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Sean Forbes Paves The Way For Deaf Musicians

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Sean Forbes Paves The Way For Deaf Musicians

Sean Forbes Paves The Way For Deaf Musicians

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The word def, spelled D-E-F, has been a part of the hip-hop lexicon since the early 1980s. Sometimes it's shorthand for definitely. Sometimes it simply means cool or awesome, picked up by the likes of Mos Def and Def Jam Records.


SEAN FORBES: (Rapping) Deafer than Def Jam. So, so rap...

HANSEN: Then there's the word deaf - spelled D-E-A-F.

FORBES: (Rapping) My name is Sean but they call me Sheen. Got a message here I'm delivering. Look I understand that you might be leery, getting music beats from the hard of hearing.

HANSEN: That's Sean Forbes, a 28-year-old rapper from suburban Detroit who's been profoundly deaf since he was a baby. But that hasn't stopped him from making music. He recently released the single and music video, "I'm Deaf," and has been busy recording new songs for an upcoming album. He joins us from the studios of WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome to the program, Sean.

FORBES: Hey, what's up?


HANSEN: Not much. Not much, except talking to you. I let people know that we're actually speaking to you with the help of Tracy Romanow, who is interpreting in American Sign Language there in the studio with you.

Okay, how did you decide that you wanted to launch a music career, not just a music career but as a grand rapper?

FORBES: I've been involved with music since I was a young kid. When I was about five years old, I received my first drum set for Christmas. And from that point forward I really wanted to be a drummer. But, you know, as I was progressing with music - I was in bands in high school. And, you know, when I got to college, I was making beats and writing raps and stuff like that. And I always knew that I wanted a career in music, but I also had firsthand experience seeing how hard it is to succeed as a musician.

My father is a musician and I've seen him, you know, do his thing for so many years. And I knew that in order for me to succeed with music, I would have to really do something different and almost kind of pave my own path.

HANSEN: Hmm. Your mom plays piano. Your dad is in a country rock band.

FORBES: Yeah. Yep, that's right.


HANSEN: Well, what did they say when you told them you wanted to be a rap artist?

FORBES: Well, they were kind of like, I never came out and said I wanted to be a rap artist. And, you know, before we go any further, I'd like to just say that I don't classify myself as a rapper. I classify myself more as a musician because I play drums, I play guitar, I write songs, and rapping is just something that I do because you don't want to hear me sing.


FORBES: So rapping is pretty much the only choice that we have here. So, you know, yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah. Sean, when you wanted to play drums, I understand you're a big fan of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich? were your parents playing that music around the house?

FORBES: Yeah, they played everything from The Rolling Stones to The Beatles, to even, you know, old big band music and stuff like that. So I was definitely exposed to a wide range of music growing up, which definitely influenced me.

And, you know, when rap started coming out, I remember my parents we're like, why are you listening to rap? Rap is crap and blah, blah, blah. So I used to like sneak tapes, you know, in my cassette player and I would just listen to them and not let my parents know what I was listening to. But it wasn't until Eminem came on the scene in Detroit that my parents started tuning in to rap music, and actually started to enjoy.

HANSEN: Now, Eminem has become a fan and bit of a cheerleader for you. Is that right?

FORBES: Right, yeah. Marshall has always supported me in what I was doing. And he was one of the first people that I showed a music video of me signing one of my songs to him. And when I showed him that video, he instantly looked at me with his jaw on the floor pretty much, like: deaf people like music? I mean he was just shocked. And when I told him that a lot of deaf people like his music especially, he was even more like - you could tell by his face that he was pretty shocked.

And, you know, Eminem has gone through a lot of struggles in his life and things like that, much like anybody else. But as a deaf person, I think a lot of deaf people could relate with that to a certain degree.

HANSEN: Sure. What was it like for you growing up as a profoundly deaf person? And I'm going to inject here that you prefer the word deaf, not hearing impaired.

FORBES: Right, that's true. Growing up deaf was awesome. I mean, there are so many things growing up that - I mean, I could tune out my parents when I wanted to. I could...


FORBES: some many things. It was awesome. I had a great upbringing. My parents were always very positive around me and always told me that I could do whatever I wanted. But even though they knew I wanted to go into music, they always gave me a reality check as to what I really should do. And that's when I decided to go to college and not try to pursue a career in music. But that was obviously still in the back of my head while I was at college.

HANSEN: You studied to be an engineer?

FORBES: That's funny that you bring that up. I had an internship one summer in Chicago for S and C Electric Company. And at the end of the summer, the manager came up to me and told me: Son, I love what you're doing, I love your work ethic, I love everything - how about we pay for the rest of your education that you to become an engineer. And I told them, I'm sorry, I'm going to become a rock star. And he laughed at me right there. And I was kind of saying it in like a jokingly manner, but I was also pretty serious about it 'cause I knew that was what I wanted.

HANSEN: And you persevered. You have started something extremely interesting. And there's an organization you helped to launch. It's called D-PAN. Explain what that is.

FORBES: D-PAN is called the Deaf Professional Arts Network. And when we started out, we created music videos with American Sign Language and we've invited so many deaf and hared-of-hearing people to be involved in our projects. And my goal with D-PAN was to make music accessible for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. 'Cause when I was at college at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, I knew that there were so many people that loved music and they loved, you know, the feeling and the vibrations from music. But they didn't know what the artist was saying.

So, for me, as someone that loves lyrics and loved that aspect of music, I really wanted to share that with other people. So I started signing songs, mostly to girls. And, you know, it was a good way to pick up girls at college, too.


FORBES: But, you know, as I was doing that it kind of dawned on me that there's something here. There's something that I can do to help make music more accessible. And to date, D-PAN has created four amazing ASI music videos that have been, you know, top quality production. And pretty soon we're going to start working on our next video.

HANSEN: Hmm. Well, you've done versions of songs by John Mayer and Christina Aguillera, right?

FORBES: Right. And what I'm doing with D-PAN is trying to make music more accessible. There's this hope that we have a hundred videos in five years for people to watch with ASI interpretations.

HANSEN: And you're working on one called "Let's Mambo?"

FORBES: Yeah, we're actually working on a brand new video for "Let's Mambo," which is on the B-side single on the "I'm Deaf" album, and that's a fun song.


FORBES: (Rapping) Can't wait to mambo. I can't mambo. Let's tango. I can't tango. Let's hustle...

And I have some pretty big goals with that one. I'd like to have some celebrities in it and some other people, and give it a throwback kind of feel. It's going to definitely be a fun video to watch.

HANSEN: Sean Forbes, his new single release is called "I'm Deaf." He joined us, with the help of interpreter Tracy Romanow, from the studios of WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thanks so much, Sean. Rock on.

FORBES: Thank you. I appreciate it.


FORBES: (Rapping) I'd rather not hear, rather not listen. I'm the perfect imperfection, never restricted. Uh-huh.

HANSEN: You can see the video "I'm Deaf" on our website. Also, Sean Forbes has been busy recording songs for an upcoming album. Get an exclusive first listen to one of those tracks at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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