Hip-hop isn’t just a love language for deaf rapper Sean Forbes. He’s funneled that passion into American Sign Language for others in the deaf and hard of hearing community to enjoy music as much as he does.
Forbes has turned this mission into a lifelong advocacy and career, operating his nonprofit the Deaf Professional Artist Network (D-PAN) out of a Ferndale studio.
During the Super Bowl LVI halftime show on Sunday, Forbes was joined by fellow deaf rapper WAWA to offer an American Sign Language interpretation of the performance that included Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige and Detroit’s own Eminem (watch here).
It was a full circle moment for Forbes, who grew up in the local music scene and has followed Eminem’s career from the very beginning.
“These guys have been such a huge influence on me,” says Forbes. “They changed my life in so many more ways than I’ve ever imagined.”
You can watch Forbes interpret the Super Bowl halftime show using American Sign Language here. A full transcript, which has been edited for clarity and brevity, of his interview on CultureShift on WDET is below.
Listen: Sean Forbes talks about his journey to make music more accessible for the deaf community and how he found himself performing American Sign Language at the Super Bowl.
CS: Sean, tell me a little bit about your experience at the Super Bowl and how you ended up on the biggest musical stage of the year.
Sean Forbes: Around New Year’s Eve, I got a phone call from the National Association of the Deaf. And when I got the text message, I thought I was in trouble. And even at 40 years old, I’m still getting called into the principal’s office. So I got on Zoom with them and they said, are you ready for this? How would you like to come to L.A. to perform at the Super Bowl? You know, along with all of these guys, you will be providing the American Sign Language Interpretation of their performance. I was no question. I was already on the airplane before they even finished that sentence. For me, I have always been a fan of West Coast gangsta hip-hop. 30 years ago, when I saw Snoop and Dre on MTV for “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” that really started my passion for rap music. Because it spoke to me especially as a deaf person, the beats and the messaging and the way they delivered it … as a percussionist, as a drummer and as a person that was deaf, I felt like that was some of the most accessible music and those beats were always fire.
CS: It’s incredible for you to be on that stage and your story getting there is an incredible one, too. You’re known as a deaf rapper. For anyone that’s not familiar with Sean Forbes and what you do, introduce yourself to this audience about the waves that you’ve been making over the past couple of decades now.
Sean Forbes: I grew up with the Detroit music scene. My dad and my uncle were very instrumental in a lot of things with the Detroit music scene. My uncle was an audio engineer for Bob Seger. And, you know, my father and my uncle were in a country rock band called the Forbes Brothers. So, you know, my entire upbringing was around studios and bars and that rock ‘n roll kind of upbringing. So, you know, my entire life, I’ve always wanted to be in music. And as I just mentioned that rap music was always something that spoke to me, and, you know, my family was always like, what is that? Why are you listening to rap music? And, you know, it wasn’t until Dr. Dre signed Eminem and the success with Eminem that people started to take notice. And I think a big part of that is obviously the Detroit pride, you know, we take such pride in our musicians, you know, even sometimes when we disagree with them, we still take pride in their work and what they do. So, you know, I think that, you know, that door opening for Detroit was just really instrumental. And I had relationships with a lot of the people that were with Eminem in his early days, and a lot of people that still work with him to this day. So you know, it’s, it’s always been, you know, family in a lot of ways. You know, this, the Detroit music community is such a close-knit community that I heard from people in Jack White’s band. I heard from people in Kid Rock’s band. And I spent the entire week with the Shady camp. So, you know, it was just really full circle for me and a lot of ways growing up in the music scene. And, you know, being a rapper myself, you know, I’ve been blessed with so many opportunity to perform all over the world and, you know, to really bring music to the deaf community and that’s something that I’ve done to my nonprofit D-PAN (Deaf Professional Artist Network), which you can actually watch the Super Bowl halftime show front and center on our website (d-pan.org).
CS: You’ve done a lot of great work to highlight the deaf community. You often have to answer the question, “can they listen to music?” I mean, that’s a question you get all the time. There was actually a story that you told where you did an American Sign Language rendition of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. He saw the video and that was the first question he asked you. How do you answer that question?
