Sean Forbes is blowing up.
In 2010, the Detroit-based rapper inked a two-record deal with Web Entertainment, the label that launched Eminem.
Since 2012, he has been touring relentlessly behind his debut album, “Perfect Imperfection,” performing for more than 150,000 fans in 60 cities, including a sold-out show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, where he shared the stage with Stevie Wonder.
His online videos have notched more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube and Facebook.
And in April 2013, he was crowned outstanding hip-hop artist of the year at the Detroit Music Awards, a nationally recognized industry event.
He also happens to be deaf.
Forbes is the undisputed king of deaf hip-hop, an emerging musical genre that is giving hundreds of thousands of deaf people access to a cultural experience that until recently was all but unknown to them, while also bridging the cultural divide between the world of the deaf and the world of the hearing.
Forbes, 32, is toothy and boyish, with a slaying smile, staves of coal-black hair shorn closely at the sides and a fresco of tattoos on his right bicep. The night I saw him perform before a crammed house at the Aria Entertainment Complex in Toronto during the last leg of his 60-city tour, he wore dark jeans, a black T-shirt, sunglasses and a low-gauge silver chain around his neck.
After a sign-language interpreter introduced him, Forbes stormed onstage and launched into his set, an uplifting collision of danceable beats and catchy hip-hop hooks punctuated by the occasional shout-out to “believing in yourself” and “following your dreams.” A deaf guitarist accompanied him, carving an angular, hard-rock edge into the backbeat groove with tube-driven power chords and keening solos.
The crowd was a mix of the deaf and hearing. To make his music user-friendly for all, Forbes vocalizes and signs his lyrics simultaneously, while an LCD screen flashes animated lyrics and capering cartoon graphics in the background.
“His whole goal is to make his music as accessible as possible for everybody,” says Jake Bass, Forbes’s longtime producer. Forbes raps in a slight deaf tenor, but his lyrics are clear and forceful, and he commands the stage with his contagious energy and sure-footed swagger. The backbone of his music is a volcanic bass line that shakes the room and makes your flesh tingle.
More important, it’s something that deaf people can hear.
The deaf hear by sensing vibrations through their skin, which triggers activity in the brain that closely resembles hearing. Imaging studies have shown that deaf people, particularly those who lose their hearing early on — such as Forbes, who went deaf at 9 months, following a bout of spinal meningitis — process tactile sensations in the region of the brain that normally governs hearing.
This canny bit of neural legerdemain, where one major brain region takes over for another, is called cross-modal plasticity. Once thought impossible, we now know that it commonly occurs in the brains of those who lose one or more senses at an early age. Braille-reading and other tactile tasks, for instance, activate the visual cortex in blind subjects, as if they were seeing with their fingers.
“Deafness does not mean that you can’t hear, only that there is something wrong with the ears,” writes Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie in her “Hearing Essay.”
Glennie, deaf since age 8, writes eloquently of being able to distinguish pitches based on where on her body she feels the vibrations: “The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet, and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest.”
Hip-hop, with its punchy, earth-moving beats, is an ideal form of music for the deaf, because it’s easily felt.
“The decibel vibration for a violin is very small, but for a bass beat or even a hook, you’ll be able to feel those notes and differentiate them, especially at a concert venue where they have huge speakers,” says Holly Maniatty, a non-deaf American Sign Language interpreter who specializes in translating rap songs into sign language. She has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Kanye West, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay Z and Public Enemy. “The vibrations are more amplified, so it becomes much more accessible.”
Rap is also an innately gestural form. Rappers are known for their kinetic, often combative hand motions, which resemble by turns a dance and a kind of martial art. But in deaf rap, the hands don’t just dance, they also sing. Sign language is a complex system of communication, with its own accents and inflections, idioms and dialects, capable of conveying endless shades of meaning. Many signers will tell you that there are things one can say in sign language that are beyond the reach of spoken words.
Forbes’s mesmerizing, rapid-fire signing has an impulse all its own that’s compelling to watch even if you don’t know what it means. His hands switch from ballistic spasms to soft curves, from smooth, laminar arcs to short, sharp chops, within the span of a single verse, ranging over a rich landscape of tones.
“When I sign rap music, I try to follow the beat with my body,” Forbes says. “I try to paint a picture with my hands. You really have to see me to get me.”
Forbes sums this up movingly in his deaf anthem “Watch These Hands,” which he played midway through this two-hour set:
Watch, watch, watch these hands
They can dance, they can sing
They can dance, they can . . .
Watch, watch, watch these hands
Then comes the emotional Verse 2 break:
Looked at your lips
And you ask what’s wrong with us
Why we rode the short bus
The short bus to school
I was fortunate enough
I made it out of Lahser High School
And then I made it out of R.I.T.
