As a successful songwriter, an accomplished percussionist, and the co-founder of Deaf Professional Arts Network (DPAN), Sean Forbes experiences music in a way most of us can only imagine. In an interview with ABILITY’s Molly Mackin, Forbes discussed his unique career and how his deafness prompts him to tackle the world of music in a way few have heard it before.
Molly Mackin: I understand you recently got married. Congratulations!
Sean Forbes: Thank you. Yes, I got married in October. I have a deaf wife who loves music because I shared it with her.
Mackin: Tell me a little bit about your music. How did you get your start in such a challenging industry?
Forbes: Music is something I’ve wanted to do my entire life. I was always around music, growing up. My par ents played it during car trips, and we had all kinds of drums and guitars and other instruments in our base ment. At an early age, my brothers and I decided we wanted to develop careers in the music business. I’m the only deaf one in the family, and also the only one who, as an adult, actively pursued music as a career.
Mackin: Oh, really? Impressive.
Forbes: I know. Crazy. (laughs)
Mackin: How long have you been deaf?
Forbes: I became deaf at a couple of months old. I had a high fever and, although it was never officially diag nosed, it’s believed I became deaf as a result of spinal meningitis. I like to tell people that I became deaf because I was playing music too loud. (laughs)
Mackin: So you’ve essentially been deaf your whole life. How do you then translate something like rhythm?
Forbes: Rhythm is something that is born inside of you. When I was very young, my parents noticed I could make a rhythm that was consistent, like a beats-per minute, essentially. When I was five, my parents bought me a drum set because they noticed my propensity for rhythm. I think it’s something that comes from inside.
Every time I listen to a new song, or even an old song I know, I always try to follow the different rhythms that happen throughout it. Bass and drums are pretty simple for me to follow, but sometimes I’ll be in a situation in which I’ll have a different point of reference when I’m listening to something, and I’ll be able to pick up the guitar or the piano line, and follow that rhythm.
For me, following melody is what is pretty hard. usually ask my family, or people with whom whom I work, About the melody when I’m listening to or writing a song. “How’s this melody going?” They’ll show it to me by imitating the music. My brothers always shared new music with me as we grew up. If there was a song by Mötley Crile, they would act like Mötley Crüle and demonstrate it.
Mackin: Sort of like live-captioning:
Forbes: Yeah (laughs). I was fortunate to grow up in a time when MTV was popular. When I watched it, I’d not always be watching the video; instead, I would focus on how the different musicians played their instruments, because it was something I wanted to do. I thought Mötley Crüe was so cool, so I would watch how Tommy Lee played the drums, and how Nikki Sixx played the bass. Mick Mars was off in his own world, and Vince Neil was, too. (laughs)
Mackin: So when you say your family would imitate the music for you, would they dance? Would they play the air-drums?
Forbes: Yeah, air-guitar, air drums. At the time, I think MTV didn’t have closed-captioning. I’m such a good lip reader, though, that when I wanted to listen to a new song, we would turn on the television and my brothers would stand there and lip-sync the words for me.
There were so many things, growing up, that enabled me to participate in music. Every time we would go on a family vacation, my mom would play all the oldies from the 60s-the Beatles, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones-and would drive and sing along. I would read my mom’s lips to follow what was happening in the song, and I’d put the side of my leg against the speaker so I could feel the rhythm and keep the beat.
I also made my mom turn up the music. I’m surprised my whole family isn’t deaf from all those long car rides. I was very fortunate, growing up, to be in a fami ly that wanted me to experience the music that was such a huge part of their lives.
Mackin: In your song “I’m Deaf,” you have some really great verses, and they all rhyme. Rhyming has a lot to do with the sounds of words. How does that work when you’re writing?
Forbes: I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid, and I grew up reading poetry and lyrics. I would often go on Bob Dylan’s website and just read the lyrics. Over time, just by looking at how any rapper rhymes words and fits syllables into verse, I got to a point at which meter and rhyme schemes became very natural for me. I honestly believe that came by reading. We all have narrators in our heads.
Mackin: A lot of words are read one way and said a much different way, especially in the English language.
