Sean Forbes: Deaf But Not Quiet
Sean Forbes has been profoundly deaf since he was an infant. But he makes music anyway. He was interviewed by NPR's Liane Hansen a couple of years ago and told her that he interned for an engineering company in Chicago that was so impressed with his work ethic, it offered to send him through college.
"And I told them, 'I'm sorry, I'm going to become a rock star,' " says Forbes. "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."
Forbes is also a co-founder of D-Pan, the Deaf Professional Arts Network, which features videos that are produced with American Sign Language by hard-of-hearing and deaf artists. Forbes says there's a high demand for American Sign Language music videos, and D-Pan recently released an interpretation of the White Stripes' "We Are Going to Be Friends."
"It was the first time that we had an artist actually really help us," Forbes says. "That's what we want — to share your music with a community of 30 million people. That's how many are missing out on your material."
On Sept. 4 he'll release his debut CD/DVD album, Perfect Imperfection. Forbes spoke to Weekend Edition host Scott Simon about everything he's working on.
"I'm really excited about this record," he says. "It's the one thing I've always wanted in my life, to release a CD, and now I'm releasing a CD and a DVD. I couldn't be more grateful than at this moment that I'm finally coming out with something that I worked so hard my entire life for."
Perfect Imperfection includes a DVD that has 3-D-esque music videos, with words leaping out of the screen. Forbes says he wanted to add the visual component to his music so that everyone can enjoy it, which is also a part of his live shows. "When I perform live I have a video screen behind me that shows the lyrics," Forbes says. "It shows the words and shows the rhythm of the songs to get everything to make it as accessible as possible."
"That would be something awesome to be able to go to a Jay-Z concert or go to a Rolling Stones concert and see this, cause I'm pretty sure a large part of the Rolling Stones' audience is going deaf, so they might want that too," he says with a laugh.
One of the songs on Perfect Imperfection is a homage to Bob Dylan. Forbes discovered the folk troubadour when listening to his parents' music.
"I grew up on this stuff, so I've always had this, like, joking thing that Bob Dylan was the first rapper," he says, talking about "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Forbes had to ask permission to use some of those lyrics in his own song. "It's very hard for Bob Dylan to sign off on people using his content, so we basically reached out to them and asked them and they gave us permission in less than 24 hours," he says.
In the music video for "Bob Dylan Was The First Rapper," Forbes mimics Dylan in his "film" for "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
In his song "Watch These Hands" Forbes acknowledges he's a visual entertainer who has to really be watched, rather than just listened to. The song also addresses what he had to overcome to get to where he is today.
"That's one of my most personal songs on the record. There were a lot of experiences I had growing up that nobody else has probably ever gone through. I mentioned riding the short bus in there," says Forbes.
But Forbes says he never considered his deafness a disability. He communicates with the musicians who play with him by following the beat — mainly the kick drum and snare. Forbes is sometimes surprised by his own adaptability.
"There was one time we had a show in Texas where all of the sudden the PA system just went out and we were kind of looking around. We had a grand piano brought onto the stage. I had never in my life performed with a grand piano, but we did that show," he says. "I'm lucky enough that I could follow the rhythm and come up with it myself and do the lyrics on time. It blows my mind sometimes how I could do that."
Forbes is also a proud Detroiter. He has nothing but pride in being in a city that embraces music. "We have everything from Motown to Ted Nugent to Eminem to Kid Rock to Uncle Kracker to Alice Cooper," he says. "There's so many musicians to have come from this town."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Sean Forbes has been profoundly deaf since he was an infant. But he makes music anyway.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SEAN FORBES: (Singing) My name's Sean, but they call fiend. Got a message here I'm delivering...
SIMON: He was interviewed by NPR's Liane Hansen a couple of years ago, and he told her that when he interned for an engineering company in Chicago, they were so impressed with his work ethic that they offered to send him through college.
FORBES: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
FORBES: (Singing) He said to rock this program. I think it's worth it, knowing that the world's exploding, (unintelligible) rock this program.
