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Q & A: Sean Forbes, deaf rapper

Central Times Staff

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Recently, deaf rapper Sean Forbes visited and performed at Naperville Central. The CT sat down with him after the show to learn more about his life and career.

Q: How have you been perceived by the deaf community?

A: I would have to say, when I first started, there was a lot of skepticism towards me. A lot of people felt like, “Why are you doing music?” and there were deaf people saying, “Why are you trying to bring music to the deaf community?” We’ve never had music before and there were a lot of people, I call them old-school thinkers, and I proved every one of them wrong because what happened was, we had a lot of older people coming up to us too, they were like “What you’re doing is awesome, I’ve always wanted to be a part of music, I’ve always wanted to understand music.” Still, I have a lot of haters out there, a lot of them, but it’s not going to stop me from doing what I want to do. Everything that’s good, there are always going to be people that are going to perceive you one way or another but for the most part, it has been positive.

Q: In one of your songs you talk about how you were lucky to get out of high school. What was high school like for you with hearing people?

A: There were so many kids that I rode the [short] bus with that were from all different walks of life, and there were a lot of interesting experiences that I went through in my childhood. For example, we had this girl who was riding the bus and she was 10 years old, but she was pretty much still an infant. That line is basically referencing all of the kids that have just never been able to have a lot of the opportunities that we’ve had. I just feel like riding the [short] bus had me feeling like I was really normal. Like yeah, I was deaf, but these other people have physical disabilities. That’s really what the line is referencing.

Q: Was there ever a time when you thought that maybe you couldn’t be a rapper? Did you have a back-up plan?

A: No. It would be smarter to have a back-up plan. My wife brings that up, she’s like, “what if tomorrow all of a sudden you decide that you don’t want to do music or it’s not working out or something? What are you going to do?” And I’m like, “I don’t have a back-up plan, this is my plan, period.” I do have a college degree. I graduated from RIT so if anything, I’m very resourceful. I know I could do something else, but at the moment that’s just not on my mind. If I were anybody else I would have a back-up plan.

Q: Who do you think influenced you the most into becoming a recording artist?

A: My parents. They’re the ones who introduced me to music, they’re the ones that bought me my first drum set, bought me a guitar. My uncle was very involved with music as well so I mean, I had a lot of musical influences around me, especially at home. I didn’t really have a lot of influences outside of the house because it was like, here I am, a deaf kid, who likes music. Who am I going to look up to, you know? So my role models were at home.

Q: Now that you’re a role model yourself, what do you hope your legacy will be?

A: In the past five weeks we’ve gone to 20-25 schools, and some kids come up to me and talk about bullying. My message, the bottom line is that you have to embrace who you are. It took me a long time as a deaf person to embrace who I was, and it probably wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 when I started to realize that I’m going to be like this for the rest of my life. So, with that in mind, I want my legacy to remind people that you can do anything. I was just a kid who had a musical dream. I think any kid who has a dream, you know, “I want to be a fireman,” “I want to be a cop,” “I want to be a musician.” The odds were extremely against me, but just to prove that wrong and to be able to go in and inspire other people and to be a role model. It’s nice to be able to do what I do and go to schools and talk with the kids, especially the deaf kids because by the end of the show, they act like completely different people.

Q: What was it like to meet Eminem?

A: The first time I met him, I was in the studio and I got a little tour and I walked into this room and there were a couple guys in there. There was this one guy with his hat on and he was on the drum machine, and I realized it was Eminem because of his tattoos. He was just right there. I met him right after that when he came out of the room, but I have never been star struck by anybody except one person. There was only one time in my life that I was star struck and that was when Stevie Wonder surprised me with a performance. I was performing at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, and we had done the first part of our set. We were taking a break before the next part of our set, so I was around the House of Blues just socializing, and all of a sudden everybody’s eyes go right to the stage. I was like, “What are they looking at?” and then I see Stevie Wonder on the stage and I ran all the way back! I’ve met many famous people, but nothing compares to that.

Q: Where do you hope that your music will take you in the future?

A: I’m up for anything. When I first started out, I kept thinking that I wanted to follow the typical musical avenues like Rolling Stone magazine, MTV, but my career has taken me on a different journey. I’ve been able to go and give presentations and I’ve been able to be interviewed by different people. New artists usually have to go on the road, they have to go to these clubs where they perform in front of 5 people, and they kind of have to grow from there. I’ve been able to kind of jump ahead. I think a lot of it has to do with my connections to the deaf community. Because of the fact that I went to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), where many other students from all over the globe went, I have friends everywhere. Every city that we go to, we have friends that stop by and visit us.

