Sean Forbes is a ground-breaking, one-of-a-kind talent. But the stories written about him usually start out with a bold statement – "Deaf performer defies his handicap!" – or an incredulous question – "He can't hear music, but he can make it?!?" In response, Forbes would like you to know a few things. Yes, he is deaf (about 90%, due to spinal meningitis when he was an infant), but that certainly hasn't held him back or "handicapped" him in any way. Second of all, he's not just a “rapper”. He's also a prolific drummer, songwriter and communicator.
"I'm influenced by so many different kinds of music," Forbes says, "that it feels weird for me to be categorized as a rapper. Yes, a lot of what I do is 'rapping' vocally, but the music behind it isn't always typical of rap or hip-hop." While it's true that profoundly deaf fans like Forbes can't hear everything on every track – the exact pronunciation of words, subtle overdubs and faint instrumentation – with the help of hearing aids, they can hear the rhythm, the beat, the cadence of the lyrics, and in some cases, the melody. More importantly, however, they can feel the music. The anger of punk, the energy of techno, the raw sexuality of rock – the emotions come through just as powerfully for the deaf as they do for the hearing. And Sean Forbes has been obsessed with music for as long as he can remember. "Both my parents are musicians,” he says, "so growing up, music was everywhere. My mom plays piano and my dad is in a country rock band with my uncle. Around the house, they played a lot of rock and roll – the Stones, the Beatles." But besides just dropping the needle on their favorite records, Forbes' parents also worked hard to make sure Sean could appreciate the sound of the world at large. They got him hearing aids, which helped him hear more. They also spent countless hours teaching him to speak, read lips, and carry on conversations with people who can’t sign. Forbes didn’t learn sign language until he was 12 and used it to communicate at school with his deaf and hard of hearing friends. But even though they encouraged his love of music, and even got him his first drum set when he was just five years old, Sean Forbes' parents also urged him to be realistic. I mean, sure, go ahead and listen to music and appreciate it. But a deaf child can't really become a musician… or can he?
"When I first heard hip-hop," Forbes says, "I was just like, ‘Wow!!' It was finally something that I could fully enjoy. The way rap music is set up, I was able to really follow the beat and the drums.
And the lyrics are easier for me to follow, too, because rapping almost sounds like a drummer. It's like drumming with words."
At age 20, Forbes made a discovery that would set his career in motion. While visiting a local recording studio frequented by Eminem and his first producers the Bass Brothers, he found a stray CD on the mixing board with one word written on it: "BEATS." Without knowing who created the beats, or even asking who the CD belonged to, Sean took it home and started writing lyrics to go over the tracks. Initially, he assumed the Bass Brothers had made the beats. But it turned out the "producer" was actually Jeff Bass' 15-year-old son, Jake. For Forbes, it was like meeting his musical soulmate.
"When I heard that a deaf guy had written lyrics to my beats," says Jake Bass, "my first reaction was 'What?! I have to meet this guy!' But right off the bat, he was just such a cool person, just so real, that – and I know it's hard to believe – but the fact that he was deaf didn't strike me as a dis-advantage. I mean people always say that you can 'feel' music, but it's true. It's beyond beats and lyrics and melody. Everyone – no matter who they are – can connect to culture through music." Forbes' debut video album, "Perfect Imperfection," available now, comes with a DVD of 12 ground-breaking ASL music videos that are coupled with his original songs. "I consider myself a visual artist," he says, "sometimes even more than a recording artist. I watched a lot of MTV when I was growing up, and it made me realize that music doesn't have to just be auditory. It can be visual, too. Like the Beastie Boys! Their videos were so whacked out and so quirky and so different, that really inspired me." Deaf film director (and good friend) Adrean Mangiardi also integrates flowing graphic representations of the lyrics on screen. "Viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing appreciate our videos," Mangiardi says, "because of how we use sign language and creative graphic “captioning” as a form of artistic expression along with the music itself." The making of "Perfect Imperfection" consists of a whole lot more than just recording tracks and shooting music videos. The album is a product of Forbes life over the past few years. Along the way, he's had the chance to meet his childhood idols, such as Stevie Wonder, Eminem, and Marlee Matlin. He has been featured on NPR, CNN, and the Ovation Network series Motor City Rising. Achieved viral success on You-tube (One million + views). And perhaps most importantly, he has performed hundreds of live shows, for deaf and hearing audiences alike.
But if you haven't heard the music, seen a Sean Forbes live show, or seen his music videos yet, you're probably thinking: "Okay, he's a role model for the deaf community, and he can talk well enough to communicate with hearing people. But can he really – I mean really – rap?" Well, to quote a music fan who heard a preview of "Perfect Imperfection" without knowing beforehand that Sean was deaf: "Where is this guy from? He's got a really weird accent. I like it." "We could've altered his voice," says producer Jake Bass, “but we wanted to keep it real, keep it organic. True artists might not always be understood at first, but if it's 100% real, people can feel that. And they respect it."