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“I’ve got deaf tones but I’m not tone deaf”: rapper Sean Forbes.

by Emma Tracey

3rd March 2011

Detroit-based Sean Forbes lost 90 percent of his hearing as a baby for reasons never fully diagnosed. Now aged 28, he has signed to the record label that launched Eminem. His music video I’m Deaf has become an online sensation and he performs through rap and American Sign Language (ASL) to packed venues all over the US. But how did a deaf white man manage to find a niche in the world of rap?
Sean Forbes
Sean was born into a musical household and, even with low hearing, was always encouraged to experiment with the instruments they had.

“I was around music constantly at home. When I was five years old, my parents saw me tapping on my legs, following the beat of a song, so they bought me a drum set. All I ever wanted to do from then on was to be a musician.”

Evelyn Glenny and others have proven that being a percussionist is something deaf people can do successfully, but Sean wasn't content to just stick with his drums and took it a step further.

“I started writing songs when I was 11 years old and began to pick up the guitar soon afterward," says Sean. But unlike his dad, who is a country rock musician, or his mother, a piano player, he has opted to stay away from intricate melodies. "I’m not a lead I'm more of a rhythm guitarist keeping the beat - a bit like Mick Jagger.”

Sean has found that he and many of his friends who are hard of hearing don’t pick up the higher pitched notes, so music styles that use subtle complex chords are less accessible. But rap, he says, with its focus on rhythm and words, is the genre he and other deaf people can really get their teeth into.

“Sometimes the way a rapper flows to a beat is like a drum solo. When you sing you melodize, but when you rap you are creating another drum pattern in the beat with words.

"I also sign each lyric as I speak it. You don’t want to hear me sing. I’m more an entertainer, dancing to the music with my hands."
Sean's hands signing.
J-Z, 50 Cent and other big name hip hop stars, are known for reflecting urban violence in their songs. Sean says he is proud to have paved his own path.

“People try to classify me as a rapper, but I perceive myself more as an artist, it’s almost like poetry to me," he says. "I write more positive songs ... they are more fun."

It was while at university, where he took a degree in management, that Sean became serious about wanting to spread his love of music to other deaf people.

“I created a video of myself signing the Eminem song 'Lose Yourself' and approached the head of his publishing company Joel Martin. He has a deaf brother in law so he had both the music and the deaf connections."

Seeing him as a young, enthusiastic student with something a bit different to share, Joel invited Sean to the studios for a casual visit. He was shocked to find Eminem waiting to meet him.

“When I showed Eminem and his team the video, everyone was very moved. Marshall Mathers [Eminem’s real name]looked over at me and said, 'deaf people like music?’”

From there, Joel Martin helped to set up the Deaf Professional Arts Network, or D-PAN, a non-profit organisation which Sean hopes will help to make music more accessible to the deaf community.

One of D-PAN’s main areas of work is the production of deaf friendly pop videos. But before he can share the music with other deaf people, Sean has to do a lot of homework so he understands it for himself first.

“I tend to pull up a website with the lyrics of a song so that I can translate them into ASL and then sign them during a performance, then I watch the video. I don’t hear enough to know how the lyrics flow, so a friend points out the way they’re sung.”

D-Pan’s interpretations of well-known songs by stars like Christina Aguilera and John Mayer, include a lot more than a straight word for word signed translation. Sean explains: “Deaf people can follow the rhythm of a song by watching the way my body moves to the beat. We add instruments and other pictures to represent the music because non-hearing people are very visual.

"When you feel the drums, but can’t always understand what exactly you’re feeling, and then you see them on screen, that translates many things.”

D-PAN have produced four videos so far and they're all available to watch online.
Sean on stage
As well as covering other people’s songs for a deaf audience, Sean also writes and performs original work. This is where he gets the opportunity to talk about his own experiences as someone who is hard of hearing.

His last single includes the line, “I’ve got deaf tones but I’m not tone deaf” a reference to what he calls his “deaf accent", and his strongly held belief that his lack of hearing doesn't affect his musical ability.

“I was born with the skill to pick up music while not necessarily hearing other things. I’m a musician, and this is why I can speak so well that the doctors almost don’t believe the results of my hearing tests.”

But although he has strong verbal and lip-reading skills, Sean doesn’t always use speech. In fact, his wife is deaf and she communicates through American Sign Language.

He has been part of Deaf culture since the age of 12 and is fully aware of its complexities, with passions running high when it comes to speaking versus signing, for instance. A regular user of both, Sean says he is respectful of the community's feelings, but, while it sometimes affects him, he tries not to get involved in the politics.

“People are often on different sides of the fence when it comes to the ethics of using a hearing aid, implant, or no device. I connect with and have made friends with all these groups. Everyone should fight for what they believe is best for them.

"But my mom worked really hard with me on my speech, so it’s sometimes disappointing when members of the deaf community say that I should work harder on my signing.”

Darkly humourous lyrics such as “If I cut off my ear like Van Gogh, would it matter?" are likely to tickle all sides of the deaf audience, who come in their thousands to watch him live.

“I travel all over the country with my fellow sign rapper and keyboard player. Many who come to the gigs are deaf and hard of hearing, relatives of deaf people, ASL interpreters etc. We show up expecting 200 people, then I peek around the curtain and think, holy crap!”

Sean Forbes’ profile got a boost recently when Oscar winning Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who starred in the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God, got in touch. She follows Sean on Twitter. It was through the microblogging site that she agreed to star in his latest video, Let’s Mambo, which they filmed last week.

“It was amazing to work with Marlee. We also had a deaf crew and hearing crew with interpreters. Each side was not used to working with the other and, I’m not going to lie, there were a lot of communication problems on set ... but everybody learned something."
Let’s Mambo, the second single from Sean Forbes is currently available on iTunes and will be out on CD and DVD later in the year. Visit Sean’s website to find out more.

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