out of classes until finally deciding that college wasn’t for him.

Shortly after that, Fort married his high school sweetheart Tracy. The couple weathered troublesome times as an interracial couple. He recognizes the outside pressures to be a lot harder for his wife than himself. Tracy’s parents refused to attend their wedding because they couldn’t wrap their minds around how their daughter could marry a 6-foot-6 black man who they assumed would ruin her life. His wife’s aunt, Lee Irma, played as the olive branch between the newly married couple and Tracy’s close-minded parents. Lee Irma convinced Tracy’s parents to give Fort a chance and trust the fact that their daughter is making the right decision. She arranged a dinner two weeks after the marriage for Fort and her parents to meet. He describes that since then, everything has been “civil,” even though they disagree on everything, just like a family does.

The couple had three children, Brandon, Aaron, and Sydney. They did the best that any parents — raising children in the early 90s — could.

Fort began a career working for GATX Logistics distributing RCA products. He moved up the ranks quickly and became a general manager — making loads of money — traveling around the country and got trained and certified in IT administration. Life was going well — a little too well — as with everything that goes up must come down. It all came crashing in one day, and Fort didn’t know what hit him.

The Breakdown

Fort’s work-life-balance began to collide, and the problems started piling up. Fort was stationed in the mid-west for weeks at a time working on various projects for GATX. He traveled a great deal for work, and his wife was alone raising their kids, so she gave him an ultimatum. Choose between his bustling career or his growing family. He wasn’t spending enough time with his kids, and to add; he wasn’t doing anything creative in his life.

“My marriage was about to end, my kids wouldn’t let me pick them up, and my dog would try to bite me,” Fort said like it was the punchline to a joke.

He remembers a board meeting with his colleagues and superiors. He explained that he could no longer travel as much for work because his wife was ready to leave him. The group didn’t offer there support in the way of empathy; instead, they gave Fort tips and advice on how to deal with a divorce. He recalls each member around that executive table, were either divorced or in the process of getting a divorce — he sneered at the idea of taking anyone’s hopeless advice.

Confused and uncomfortable, he ignored the advice of his colleagues and decided to save his marriage. While he attempted to mend fences with his wife, the pressures at work didn’t stop. He believes that in the last few years of working at GATX, the racial prejudices of his manager, a few jealous co-workers impacted the environment. Specifically, because of his multicultural marriage to Tracy.

He recalls being treated differently with a cold and callous approach. He remembers the company Christmas parties, where the energy of the room would drop once he and his wife entered the room. The surprised stares from the room, the vicious glances, and the murmured sneers clouded Fort’s reputation at work.

His boss continued to lay pressure and add more responsibility. Fort’s personal life and mental well-being paid the consequences. He innately knew something was wrong — physically, mentally, and environmentally. His blood pressure was high; he was packing on weight, suffering from chronic inflammation, and felt like he was going to die. He recalls many lonesome days in which he would leave a room he was in and go to his car and cry as the stress was boiling out of him. He was angry, frustrated, and would punch the walls in over his uncontrollability. He was spiraling out of control.

Fort was experiencing a mental breakdown.

His doctor — at the time — took him off of work to rehabilitate. He was diagnosed with having severe depression with anxiety. Looking back on it now, Fort believes he’s always had a mental illness ranging back to his early youth — but he didn’t know how to identify it.

He remembers the mood swings and depression and recalls compensating through the use of alcohol as early as 15 years old. He would sneak a sip of his Dad’s scotch since it was always in the house.

“People didn’t talk about depression back then, and I never knew how to manage it before. I think it just caught up with me,” Fort said. “The depression and everything was getting me for decades.”After his diagnosis, he began taking a cocktail of antidepressants, which he would continue to take for nearly 15 years.

He never ended up going back to his old job. While on medical leave, his company caught word that Fort was potentially going to sue for mistreatment. His boss — the one that was laying loads of pressure on him — sent a mindblowing letter to his wife out of spite and pettiness.

It read, “This is what happens when women marry niggers.”

Fort remembers being livid. It’s one thing to attack him but another to attack his supporting wife. He was the type of guy that would spout his mouth off at the ones who attacked him or his wife for their union. Tracy was always the one that brought him down to earth and calmed his fiery nature. But instead of doing anything irrational, Fort waited patiently for his time.