Most of the kids I rode the bus with never saw 15
I hope they’re looking down
I dedicate this song to them
I hope they’re looking down
I know that they’d be proud
After the show, I ask Forbes to elaborate on these lyrics.
“I rode the bus with kids from all different walks of life, kids with Down syndrome, autism, some were confined to wheelchairs,” he says. “I was able to drive a car, go to regular classes, and being with these kids really defined me and my outlook on life. There was this little girl that rode my bus. She was 9 years old but was still a baby physically in size, and I remember she passed away during the time I rode the bus with her. I remember going to her funeral. It was so sad to see that small little casket. I basically touch on that a little bit in the song, when I say ‘I hope they’re looking down, I know that they’d be proud.’ ”
But his catchiest song has to be an endearing valentine to comely ladies with hearing loss called “Def Deaf Girls” — a play on the vintage hip-hop superlative “def,” meaning cool or attractive:
She’s over the top so over the top
But I can’t stop, no I can’t stop
Something something something about the way she sounds
Her dB’s may be low but she’s ready to go
And shortly thereafter, over heavy drums, scratched hooks, and horn stabs:
They can’t hear the rain on the roof
But they know the difference between beer, wine and 100 proof
They can’t hear the train comin’ down the track
But when they’re riding in my car they love to hop in back
Here, an image of a convertible low-rider hopping on hydraulics lit up the screen.
“He’s so cute!” a woman dancing near the DJ called out. “We love you!”
Forbes was born into a musical family. His mother was a pianist, and his father and uncle played in a country-rock band called the Forbes Brothers. His uncle also worked as an audio engineer for a number of well-known Detroit artists, including Bob Seger and Anita Baker.
“We always had instruments in the house,” Forbes recalls. “I grew up watching shows and seeing firsthand what the business was like.”
Forbes showed an interest in music early on — and an uncanny sense of rhythm. “I would drum-beat on my thighs or on the dashboard of the car or whatever,” he says. “Whenever there was music, I was always following along with it.”
For his fifth birthday, Forbes’s parents bought him a drum set. “From that moment on, I wanted to be a rock star,” he says.
A child prodigy, Forbes was writing songs by age 10 and producing music videos on his parents’ VHS recorder. (Forbes is the only deaf member of his family, and the only one of three siblings to pursue a career in music.)
In 2005, he met composer and producer Jake Bass, son of Web Entertainment co-founder Jeff Bass. With his brother Mark, Jeff Bass produced Eminem’s first two albums and many of the “8 Mile” star’s subsequent hits.
The meeting led to a fruitful collaboration that has spawned more than 100 songs and six videos, with Sean writing the lyrics and Jake Bass the music.
“Everything just kind of gelled from there, and we just started cranking out tracks one after another,” Forbes says.
The first song they released was “I’m Deaf” — which caught fire online, clocking 650,000 views on YouTube. Their follow-up video, “Let’s Mambo,” in which Forbes is seen rapping in a white suit and dancing with Oscar winner and deaf icon Marlee Matlin — she approached Forbes on Twitter after reading an interview he gave on NPR — has been viewed more than 300,000 times.
The success of Forbes’s videos eventually led to a contract with Web Entertainment. “People were digging it, and they were like, ‘You’re on to something here,’ ” Forbes says. “They believed in what I was doing.”
When he’s not touring or laying down tracks, Forbes co-manages his nonprofit, the Deaf Professional Arts Network, or D-PAN, which produces videos featuring deaf musicians and translates popular songs into sign language.
But, on the whole, Forbes sees himself less as a deaf advocate than a liaison between two cultures.
“Some people think of me as a deaf rapper, but I like to think of myself as an entertainer,” he says. “There aren’t too many things hearing and deaf people can enjoy together. I’m one of those things.”
Indeed, Forbes is the first deaf hip-hop artist to attract a sizable nondeaf following. When he began touring in 2008, nearly all his fans were deaf; these days, his audiences are more or less equally divided between those who can hear and those who can’t.
“Sean has really broken through across different audiences, and I think that’s because the material we write is able to connect and resonate with everybody,” Jake Bass says. “This is something that’s just beginning. It will grow and get bigger, because it’s an inspiring story and something that needs to be shared. We need more stories like this. I mean, if a deaf guy can do music and write great songs, what’s stopping anybody else from doing what they want to do?”
Stone is a New York-based journalist and the author of “Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind.” Follow him on Twitter at @LatexNose.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when Sean Forbes was crowned outstanding hip-hop artist of the year at the Detroit Music Awards. It was in April 2013, not last April.