Forbes: I know a lot of rappers who bend words and make them rhyme. “I’m Deaf” came out of me so quickly I didn’t really have time to study the process. I had written a lot of variations of that song, and then I got with a producer and the song just came out.
I don’t like beating up songs. Sometimes I’ll be working on something and it comes out in less than 30 minutes. Sometimes it’s not coming out and I put it aside, and I come back to it or I don’t.
Mackin: Do you write any poetry?
Forbes: I’ve written a lot of poetry. I’ve been lagging on it lately, though. I write a lot of lyrics, and sometimes they look like poetry, and other times they look like songs. To me, there’s not always a big difference. Some times I just write a poem on the spot. Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of music without music, right off the top of my head. I’ll come up with a simple drum track and write a song around it, which is usually like writing poetry. Sometimes it’s the music that drives the lyrics, sometimes the lyrics come first. When I read poetry, I can usually envision music in it.
Mackin: How do you write a melody?
Forbes: The same way I get people to imitate musicians for me. I’ll be writing a song, and at a certain point I’ll ask a producer, ‘How does the melody to this song go?”, and he’ll sing the different pitches for me, which give me an idea about the changes of the song. Then I’ll write a lyric to it. There are a lot of people in this orga nization at whom I can throw things, and sometimes even my dad will give me ideas. But I write all my lyrics myself.
Mackin: I noticed while watching a video of you per forming that you have a really nice “flow.” Have you ever done slam poetry?
Forbes: (laughs) Thank you. I’ve never done slam poet ry before, but I have a lot of friends who do it. I’ve done freestyle rapping with friends. I’m really used to work ing with and writing music, and slam poetry is a little different in the way in which things are structured. I think it’s a really cool art form.
Mackin: Is music common in the deaf community?
Forbes: Yeah! There are a lot of deaf people who love playing music in their cars while driving. Mostly they play music that’s dominated by drums and bass, like rap music and techno, because they can feel the pulse.
There have been people in the past who have questioned my career. They ask, “Why do deaf people need music? We’ve lived our entire lives without music, so why do you want to bring music to the deaf community?” But there are so many people who own iPods, iPads, and iPhones. Of course the deaf kids are going to want all those cool things and to follow the same trends. I had an audition a few weeks ago, and I asked the ds to come ready with a song. These girls came in and wanted to sing Justin Bieber. Obviously these kids are getting their tastes from television and from schoolmates, as well as from the trends and fads they’re hearing friends follow.
When I was in high school, my tastes were influenced by my hockey teammates and by my brothers and other people my age who weren’t deaf or hard-of-hearing. even though most people weren’t as into music as I was. When I went to college, I started to realize a lot of deaf and hard-of-hearing people love music. I attended Rochester Institute of Technology and lived in an all deaf dorm. I’d walk down the hall and hear Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” or some Jay-Z song.
Not only that, but I met a couple of deaf people who played musical instruments, I’d pick up a guitar and start playing, and they would be like, ‘You play the guitar?” Then I would go to someone else’s room and pick up a bass and do the same thing. It was interesting to see how many people loved music, even though not everyone had grown up with the same background I did.
I grew up reading rock and roll history books. I knew everything about all the old groups. So when I started to see that all these deaf people love music, I felt like I had to do something. I had to do something about giving music to the deaf community. I was always signing songs to my friends-mostly to girls, because it was a good way to get them to notice me.
Mackin: I read somewhere about you and Eminem working together. Is that right?
Forbes: When I first started working here, he was a big supporter of what I was doing. I showed him a video of me signing one of his songs. When he saw that, he looked at me like, “Deaf people like music?” He was really surprised to see there was a deaf community that loved his stuff. Most people think “deaf,” and they think, “Oh I can’t share my music with them. They’re not going to understand what I’m saying.” But a lot of deaf people relate with what Eminem expresses in his music: they struggle, they feel frustrated, they get pissed off. I relate to him in a different way. He was a white kid trying to get into rap music, whereas I’m a deaf kid trying to get into the music business, in general. I mean, it’s a struggle. I know he definitely connects with what I’m doing.