Music has been part of Sean Forbes’ life for as long as he can remember.
Both parents were musicians. So was an uncle, who engineered for Bob Seger, among others. By the time he was 5, Forbes knew he “wanted to be up on stage, just rocking it out. It's in my blood.”
But there was a problem. Forbes is deaf.
The 28-year-old suffered profound hearing loss when he was 1 year old and developed a high fever. He can pick up some sound via a hearing aid and is an adept lip-reader and speaker, but becoming a rock star certainly seemed out of the question.
Not for Forbes, however.
This week he'll celebrate the release of his first single and video, a rap track called “I'm Deaf” with a playful B-side, “Let’s Mambo.” With nearly 40 other songs written, he's been signed to a contract by Ferndale-based WEB Entertainment, whose principles, Jeff and Mark Bass, discovered and were the first producers for Eminem (Jake Bass, their son and nephew, respectively, writes with and produces Forbes). By virtue of that, Forbes — a co-founder of the nonprofit Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN) — also became the first deaf performer signed to a major song publishing deal, with Broadcast Music International.
That rock star thing? Maybe it’s not such a far-fetched idea after all.
“People said ‘no’ to me, but I wasn't going to take no for an answer,” says Forbes — clad in rock-star black with sunglasses hanging from the top button of his shirt, while relaxing in a lounge at D-PAN's Ferndale studio. “I grew up looking up to people like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles ... Marlie Matlin. They had a disability; it didn't stop them from doing what they wanted to do.
“There are all these misconceptions about what deaf people can and can’t do. I don't like when people judge other people by their disabilities. I hope my message has a bigger spectrum. If a deaf person can get into music and do what I'm doing, the possibilities are endless.”
Scott Forbes, Sean’s father — a local restaurateur and a member of the Forbes Brothers country band — credits his son’s success to “just determination. He wanted to be in music. He made his mind up early, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and he found a way to do it, even in the face of so many people who said he would never be able to.”
“Sean's a remarkable person,” adds Joel Martin, owner of 54 Sound studio in Ferndale and Forbes’ partner in D-PAN. “He ... doesn't let his disability prevent him from doing anything. He's a real force. He's inspirational.”
Forbes’ drive came from a genuine love of music he developed as a child and was reinforced by his parents — who divorced when he was an infant but maintain a good relationship — despite his hearing loss. “There was always music playing at the house,” recalls Forbes, who's the middle of three sons. “Much of what I got was the bass and the drums, but I really got into a lot of stuff. I loved the Beatles.
“If I didn't have my parents and that upbringing and they didn't share (music) with me, I definitely wouldn't be where I am now.”
Forbes also listened to Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil With a Blue Dress On,” which was fortuitous since one of the Wheels would play a crucial role in his musical development. “I had a knack for banging on things,” Forbes says with a laugh. He started playing drums at age 5, with the help of the Wheels’ Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, who would come to the house to give the fledgling musicians some lessons.
“He's a natural,” says Badanjek, who's continued to follow Forbes’ development. “It's pretty amazing because he can't really hear what he's playing; he just kind of goes for the feel and the vibration.
“I certainly didn't see this coming, him being a rapper. Nobody expect this. He just came out of nowhere, and I think everybody's pretty amazed by it. He really is just a natural.”
Forbes, who picked up guitar and bass when he was 10 and also became a voracious reader of music history books and biographies, attended schools in Farmington Hills and Florida, where his mother had moved. He spent his high school years at Bloomfield Hills Lahser; there he would “defend my friends against hearing people who made fun at them,” using his lip-reading skills to answer their taunts. He would also routinely turn hearing- impaired classmates on to music.
“The one thing I wanted to do was something good for deaf people,” Forbes says. “I knew there was a bigger calling.”
He thought about a law school path to learn about civil rights but opted instead for accounting at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, where he studied alongside 2,000 other deaf students — including his fiancee, Jojo, whom Forbes will marry during October in Chicago. “But,” he says, “studying’s really not my thing. All I could think about was music. That’s what I really wanted to do.”
He got his chance in 2003, when he met Martin at the Detroit Music Awards.
“He’s such a good lip reader, I didn't know he was deaf,” Martin remembers, although once he learned that he admits to finding Forbes’ musical ambitions “perplexing.” Nevertheless they developed an e-mail relationship, and when Forbes made a video of him performing the Eminem hit “Lose Yourself” using American Sign Language, Martin was convinced.
“(Eminem) was at the studio that day, recording, and we took a break and we all watched this thing,” Martin says. “It was obvious something was there. (Forbes) had the ability as a performer to convey the song through sign language ... it was powerful, like watching someone do ‘Lose Yourself’ in a foreign language.”
Martin brought Forbes in as an intern that summer — he would wind up taking a five-year leave from NTID, returning to finish his degree and graduate in 2008. The goal, Martin says, was “to make music videos that are compelling enough for the hard of hearing,” which led to the establishment of D-PAN two years later. So far, the organization has produced five videos — including songs by John Mayer and Christina Aguilera — that have generated more than 1.2 million hits on YouTube. D-PAN recently produced another DVD called “Wee Hands” to teach ASL to children.
D-Pan's notoriety has also given Forbes a forum to perform his songs around the country and also talk about making music accessible to the hearing-impaired audience. And, he hopes, those opportunities will only increase as he begins to release his music into the commercial market.
“It's funny; growing up, my parents told me I didn't like attention,” Forbes says. “The other day I was getting some coffee, and the clerk recognized me ... and was like, ‘You're that guy! I saw you; you were great!’ And I'm, like, ‘Thank you.’”
“Some days I'm fine with it, other days it's weird. But I love that people are hearing the music, deaf people and hearing people, too.”
Sean Forbes celebrates the release of his new single and video, "I'm Deaf," at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 20, at Memphis Smoke, 100 S. Main St., Royal Oak. Call 248-543-4300 or visit www.deafandloud.com.
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