During his medical leave, GATX fired him. Luckily for Fort, he was able to sue for damages, and the case settled out of court. He took the money awarded and decided to follow his dream of producing music.

A New Direction

After bouncing back from a job that nearly broke him, Fort faced a new direction in his life. He took the settlement money from his old career to build an at-home studio to establish his new business producing music. He always wanted to make music and move people the way his early influencers moved him.

Since Fort collected audio equipment and instruments throughout the years, there wasn’t much to do but to install soundproofing equipment and buy a mixing board. The gamble was huge, and this made him nervous, but he knew that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He started his multimedia company Phyrst Mpulse, which he still owns and operates today.

In the beginning, he produced music for up and coming artists. Eventually, to keep a steady income, Fort began shooting music videos and renting out his studio for recording sessions.

But once the deals and partnerships began to fall through, reality hit once again; both Fort and his wife found additional jobs to ensure they could provide for their young family.

After applying to what he calls “every job listed in the newspaper,” he found a job that he couldn’t refuse. It would pay him lucratively, and he only had to work a few days a week. Fort began the next phase of his life, working as a bouncer at a strip club, which he would come to regret.

The Darkest Of Days

Fort was in his 30s and working for a well-known strip club in La Puente. In between checking I.D.s, cashiering the cover charge for entering customers, and kicking out the occasional rowdy patron, he had plenty of reservations and twice as many concerns. The music was loud, the lights were intense, and half-naked women pranced about while doing “the rounds” soliciting lap dances. The club as an explosion of sensory overload, and he remembers continuously having a ring in his ears from the nightly commotion.

“I didn’t like the way I felt. I would feel hyped when I came home, and it would be 3 to 4 a.m.,” Fort said. “I would have to get up and take my kids to school in the morning.”

The stress and anxiety of working in this environment led Fort to take up drinking again. He would drink on the job even though he was still on antidepressants.

“It was a nightmare,” Fort said.

On top of that, he was concerned about the stigma that would follow him. As someone who believes in Karma, he worried that this period in his life would follow him like a dark cloud hanging over his head. He imagined -like some cosmic payback — that his daughter would fall prey to the very same lifestyle and environment.

Fort marks this as the worst time of his life.

“It’s wasn’t because of how I felt, but because of how people look at you when you work in that environment. [People] think you’re a deviant or that you have loose morals,” Fort said. “And that the environment defines who are.”

The decision of whether to stay bouncing was a difficult one. Fort made up to $1400 a week, working a few nights a week. The money that he was making was providing for his family, paying for his kid’s education, and allowing them to play sports. As the years progressed, his wife began to disapprove and desperately pleaded with Fort to move onto something else. It was just too dangerous.

But his wife didn’t know the extent of the danger that Fort was in each night.

The first time he left that job was after having a fun pointed to his face. It was a night, like any other night. Fort was tending the door when a 23-year-old man dressed in a white jacket with a baseball cap — “trying to look the hard part” — and his friend tried to enter the club 15 minutes before closing time. Fort told him it was the last call and he couldn’t let him in, the man pulled out a 9mm handgun and put it in his face. He thought to himself, how did this guy get through security with a gun?

Scared yet hyper-aware, Fort reasoned with the man, told him he could enter but without the gun because it was club policy. The man put the firearm down on the counter and walked through the club’s turnstile, that is when Fort grabbed him by the back of the neck and threw him out the back door of the club.

How was Fort able to keep calm and clever in a moment of high intensity?

“My dad was from Texas, and he was a cop. They were hunters, and we had guns in the house,” Fort said. I wasn’t unfamiliar with guns, and I wasn’t unfamiliar around idiots being immature with guns.”

“When you’re around them, you have to know how not to let that “thing” terrify you.

After the incident, he immediately went to the club manager. He demanded that he fire the security guard who let the man in the club. The manager shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly and said: “Oh well, that’s the job.”

Fort was pissed off, upset, and shaken. He decided then and there he wasn’t going to let anyone or any environment put his life in danger.

