Deaf rapper wants you to feel his music

05:00 AM, Mar 06, 2013

Perhaps the only hip-hop performer with a seal of approval from Bob Dylan, deaf rapper Sean Forbes is at the Main Street Armory on Thursday. (Provided photo)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Sean Forbes.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday (March 7).
Where: Main Street Armory, 900 E. Main St.
Admission: $10, available at the door or

Eminem was once a skinny white-kid rapper from Detroit, but he sure turned the hip-hop world on its ear, didn’t he? Now the same label that discovered and signed Eminem has added to its roster another Detroit rapper who doesn’t fit the expectations. Sean Forbes.

Yeah, I have met him,” Forbes says of Eminem. “He had no idea deaf people liked music, no idea there’s a community of deaf people out there that appreciates music. I think almost anybody would be shocked. Deaf people are deaf, why would they enjoy music?”

Perhaps the only hip-hop performer with a seal of approval from Bob Dylan, Forbes is also the head of D-PAN, the Deaf Professional Arts Network, a nonprofit organization that brings music and its accompanying culture to deaf people, mostly through videos featuring deaf and hard-of-hearing performers.

Forbes performs Thursday at the Rochester Main Street Armory, on a tour built for the deaf: “The way they experience music is different,” Forbes explains. “We have vibrating stages that act as sub-woofers, with transformers under them that vibrate to the music. You stand on them and literally feel the music.”

But the experience, particularly the vibrating stage, is not exclusively for the hard of hearing. “Hearing people get on it, and they’re like, ‘Whoa!’ ” Forbes says. “They never thought about that before. They’re so used to listening to music, and not necessarily feeling it.”

A hearing person interviewing a deaf rapper isn’t as tough as might be expected. A video relay service connects the two of us to an interpreter, whom Forbes can see on his iPhone screen. She translates the question into sign language. There is a brief delay between my question and Forbes’ reply, which bears only the slightest trace of someone who has not heard the human voice since he was 9 months old, when he was struck by spinal meningitis.

Despite the apparent ease with which he navigates a world of sound, Forbes does not mislead anyone into thinking this has been a breeze, for himself and the people around him. “My dad was a musician, my uncle was a musician, my mom was a musician,” he says. “When I was born, it was a life-changing moment for them, to be given this deaf son. They took me to a few doctors, and some of them told my dad I would be a vegetable, never functioning. I would be a nothing.”

But they quickly came to understand that their son still had plenty of senses left. “My grandfather said, ‘He’s deaf, he can’t hear, that’s all it is,’ ” Forbes says. “And they raised me as they would any other child.”

In fact, like they raised their other two children. Forbes has two brothers, both of whom can hear. He’s the middle one. “As I was growing up, we would watch MTV,” Forbes says. “This was before closed captioning, and my brothers would stand beside the TV and interpret songs by lip syncing them, so I would be involved. Those old shows MTV used to have, like Headbangers Ball. I was lucky that I grew up in the right place at the right time. When my mom would drive me somewhere in the car, or we’d go on long family trips, I would have her play songs over and over and over until I learned every single word. I’m sure she almost went crazy.”

Forbes’ parents discovered early on that while their son might not hear sound, he felt it. So they gave him a drum set when he was 5 years old. It’s that propulsive feel, Forbes says, that led him to hip-hop. “As a drummer, that kind of music really spoke to me,” he says. “The kick drum and the snare and the bass are a lot easier to follow.

I’ve met several other deaf rappers. Some can follow melodies, but they can’t hear the kick drum. Some only sign, some use their voice. I’m one of the few that does both. I am profoundly deaf, I have a friend who is moderately deaf, but he can’t talk. Everybody has different upbringings, different situations in life, and that applies even more so to the deaf community.”

Visual cues are important. “When we create these videos, we create something that is visual,” Forbes says. “Not only sign language, we also have the lyrics on the screen. I’m a visual artist, if I make something, I try to make it as accessible to everyone as possible. When I show emotion, I show emotion on my face. When I’m pissed off, I show a pissed-off face. If I’m having fun with it, my face looks like I’m having fun.”

Forbes has fun, the music is unrelentingly upbeat. “I think it’s my personality,” he says. “I’m high strung sometimes, so there’s a certain rhythm, a certain pace, a dynamic that I like. Slow songs can be a drag.”

Yet the equally upbeat content behind that dynamic runs decidedly against today’s familiar hip-hop formula. “I wanted to send a positive message, create something people could pick up a vibe from,” Forbes says. “Hip-hop is money and cars and girls, typical things. I kind of wanted to go back to the roots of hip-hop. Of making a change, a social change, and look at deaf issues.”

In fact, it’s a little limiting to call Forbes a hip-hop performer. “Rap was never accepted in my house until Eminem came along,” he says. He grew up with rock and country. His song “Mambo,” with an accompanying video featuring the deaf actor Marlee Matlin, is indeed a mambo, and a quirky one. “It’s a fun, novelty song,” Forbes says. “I want people to go, ‘Whoa, this kid can do all kinds of different things.’ “

And, perhaps most infamously, is his tribute to Dylan, which includes borrowing lines from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

The best feedback you can get from Bob Dylan is to get his permission to use his lyrics in a song,” Forbes says. “His people responded to me in 24 hours and gave me his full blessing. I grew up on Bob Dylan, my parents played Bob Dylan in the house. When I was 14, 15, I would look at Bob Dylan singing and think, this could be a rap song.”

And so, “Grandmaster Flash, you stand tall, but a form of it appeared years before,” Forbes raps, as he makes a convincing case: “Bob Dylan Was the First Rapper.”