Feel the Music
Just because they’re deaf doesn’t mean their world is without music
Published: January 23, 2013
Getting his name out there was a challenge. Forbes was used to people telling him no.
“There is prejudice out there,” Forbes says. “People have told me my entire life that I was not going to make it in the music industry, and that only fueled the fire even more. I didn’t sit back and listen to ‘No, no you can’t, Sean, it’s not going to happen. You need to continue college and get a 9-to-5 job.’ I really had to make this happen for myself.”
Forbes’ big break came when he bumped into Joel Martin, Eminem’s publisher, at the Detroit Music Awards. They exchanged emails, and Forbes eventually found himself in Martin’s studio.
“He had a video of myself signing two Eminem songs, ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’ and ‘Lose Yourself,’ Forbes says. “I went over to the studio and Eminem was sitting there with his engineers and his producers. They loved it.”
Martin decided to hire Forbes as an intern at the studio. He helped put Forbes on the map after watching his music video “I’m Deaf,” a song Forbes verbally raps while performing in ASL. Cartoonish lyrics dance across the screen while he rhymes, another visual aspect that makes the music more entertaining for the deaf and hard of hearing. His lyrics are witty and play on his deafness: “I’d rather not hear, rather not listen, I’m the perfect imperfection, never restricted.”
“Just from that one song, I signed a record deal,” Forbes says.
Although Forbes considers himself a musician rather than a rapper, his current projects focus strictly on rap and hip-hop.
“The bass and the drums are the rhythm track of any song,” Forbes says. “With the guitar and singing you have melodies, but to me it’s all about the backbeat. Those are the true things you can feel. The guitar and the piano usually get lost in the mix with me.”
Since he got his start, Forbes has written more than 30 songs and put out six music videos. His recent video “Let’s Mambo” features award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, the first deaf actress to win an Oscar for best actress in a leading role.
“I have met everybody from Ted Nugent to Alice Cooper to Bob Seger. All the important people that have come out of Detroit,” Forbes says. “I met Stevie Wonder at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. Being a deaf musician and meeting a blind musician, it was crazy. Growing up, a lot of the Funk Brothers who were on backing tracks for Motown used to come over to my house. I was talking about all these people with Stevie and I could tell by the look on his face that he was blown away by everything that I knew.”
Forbes continues to make new music and perform live for packed crowds across the country. He was a featured cast member of Motor City Rising, a documentary series focusing on the struggles and accomplishments of a group of Detroit artists and creatives, which ran June 1-15 on Ovation TV.
“Music is not something that is heard. It is something that is felt,”
says Forbes. “Music is for everybody.”
A small studio on Nine Mile Road in Ferndale houses the Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN), a nonprofit organization co-founded by Sean Forbes and Joel Martin. D-PAN’s goal is to make music more accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing. Its website, D-PAN.com, provides music videos by deaf performers from around the nation.
Music videos are produced in the studio via a green screen. Performers sign along to popular songs, such as John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” and most recently, a video featuring children who are deaf and hard of hearing signing to the White Stripes’ “We Are Going to Be Friends.” There are also several artists that create their own music.
One of artists featured on D-PAN is Nyke Prince, a drummer and songwriter from Los Angeles. She works as a successful model, and is the assistant to celebrity stylist Ken Paves.
Prince was born hearing and became deaf as a kid. She has been a dancer since the age of 3, mainly ballet and hip hop.
“When I would take a dance class, they would actually count out the rhythms,” says Prince, who communicates through a signed video service. “I have a hearing aid, and that’s helped a lot. I’ve always been motivated. I’ve taken speech classes, and they explained the music.”
Later, Prince decided she wanted to learn an instrument. She became interested in the drums.
“I play rock ’n’ roll, because it’s loud,” Prince says. “I try to play drums without the hearing aid. I can feel the vibrations in my chest and I put my feet on the ground and feel the vibrations. There are times I will have to use my hearing aids, like if I’m doing a performance at a live venue. I always look around to make sure that everything works out, and that it’s in sync. It’s not easy.”
Prince eventually met and dated Gil Sharone, the drummer from Stolen Babies. Sharone began to teach Prince how to better hone her skills.
“We did a one-on-one session for about three years,” Prince says. “He was willing to write notes and speak very clearly. That’s why I chose him as a teacher. He was willing to take the time compared to other tutors. Actually, he told me that there are a lot of deaf players that play music that we are not even aware of. Famous pianists, drummers, and so forth … they all have hearing loss.”
Even though Sharone is hearing, Prince insists there were no communication barriers.
“I’ve always made sure hearing people I date know some sign,” Prince says. “I typically date hearing people because the deaf community is very small — you’re always dating someone’s ex.”
Prince has a cochlear implant, a device she says is controversial in the deaf community. This is because the listening device requires major surgery, which can cause complications such as dizziness or tinnitus, to more extreme side effects such as meningitis or seizures. Also, some members of the deaf community believe that the device takes away the identity of a deaf person from deaf culture.
> Email Rachelle Damico