Lack of hearing no handicap for musician Sean Forbes

Published: Wednesday, May 19, 2010

By Gary Graff, For the Daily Tribune

Music has been part of Sean Forbes’ life for as long as he can remember.

Both parents were musicians. So was an uncle, who engineered for Bob Seger, among others. By the time he was 5, Forbes knew he “wanted to be up on stage, just rocking it out. It’s in my blood.”

But there was a problem. Forbes is deaf.

The 28-year-old suffered profound hearing loss when he was 1 year old and developed a high fever. He can pick up some sound via a hearing aid and is an adept lip reader and speaker, but becoming a rock star certainly seemed out of the question.

Not for Forbes, however.

On Thursday he’ll celebrate the release of his first single and video, a rap track called “I’m Deaf” with a playful B-side, “Let’s Mambo.” With nearly 40 other songs written, he’s been signed to a contract by Ferndale-based WEB Entertainment, whose principals, Jeff and Mark Bass, discovered and were the first producers for Eminem (Jake Bass, their son and nephew, respectively, writes with and produces Forbes). By virtue of that, Forbes — a co-founder of the nonprofit Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN) — also became the first deaf performer signed to a major song publishing deal, with Broadcast Music International (BMI).

That rock star thing? Maybe it’s not such a far-fetched idea after all.

“People said ‘no’ to me, but I wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” Forbes said at D-PAN’s Ferndale studio. “I grew up looking up to people like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles … Marlee Matlin. They had a disability; it didn’t stop them from doing what they wanted to do.”

Scott Forbes, Sean’s father — a local restaurateur and a member of the Forbes Brothers country band — credits his son’s success to “just determination. He wanted to be in music.”

“Sean’s a remarkable person,” added Joel Martin, owner of 54 Sound studio in Ferndale and Forbes’ partner in D-PAN. “He … doesn’t let his disability prevent him from doing anything. He’s a real force.”

Growing up, Forbes also listened to Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil with a Blue Dress On,” which was fortuitous since one of the Wheels would play a crucial role in his musical development.

“I had a knack for banging on things,” Forbes said. He started playing drums at age 5, with the help of the Wheels’ Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, who would come to the house to give the fledgling musician some lessons.

“He’s a natural,” said Badanjek. “It’s pretty amazing because he can’t really hear what he’s playing; he just kind of goes for the feel and the vibration.”

Forbes — who picked up guitar and bass when he was 10 and also became a voracious reader of music history books and biographies — spent his high school years at Bloomfield Hills Lahser. There he would “defend my friends against hearing people who made fun at them,” using his lip-reading skills to answer their taunts. He would also routinely turn hearing-impaired classmates onto music.

He thought about a law school path to learn about civil rights but opted instead for accounting at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. There he studied alongside 2,000 other deaf students — including his fiancéee, Jojo, who Forbes plans to marry in October in Chicago. “But,” he said, “studying’s really not my thing. All I could think about was music. That’s what I really wanted to do.”

He got his chance in 2003, when he met Martin at the Detroit Music Awards.

“He’s such a good lip reader, I didn’t know he was deaf,” Martin remembered. Once he learned that, he admits to finding Forbes’ musical ambitions “perplexing.” Nevertheless they developed an e-mail relationship, and when Forbes made a video of him performing the Eminem hit “Lose Yourself” using American Sign Language (ASL), Martin was convinced.

“(Eminem) was at the studio that day, recording, and we took a break and we all watched this thing,” Martin said. “It was obvious something was there. (Forbes) had the ability as a performer to convey the song through sign language. Even though we didn’t know what he was saying, it was powerful …”

Martin brought Forbes in as an intern that summer. He would wind up taking a 5-year leave from NTID, returning to finish his degree and graduate in 2008. The goal, Martin said, was “to make music videos that are compelling enough for the hard of hearing,” which led to the establishment of D-PAN two years later. The organization has produced five videos — including songs by John Mayer and Christina Aguilera — that have generated more than 1.2 million hits on YouTube. D-PAN recently produced another DVD called “Wee Hands” to teach ASL to children.

Sean Forbes celebrates the release of his new single and video, “I’m Deaf,” at 8 p.m. May 20, at Memphis Smoke, 100 S. Main St., Royal Oak. Call or visit

Leave a Reply

You must be to post a comment.

Category Specific RSS