Sean Forbes was set. His disability hadn’t prevented him from getting a good education, and it wasn’t going to prevent him from getting a job. He could find steady employment at the electric company. He even had an executive willing to pay his college tuition.
But he didn’t want to create power. He wanted to create music.
“I was going to make $75,000 and be miserable,” says Forbes. “I thanked him for the opportunity but said no.”
His would-be benefactor was astounded. How could Forbes, profoundly deaf since childhood, possibly make it as a rapper?
“I said, ‘You watch me.’ I’m the type of person who won’t give up. Why should I?”
Forbes’ faith in himself has paid dividends. Although he’s had a mountain to climb to get where he is right now, the Detroit musician has never stopped working. Through perseverance, confidence and no small amount of charisma, he’s turned himself into the rarest thing in hip-hop — a deaf man with a successful career.
Since the 2012 release of his album “Perfect Imperfection,” he’s been touring the country, sharing his music with the hard-of-hearing and hip-hop fans whose ears function perfectly well. Marlee Matlin appears in his videos. On Wednesday, Forbes brings his music — and his vibrating stage — to the Studio at Webster Hall in New York.
“I wish I could say that I turned my Marshall stack up to 11, and that’s why I can’t hear,” jokes Forbes, “but I got spinal meningitis when I was a year old, and I’ve been deaf ever since.”
How does he do it? Like many deaf people, Forbes can’t hear the music, but he can feel the vibrations of the bass. The Detroit rapper writes his old-school rhymes to the tremors he feels when the subwoofers shake.
“A rapper is like a drummer,” says Forbes, who also plays several musical instruments and lists the Beatles and Bob Dylan among his favorite musicians. “You’re placing words like a percussionist is placing beats. People classify me as a hip-hop artist, but my taste is very wide, and you can hear that in my music. I think that mostly what I do is rap because you don’t want to hear a deaf person sing.”
He was also attracted to the audacious style of the rappers he saw on MTV when he was growing up. His brothers would stand at the side of the television and mouth the words to him, and he’d sit, mesmerized by the arresting appearance of artists such as the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Those emcees influenced Forbes’ own presentation: He often dresses sharp, with a suit, a pair of glasses and a bowler hat. In the throwback video for “Def Deaf Girls” (every track on “Perfect Imperfection” is paired with a clip), he adopts the sunglasses, the tipped baseball cap and the heavy chain of a vintage rap artist.
“What I do is very visual,” says Forbes, who pays homage to the Spike Jonze style in the “Def Deaf Girls” video. “I think that not being able to hear has forced me to make up for it with my other senses. I’ve doubled my sense of seeing. I’ve doubled my sense of feeling.”
Since its beginnings, hip-hop has provided a voice for marginalized communities. According to some estimates, one out of every 100 people in the United States has some form of hearing impairment, but deaf people are practically invisible in mainstream culture. Forbes loves to make Beasties-style music, but many of his songs have serious overtones: “Watch These Hands,” an autobiographical verse, discusses the challenges of disability frankly, and without sensationalism.
“Public Enemy was making social change, and that spoke to me,” says the rapper. “Being deaf is a minority. I’m white, but I’m still a minority. Through my songs, I hope I can send the message not to let anything hold you back. If you have a disability, or a disadvantage or obstacle, you can still overcome that.”
Forbes had help from those closest to him — and, in a way, from the storied musical city he’s from. His parents were musicians in Detroit, and Motor City luminaries such as Mitch Ryder and Dennis Coffey visited his house. At 11, he took a trip backstage at the Detroit Music Awards and shared a room with Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent and Bob Seger. But his uncle, a Seger soundman, cautioned him not to get starstruck.
“He told me that when you’re really serious, you do your own thing,” says Forbes. “Don’t try to be like Eminem or Kid Rock. Be yourself.”
He’s managed to do that — and in inspirational fashion.
“When you see a deaf person doing what I do, what’s stopping you from doing anything else?”