on March 8, 2013 - 9:14 PM
, updated March 8, 2013 at 11:43 PM
Being called a “def” artist in the hip-hop music industry has for three decades been synonymous with being gifted at rhymes or being skilled, uber-talented and downright “cool.”
But being a “deaf” rap artist?
Rapper Sean Forbes was told for years by many to forget about it.
Fortunately for the 31-year-old Forbes – and those deaf or hard-of-hearing musicians pursuing the same dream today – he tuned out those naysayers.
Forbes, whose 14-track album “Perfect Imperfection” was released last fall, now calls himself “deafer than Def Jam” – one of the industry’s top labels.
“I am a deaf person, and music is my oxymoron, but I wouldn’t let it define me,” the Detroit-based Forbes told an assembly of Frontier High School students Friday morning. “I really wanted to become a musician because I wanted to be a performer.”
Forbes lost his hearing to spinal meningitis when he was just nine months old. The news was a tough blow to his parents, who were both musicians, according to Forbes.
“They felt they were not going to be able to share the one thing they truly loved – music – with me,” said Forbes, adding that it didn’t stop them from buying him a drum set at age 5. “From that moment forward, all I ever wanted to become was a drummer.”
Forbes faced considerable challenges growing up. He was different from other kids. He rode the “short bus” – something he references in his rap “Watch These Hands.” He was told he’d never realize his dream of becoming a musician.
It was those life experiences, however, that Forbes believes now allow him to connect intimately with youth like a mainstreamed deaf student at Frontier on Friday or the boy who approached him last week on Staten Island saying he was being bullied but planned to use Forbes’ messages as inspiration.
“You have to embrace who you are. You aren’t going to change that,” Forbes said in an interview. “It gives you character. It makes you who you are.”
And how was he interviewed?
He routinely answered a reporter’s questions Friday by reading his lips.
Forbes explained how he parlayed a shot from Web Entertainment, the same Motor City record label that produced the unabashed, in-your-face lyrics that helped launch the career of now-legendary white rapper Eminem. And he was able to chase down his dream to follow in his family’s musical footsteps.
He’s now using that stage with positive motivational messages for youth and to promote D-PAN, the nonprofit Deaf Professional Arts Network, which he co-founded.
The network’s mission – to improve the accessibility of music for the deaf – focuses on translating popular music into American Sign Language music videos. Forbes, who is married to a deaf woman, briefly spoke to Frontier students Friday, but mostly let his music advance his message.
“Don’t let anyone hold you back,” Forbes signed as he rapped to that title’s track, “Don’t let anyone say ‘facts are facts.’ ... Follow your intuition, your instincts; They’ll guide you in the right directions; Every road you take there’s a lesson, a story of ‘Perfect Imperfections.’ ”
The Rochester Institute of Technology business graduate’s nationwide 2013 tour began three weeks ago. After stops in Rochester and then Hamburg, Forbes and his crew of four other deaf musicians hit the road for a show in St. Louis today.
“We’re breaking boundaries,” said Mark Levin, a Chicago native and one of Forbes’ band members, who says they’re aware of their responsibility as trailblazers for deaf musicians.
Although the deaf music industry may remain “very small,” explained Levin, music touches the souls of the deaf just as much as those who can hear.
“Music is not just what you hear,” he said. “People forget what they hear, but you don’t forget what you feel.”
It’s something “so intense,” raps Forbes in another track, “So Deaf,” that he describes music as bringing out his “sixth sense.” Like other deaf people, Forbes said he can sense the sound and feel the music through the vibrations.
Perhaps that’s why rap appeals to him, explained Forbes, who said he “grew up on everything” from rock ’n’ roll to country music and considers Stevie Wonder the closest thing to a musical role model.
“I just feel like, personally, rap spoke to me,” said Forbes. “Originally, hip-hop was about making a social change and changing people’s perceptions.”
For more information, visit Forbes’ website at http://deafandloud.com/.