Q: What is D-PAN (Deaf Professional Arts Network) working on right now?

A: We’re working on a new music video. We have a couple little projects in the works. I don’t want to spill the beans, but if you become a fan on facebook we have some really amazing videos in the process right now.

Q: How do you deal with criticism and negative feedback?

A: I love it. I hear too much positive stuff, so when I hear the negative stuff, it makes me feel like I’m doing something right. If everybody liked everything that you did, there’s something wrong with that, where as if you get some negative stuff, that means that some of it is jealousy as well as a wide range of other things. I just brush it off. It doesn’t bother me. If anything, it bothers other people more than it bothers me and then they look at me and they’re like, “It doesn’t bother you?” and I’m like, “No, I’m doing what I love.” If I’m doing what I love and people are trying to talk negatively about it, so be it.

Q: Have you tried anything new with your music lately?

A: Well I’m always doing something new with Jake (my keyboardist). Every song that we work on we try to do something different.

Q: How long does it normally take you to write a song?

A: Some songs I’ve written in like 30 minutes, but some songs have taken months. Each one is different. I have so many songs that it’s like, sometimes I’ll work on one and, if I hit a little roadblock with it, I’ll just move onto something else and come back to it later. It depends on the situation and circumstance.

Q: What music do you listen to?

A: I listen to everything. I listen to rock music, like rock music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, I listen to rap, but like old school rap. I don’t listen to like Lil Wayne or 2 Chainz or anything like that. That stuff doesn’t interest me. I’m aware of it, but I don’t really pay attention. I listen to a lot of things though. Through my music, I try to show the different kinds of tastes that I like. Some songs are more rock heavy, some songs are more pop, it’s nice to have a wide range of music. There are no rules, but, if there were rules, I would break all of them.

Q: Why did you choose rap as your genre?

A: As a musician, especially as a drummer, I felt like I was just drumming with my mouth, that’s why I started going with rap. I mean, you don’t want to hear me sing. I chose rap because of the kick drum and the bass lines and the way that the songs move. It’s different from the other genres. Rap spoke to me.

Q: You grew up in Detroit, Mich., a city rich in musical culture. What, from the Detroit music scene, has influenced you the most?

A: Motown. Motown was huge. We had a lot of people who played on Motown records come over to the house all the time, so I would have to say that Motown was number one. Number two is maybe Bob Segar or Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels.

Q: Do you ever do any rap battles?

A: No, I feel like I’m more of a songwriter. I’ve had situations where people try to get me to rap battle but it’s a whole different mind frame. I never really grew up with that. And besides, if I was in a rap battle, I would have no idea what the other person was saying!

Q: Which song is your favorite to perform?

A: I like all of them. I’d have to say “Watch These Hands” or “Don’t Let Anything Hold You Back,” but I’m just saying those to answer your question. I don’t really have a favorite song. I feel like my songs are like my kids. I can’t like this one better than that one, although I do for some of them.

Q: How have subtitles and close captioning influenced the music in the deaf community?

A: It made it easier to understand what the lyrics were but it wasn’t very helpful to be honest. It wasn’t on time. Now if you watch my videos, you see that all the words are on time, they go with the syllables of the song. If close captioning was like that, it’d be a little bit different. It’s always either ahead or behind. It’s like, you hear the person talking and then, two seconds later, the captioning shows up, and you just want to throw the TV out the window. It’s annoying. I’d rather it be on time as you’re saying it, kind of like watching karaoke.

Q: How did you meet your wife?

A: We went to school together at RIT. I actually had a class with her, and I did not pay attention to her at all, not until one of my friends dated her, then I noticed her. Then I got her the next year.

Q: You seem to talk about her a lot. How has your wife been an influence on you?

A: She definitely influences me on the exciting side of things. My wife is deaf and she is an ASL (American Sign Language) teacher. When I sign songs, she’ll watch me. She really helps me with my performance and the way that I express myself onstage with signing. It’s really good to have somebody like that, you know, supporting you, telling you what to do.

Q: Outside of music, what do you do for fun?

A: Music has consumed my life. I have no life. I’m stuck in an RV with four other guys. I need to find a new hobby, I need to get away from it all. I like spending time on the beach, sailing, going out on the boat, different things like that. I like skiing. I don’t go as often as I would like to, but those are expensive hobbies so it’s not like I could do them all the time.

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