Roughly six months later, the manager of the club came calling — asking for a favor. The club would soon have a new owner, and they needed Fort’s help to clean up the image of the club before it sold. The money was too good to pass up.

Fort agreed to the terms barring that the security guard that nearly cost him his life was nowhere near the club when he returned.

The next time Fort quit the club was when he was working in the bar adjacent to the strip club that was owned by the same company. He received a call from a colleague next door to help him with two unruly gentlemen that were causing a ruckus. The plan was for Fort to reason with the men and to calm them down. He and a co-worker approached the men, asking them to settle down, to no avail. The uncooperative men refused — called Fort a slave — and spit on him.

“We’ll be back,” one of them said.

Sure enough, a little while later, while Fort was standing outside of the club, he sees the car pulling into the parking lot. One of the assailants was sitting in the window of the vehicle with an assault rifle in hand, while the other — in the driver’s seat — rolled the car into the parking lot.

Fort had enough time to see them coming and dropped to the asphalt and rolled underneath his suburban that was parked nearby. Luckily the assailants screeched their tires through the parking lot, and a nearby police cruiser heard the disturbance and deployed its sirens and began chasing the suspects.

“I don’t get scared easily, but it was terrifying,” Fort said.

The next day Fort quit working for that particular club in La Puente.

He was done working in La Puente. The next time he would enter a club was to DJ as it was a way to make money and connect with his passion for music.

Near the end of his time working in this environment, he took on side jobs doing contract IT administration work. Going in this direction seemed like the next best step.

Throughout the eight years of working — then quitting — then returning — to the club environment, Fort was shot at twice. And on two separate occasions — disarmed individuals who brought a gun into the club. But the altercation that prompted Fort to quit working in clubs altogether was the time he was djing in Arcadia when a man was shot 15 feet away from Fort and bled out right in front of him. He remembers seeing the blood drops leading from the dance floor to the exit, an image he will never forget.

“I have no regrets about the people that I worked with. Some of them were really nice people. I [just] regret that I put myself in danger,” Fort said. Putting myself in that kind of toxic environment, no matter how hard you try, it’s going to affect your health. I know it did. I wish I had never gone to work in those clubs.”

Working for these types of organizations have followed Fort throughout his life. When he would go to apply for a job, employers were always curious about his work history and would pass judgments. He was rejected on job opportunities due to his past. If he chose to omit the work history off of an application, employers were also curious to know why he didn’t disclose it.

Fort has always been open and transparent with this area of his life with family, friends, and colleagues. “I don’t deny it to my kids; they know where I worked, they know who I [really] am. I’d rather me tell them than someone else,” Fort openly admits.

After years of retrospection, his mindset has changed — he’s made peace with this time in his life. “Don’t allow what you have to do define who you are. Be who you are and let that shine through,” Fort added.

A Time For Change

Seven years ago, Fort had to confront his life head-on — and the push was coming from an unexpected direction — his daughter Sydney, who was 15 years old at the time.

After picking Sydney up from school one afternoon, he recalls her bravely calling him out while sitting at the dining room table.

“Can I tell you something, Dad?” Sydney said. “You don’t take care of yourself. We’re going to grow up, leave, and you’re going to die, and mom’s going to be alone. All you do is eat, sleep, and drink.”

This heartbreaking revelation would vividly stay with Fort forever.

“I wasn’t mad … I was sad that I had gotten to a position where my kids saw me like that,” Fort said. “So, I had to start checking myself.”

At the time, Fort was 425 pounds and entirely unhealthy and depressed. He was numb from all the medications, and some days could barely get out of bed. After the hard reality check from his daughter, he started to wean himself off of antidepressants, even though his doctor wanted him to continue taking them.

“I was a junkie. Not that I was abusing them, but they’ll make you a junkie,” Fort points out.

He recalls that period of being doped up on medications as lacking any real feelings. “Prozac or any other serotonin inhibitors still allows you to feel anger. You can feel the beginnings of the emotions swell up, the anger, the fear whatever. Then something washes over you, and you get numb,” Fort said. “You sit there angry on the inside … seething, but you’re just numb.”

He started practicing yoga and meditation, which has allowed him to balance his emotions, which he credits to saving his life.