SIMON: And Sean Forbes may be on his way. His music has been championed by fellow Detroiter Eminem, and Marlee Maitlin, the actress, who is also deaf, appeared in one of his music videos. And he's a co-founder of D-PAN, the Deaf Professional Arts Network. This week, he'll release his debut CD-DVD album called "Perfect Imperfection." Sean Forbes joins us now from the studios of WDET in Detroit. Thanks so much for being with us.
FORBES: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And let's go ahead and introduce Tracey Romano, who's in there in the studio with you. He's interpreting for you in American sign language. Mr. Romano, thanks for your help.
TRACEY ROMANO: Pleasure, sir.
SIMON: So, please tell us, Mr. Forbes, it sounds like things are really beginning to take off for you.
FORBES: Yeah, I'm really excited about this record. I mean, it's the one thing that I've always wanted in my life is to release a CD. And now I'm releasing the CD and the DVD. I mean, I couldn't be more grateful at this moment that I'm finally coming out with something that I've worked so hard my entire life for.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, let's listen to one of your songs, if we could. This is a bit of your song called "Watch These Hands."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATCH THESE HANDS")
FORBES: (Singing) There's nothing, looked at your lips and you asked what's wrong, without (unintelligible) sure (unintelligible). I was fortunate enough. I made it out of Lisor(ph) High School. And then I made it out of RIT. For sure the kids I rode the bus with never saw 15. I hope they're looking down. I dedicate this song to them. I hope they're looking down...
That's one of my most personal songs and (unintelligible). I mean, there were a lot of experiences that I had growing up that nobody else has probably ever gone through. I mean, I mentioned riding the short bus in there.
SIMON: The short bus - that would put all people with learning disabilities or whatever the term of art is on the short bus.
FORBES: Yeah. There were people that were confined to wheelchairs, people that, you know, couldn't communicate verbally. And we all went to special education programs. So, I rode the bus every morning and every afternoon with these kids. You know, it's just something that I wanted to put into a song. 'Cause I think a lot of people think that it was easy for me to get into music. But really it's taken me on quite a journey to get to where I am today. And seeing all those kids that were not deaf but may have had cerebral palsy or Down's syndrome, but I never looked at it as a disability. We were kind of in the same place at the same time and that was definitely, you know, a huge moment in my life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATCH THESE HANDS")
FORBES: (Singing) I know that they be (unintelligible) watch, watch, watch these hands. They can dance, they can sing, they can dance, they can, watch, watch, watch these hands...
In the line, watch these hands, it's like I'm a visual entertainer. You have to see me to get me so you have to watch me. You can't just listen to me and get what I'm doing. You really got to check me out.
SIMON: Yeah. How do you communicate with the musicians who play with you?
FORBES: I usually follow the beat. I mean, the main thing that I follow is the kick drum and the snare. And everything else kind of throws itself in. So, that's usually what I follow. I mean, there was one time we had a show in Texas where all of a sudden the PA system just went out, and we were kind of looking around. And we had a grand piano brought onto the stage. And I had never in my life performed with a grand piano, but we did that show. And I'm lucky enough that I could follow the rhythm and come up with it myself, and do the lyrics on time and stuff like that. It blows my mind sometimes how I could do that. It's almost like it's like second nature inside of me.
SIMON: Your new release includes a DVD of music videos with the words leaping out of the screen.
FORBES: Yeah. I wanted to create something where people could enjoy my music visually where everybody could enjoy it. And that goes for my concerts as well. When I perform live, I have a video screen behind me that shows the lyrics, it shows the words, and shows the rhythm of the songs. You get everything to make it as accessible as possible. And it's been tremendous.
SIMON: Speaking for myself, I wish they did a little more flashing of the lyrics at every show.
FORBES: Yeah. I mean, that would be something to us. To be able to go to a Jay-Z concert or to go to a Rolling Stones concert and see this because I'm sure a large part of the Rolling Stones audience is going deaf so they might want that too.
