A deaf musician? How is that possible? But Ferndale’s own Sean Forbes has done a lot of things you might think are impossible – including dancing with Marlee Matlin in the new video for his song “Let’s Mambo!”
It will debut June 5 at the House of Blues in Los Angeles during a celebrity-filled fundraiser for the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness, Inc. (GLAD).
Profoundly deaf since he was a baby, Forbes says his parents worked hard to ensure his deafness didn’t define him. They helped him learn American Sign Language (ASL) and spent countless hours teaching him to speak and carry on conversations with people who can’t sign. And they made sure he was steeped in the language of music.
“My parents are both musicians,” Forbes said at a music studio on East Nine Mile Road. “So I grew up listening to rock and roll, the Beatles, the Stones, and later heavy metal like Motley Crüe and Poison.”
If Forbes is profoundly deaf (about 90%), how can he “listen” to music? He wears hearing aids, which help a lot. But, he said, what the hearing community might not realize is that many sounds can be felt as vibrations.
“When I’m in my car listening to music,” he said, “I can hear everything that you hear – the bass, the beat. Except maybe the lyrics. I usually have to look those up.”
It’s the bass and beat that got Forbes into hip-hop when he was a teenager. It started with Ice Cube and NWA. Now he makes his own music with the help of producer Jake Bass, the son of Jeff Bass who produced several Eminem tracks with his brother Mark.
“When I first heard hip-hop and rap, I was just like, ‘Wow,' ” Forbes said. “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.”
In addition to writing and recording his own songs, Forbes also produces video versions of popular songs with his friend director Adrean Mangiardi. They use ASL and words on the screen to make them more accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
He is co-founder of the Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN) in Ferndale and says he wants to make art, especially music, available to everyone.
“There are so many deaf and hard of hearing people that want to experience music,” Forbes said. “These videos make it easier for them.”
Mangiardi said he likes to use graphics, and not just subtitles, to create a visual experience.
“We have a different way of portraying lyrics,” he said, “so that we can achieve the goal of making music fully accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing.”
“Yeah,” Forbes said, “when I sign rap music, I try to follow the beat with my body. I try to paint a picture with my hands. You really have to see me to get me.”
One person who got him was Marlee Matlin, the Oscar Award-winning deaf actress who competed on Dancing with the Stars and recently finished second on Celebrity Apprentice. After hearing about him from an NPR broadcast, Matlin contacted Forbes with a private Twitter message.
“It was crazy,” Forbes said. “I mean, she reached out to me, you know?”
Next thing Matlin was on her way to Ferndale to shoot the video for Forbes’ “Let’s Mambo!”
“I originally wrote the song about my wife JoJo,” he said. “She’s always trying to get me to go dancing, but I’m like, ‘uhh, no.’ But around the same time, I saw Marlee on Dancing with the Stars, so I kind of made it about her, too. I say, ‘She’s the prettiest girl from the Land of Lincoln,’ and my wife is from Illinois, but so is Marlee. So, it works.”
He said Matlin was “amazing to work with.”
Forbes will reunite with Matlin this Sunday at the 9th Annual GLAD Benefit Extravaganza in L.A.’s House of Blues. He and Matlin will debut the video of “Let’s Mambo!” and mingle with celebrities such as Eva Longoria and Cheri Oteri. Forbes said the event will be a great opportunity to network with other industry professionals Matlin and get his name recognized.
But Sean Forbes is already a big name to a lot of people.
“He’s given hope to a lot of deaf kids and their parents,” Mangiardi said. “He’s inspired people.”
Learn more about Sean Forbes, and see a teaser of the "Let's Mambo!" video, and the video for his song "I'm Deaf," on his website, www.deafandloud.com.