It wasn’t until six months after discontinuing the medication that he finally began to think for himself. He became a little more organized and started thinking about day-to-day things that needed to be taken care of, such as exercising and eating healthier. Within a year, Fort began thinking about what he wanted to do going forward with his future and career.

“You can feel your emotions reigniting .. but it took a long time to get to that point,” Fort said.

He still has moments of depression and anxiety. But he knows what signs to look for and what patterns to avoid. When this happens, he knows it’s time for him to do something creative or productive, like playing music to unwind or working on audio productions for Phyrst Impulse Multimedia.

Fort has always found importance with being open about this aspect of his life. “You have to be open about it, if only for the next person who’s going through it.”

Getting Back To Basics

In 2016, he returned to Mt. SAC to further his skills in audio production to grow his business. Fort’s wife inspired to come back to school because she was in the process of pursuing her own advanced education.

At the time, Fort had one goal — to take one audio production class about voice-overs. “I wanted to take a voice-over class because … I wanted to learn more. I just got hooked into the program here,” Fort said. “Because it teaches everything you need to know. Any type of audio you want to do. Shy of writing music. “

Nearly 30 years after his first attempt in college — Fort had found a new interest in school and enjoyed attending class.

As soon as he opened his mouth and spoke in a smooth and sultry tone, he was pulled aside by the department chair at the time, Tammy Trujillo, who told him that he had a gift. Trujillo suggested he take a radio broadcasting class. He recalls the groundbreaking conversation with Trujillo, “She told me, ‘you’re where you need to be, you just need to trust yourself and your talent,’” Fort said.

Fort decided to extend his education past the one class and begin working on the radio broadcasting certificate program. After a couple of semesters tutoring in the Design Lab tutoring students on Adobe Audition, Fort became a staff member for the radio station lab.

Looking Towards a Bright Future

At the end of spring 2020, Fort will have received his two certificates in broadcasting. He wants to segue himself out of the world of contract IT and get back into a creative space.

“When you’re a creative person, and you lay that down for whatever reasons … a part of your soul dies,” Fort said. “When you start again, and those juices start to flow back, there’s nothing like it. It’s like being reborn again.”

After certification, Fort’s career goal is to work in voice imaging. Voice imaging is a term used to describe the sound effects that identify a particular market or brand. Examples include voice-overs, jingles, or promos that act as an introduction or signature for a program, network, or brand.

“This is CNN,” Fort says in a radio-type baritone, then proceeds to laugh. “Nobody knows your name, but everybody hears your voice.”

In addition to voice imaging, he wants to have a storytelling podcast similar to “This American Life.” One of his first projects includes a documentary that he filmed 10 years ago titled “Gang Life To God’s Life.” The film follows a group of ex-gang members, some of which are now pastors, working in the community running outreach programs. Fort is currently in the process of reformatting and editing the film for audio.

“There’s so much storytelling moving towards audio now; it’s not just music-driven. So that’s where I am focusing my studio work towards,” Fort said.

Here’s an example of Fort’s on-air demo that he did for Mt. Rock 90.1 FM

A Life Full Of Lessons

The most crucial aspect of Fort’s life has been raising healthy, happy, and independent children. He considers this as a marker of success. “I did the important stuff already,” Fort said. “Anything [good] that happens after this is the icing on the cake.”

Though the road has been full of ups and downs, Fort maintains a sense of joy and self-awareness; that could only come from the experience of both the good and bad times. These experiences are also learning lessons that have helped to shape the development of his children.

“If you prepare yourself in the beginning, you can avoid some of the situations that are going to present themselves later on in life,” Fort explains. “If I had gone to school in the 80s instead of dropping out three times, maybe I would not have had to go through that period in my life. When I had to work through all that crap.”

The second lesson that he teaches his children is, “Don’t ever be ashamed of what you have to do to feed yourself. But [don’t] let it define who you are,” Fort added.

He believes that most of the trials and tribulations he’s been through have built character and wisdom.

He hopes that his story resonates with someone else out there. He wants that person to know they are not alone and show them that anyone can bounce back from the bottom. More importantly, that no matter what, it’s never too late to pursue a passion.

“All you can do is stick with it; it will pay off. Fort positively said. “I’m now getting a chance to do what I like in life.”