SIMON: Oh, boy. Another track from your CD that I'd like us to listen to - that I don't mind saying this is my favorite of your songs. This is "Bob Dylan was the First Rapper."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOB DYLAN WAS THE FIRST RAPPER")
FORBES: (Singing) His show, 1959, saw a first hot three days before he died, looked him straight in the eyes while he said (unintelligible) he made up his mind. Flew out to NYC, said hat off, boys, like you and me. Add another chapter. Bob Dylan was the first rapper...
SIMON: Tell us about this song. Firstly, how did you get to know the work of Bob Dylan so well because, well, you're not exactly in his demographic, are you? You're a young man.
FORBES: I could thank my parents for that when - I mean, my parents always played all types of music, and Bob Dylan was definitely one of the artists that they played often. I mean, I grew up on this stuff. So, I've always had, like, this joking thing, like, you know, Bob Dylan was the first rapper. Because songs like, obviously, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which I used lyrics in this song, "Bob Dylan was the First Rapper," you know, I used Johnny was in the basement mixing up the medicine...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOB DYLAN WAS THE FIRST RAPPER")
FORBES: (Singing) I'm on the pavement thinking about the government defense. In trench coat, badge off, (unintelligible). Got a bad cough, want to get paid off.
I used some of Bob Dylan's lyrics and I was kind of a little freaked out about that because, you know, it's very hard for Bob Dylan to sign off and people using his contents. So, we basically reached out to them and asked them, and they gave us permission within 24 hours. I mean, they responded back and said, sure, yeah, go for it. And I was out of my mind because from what I know, Bob Dylan rarely gives anybody permission to use any of his songs. So, the fact that I got an answer within 24 hours means we're doing something right here, I guess.
SIMON: Yeah. And the music video you've done for this I find it hilarious. Before they did music videos, Bob Dylan kind of famously did a film for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" where he flips through cue cards.
FORBES: In my video, I'm basically paying homage to that because that music video was iconic in so many ways. And when I showed my director for this video that Bob Dylan video, he instantly came up with the idea of doing our way of doing the lyrics but paying homage to him. And I love that video.
SIMON: I want to ask you a bit about the D-PAN artist network that you cofounded because it features videos by many hard of hearing and deaf artists that are produced with American Sign Language. How is that going? What's the demand for American Sign Language videos like?
FORBES: There is a high demand for it. In fact, the most recent one that we did was a huge success. We did an interpretation for "We're Going to be Friends" by the White Stripes. And that got tremendous response from everywhere. The music video was on "Good Morning America" and the "Today Show" and so many different things. And the White Stripes posted it on their website. They posted it on Facebook. They posted it on Twitter. They shared it with everybody that they know. So, it was the first time that we've had an artist actually really help us. And I think that so many of these artists should have their videos interpreted into American Sign Language and work with D-PAN, with the Deaf Professional Artist Network. Because that's what we want. We want to share your music with a community of 30 million people. I mean, that's how many people are missing out on your material, and that's a huge audience.
SIMON: Let me ask you about your friend Marshall Mathers. Do you call him Marshall or Eminem?
FORBES: It depends on the time of day.
SIMON: Or Mr. Mathers, I suppose. You guys are both proudly Detroiters, and a lot of people across the country are really rooting for Detroit. What's it mean to you to be a musician from Detroit?
FORBES: I'm proud to be from Detroit. I'm proud to be from a city that embraces music. I mean, we have everything from Motown to Ted Nugent to Eminem to Kid Rock to Uncle Kracker to Alice Cooper. I mean, there's so many musicians that have come from this town and I'm proud to be from here. I travel around the country and so many people always ask me are you from New York City? And I'm like, uh, no. Are you from L.A.? No. Where you from? Detroit. The looks on their faces are always, like, no way, seriously? And I'm like, yeah. I can go on and on all day about this but I love Detroit.
SIMON: Sean Forbes. His new CD and DVD set is called "Perfect Imperfection." He joined us from the studios of WDET, very proudly in Detroit. Mr. Forbes, thanks so much.
FORBES: Thank you. I appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
FORBES: (Singing) I'd rather not hear, rather not listen, I'm the perfect imperfection, never be restricted. Ah-ha (unintelligible) I'm so, so (unintelligible). I've got them talking about but I'm not talking back, a (unintelligible).
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.