Feel the Music
Just because they’re deaf doesn’t mean their world is without music
Published: January 23, 2013
It’s Saturday night. Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” blares through the speakers while the karaoke performers dance along to the beat. The place is packed with onlookers who are dancing along, others gossip over coffee, play cards or shoot pool.
At first glance, this seems like a typical night out for many people. And, for the members of the deaf community, that’s exactly what it is.
At the coffee bar, a man orders a drink by bringing his hand toward his chin and extending it forward with a “W” shape, the sign for “water.” The karaoke performers are signing along to the music, and their dance steps don’t miss a beat. Occasionally, a hearing performer sings along. But the main form of communication is American Sign Language (ASL), a visual language communicated through handshapes and movements, facial expression and body placement. Though no one is talking, the room is anything but quiet.
Joyce LaHaye, a Baker College tutor, runs the monthly event at the District, a venue in Orion Township. She named it Deaf Night.
It is a place where music helps shatter stereotypes.
“I know it’s a challenge for people in the hearing world, when they have this vision of what it is to be deaf, and how music relates to them,” says LaHaye, who communicates through ASL. “If they are really confused on how or why deaf people like music, I would tell them that it’s through vibration. Deaf people may be close to the speaker, or watch other people and kind of copy the music. Maybe they will sign the lyrics to the song. We can follow whatever rhythms or movements [hearing people] have.”
LaHaye, who has been deaf since she was 3 years old, has always loved music. Her tastes run from country to rap music.
“I grew up hearing music. I’ve gone to concerts,” LaHaye says. “My mother would always explain the count and the rhythm. At any wedding we went to, my mother would dance arm-in-arm with me to ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’ her favorite song. She would always interpret that song for me. My mom passed away a few years ago, so that’s a special song.”
There is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence. Hearing loss can run anywhere from profoundly deaf to hard of hearing. Certain sounds that aren’t distinguishable to some people may be clearer to others.
LaHaye has a little hearing. She listens to a lot of music at home, where she uses her computer and turns the volume on high.
“I have headphones and a small set of speakers,” LaHaye says. “I’ll find a song that has captions. I’ll read along with the song and I think, ‘Wow, that relates to me.’ Sometimes, I get teary-eyed, when I feel that release.”
“Music is a way to be peaceful, to calm my stress,” LaHaye adds. “To relax my mind and my spirit. It’s a way I can give worship. When I feel depressed, I need to make that adjustment with music. It helps me.”
When asked if LaHaye has experienced prejudices regarding music, she hesitates.
“Some people will say, ‘Why do you like music? What does music have to do with you? You’re deaf.’ And I’ll say, ‘Accept it, that’s who I am.’”
Benjamin Houston, a 19-year-old graduate student from Lahser High who is hard of hearing, performs karaoke in ASL to “Where is the Love” by Justin Timberlake and The Black Eyed Peas. While performing, his signs may be held longer, signed quicker, or made bigger to stress certain parts of the songs. Like any language, music can be expressed through sign language too. When he finishes, the people in the crowd put their hands in the air and wave them back and forth to show their approval.
“Growing up, my mom would always listen to music and dance,” says Houston, whose mother is hearing. “I would always ask, ‘What’s the song? What is it saying?’ She would explain the concept to me. So I guess you can say I was born interested.”
Houston has attended Deaf Night since he was 16. It’s common to see him walking around with his headphones on and his MP3 player attached to his hip, blaring Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj.
“I am usually listening to female artists,” Houston says. “I can understand them better. They have a soft but strong voice, while men have rough and loud voices.”
He’s a regular karaoke performer at the District, and says that, like many other deaf people who enjoy music, he uploads videos on YouTube signing along to popular music.
“I love to sign music,” Houston says. “My community needs to be happy as well, not just the hearing people. To those who aren’t aware of our appreciation of music … they should realize that music was made for everyone to enjoy.”
Although Houston is hard of hearing, he labels himself a deaf person. He has grown up around deaf family members, and has been surrounded by the deaf community.
“Deafness is who I am, but it doesn’t define who I am,” Houston says. “In the deaf community, deafness means that we are a minority of the large community … the hearing community.”
Detroit is home to many legendary musicians. That includes Sean Forbes, a name that’s famous in the deaf community and known in many hearing households.
Forbes, a deaf artist and rapper, grew up in Farmington Hills and went to Lahser High. He was surrounded by music at an early age. His father, Scott Forbes, is the guitarist of the award-winning country band the Forbes Bros.
“One of my biggest influences was Johnny ‘Bee,’ the drummer from Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels,” says Forbes, referring to John Bananjek. “When I was a kid he always came over my house and showed me how to play drums.”
His music career started to kick off while performing at Rochester Institute of Technology, a college that provides a deaf program.
“There were so many deaf and hard of hearing people there that loved music,” Forbes says. “Music was everywhere. People were blasting it in their cars, in their dorms, in their apartments. You’d go to parties and deaf people would be blasting music.”
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