Sean Forbes: Yeah. So yeah, I mean, it was crazy being in the room with Eminem at that time, because that was probably the second time I’d met him. And the first time that I really had a conversation with him about music access, and they actually have somebody around the studio that’s deaf, so like Eminem’s interaction with deaf people was very limited. So when he looked at me, and he was like, deaf people like music? And I was like, bro, a lot of people love you. A lot of deaf people love you. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends that liked music that were deaf or hard of hearing. In fact, my neighbor actually grew up across the street from another deaf guy. And he was actually the one that introduced me to like Tupac and Biggie. You know, during that time of my life, 94 / 95 / 96 up until both of them, unfortunately, passed away. We were always about that.
CS: So, what was that moment like to be able to talk to your hero and give him a view into what your life is like?
Sean Forbes: Since that moment, it’s really opened the doors to making music accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing community. … But everybody experiences music in different ways. Some people just want to hear a good beat and just dance along with it. For me, I’ve always been about lyrics because I’m a writer myself. I’ve always studied lyrics. So, obviously Eminem is a phenomenal lyricist, and being able to study that kind of stuff, and to present it to the deaf community exactly, you know, how it’s been portrayed. One time I signed the song “Kim” to my deaf friends, and they were shocked. Like, how crazy it was, then, they will say, “he did not just say that!” And that was like, oh, yeah, you said all that stuff, and they were like, Come on, give us more. And I would, I would sign all these songs that Eminem did. And then we just like, “why is he so popular?” The deaf community never really had access to what was relevant in the music community. So, it’s always been a personal goal of mine to provide that accessibility, and with my nonprofit D-PAN, we have worked with several different musicians. One of my favorite experiences is working with Jack White. We did a music video for “We’re Going To Be Friends” by the White Stripes. And Jack, at that time, the White Stripes, social media and everything wasn’t active, and Jack started posting this stuff, like, “check out D-PAN; they’ve made this song accessible in American Sign Language.” So it’s always been a goal over the years to partner with musicians and record labels to make music accessible. And this past week being in LA with obviously these legends that I’ve looked up to my entire life and to be there with them and to be there making the music accessible, I mean, what, what an extraordinary journey it’s been because their music was always the first music that I made accessible to my friends in college that were jamming out to their records. I’d be walking down the hallway, and I hear, you know, “Drug Ballad.” I’d be like what? These people are listening to Eminem? I’m from Detroit, and I don’t think people around the country realize like, how tight we are, the Detroit music community and how connected we are. And we have such a powerful little community here and it was nice to be able to feel that out in LA.
CS: It’s incredible to hear all that backstory and how important this music is, and then to arrive on that Super Bowl stage and be able to sign “Lose Yourself” as Eminem is performing it live behind you. Take me into what that felt like for you.
Sean Forbes: When I had that chance meeting with Eminem and his team back in 2005, I made a video of myself, a home video if you want to call it that, of myself signing “Lose Yourself.” And then I came down to the studio to 54 Sound and Eminem was there and everybody was in the room, and I was like, Oh, I did not expect to be showing a video of myself performing “Lose Yourself” and to be standing next to Eminem performing it. I mean, he was singing along to my video. So from 2005, you know, “Lose Yourself” has been a common theme. For me, every opportunity that has ever come my way, you know, you just have to seize the moment and grab it. And you know, that’s really what that song is about. And for me to be at the Super Bowl with him performing that? I’ll tell you, before I got to the Super Bowl, I was not sure what he was going to perform. People were saying he’s going to perform “Rap God.” He’s gonna perform “Godzilla.” And I’m like, Man, I’m gonna have to go take some martial arts classes to be able to provide access for this because I’d probably walk out of the Super Bowl with bruises all over my face from rapping that track so hard. But, when I heard that guitar riff for “Lose Yourself,” it felt like home because it was such a full circle moment. Because the first thing is when we got to the Super Bowl you were able to sit back and watch the whole performance. And of course, when 50 showed up … it was never, never announced that 50 was going to be there. So when 50 showed up, and I heard “In Da Club,” I looked at my people, and I was like, I got this one. I used to sign this jam all the time back in the day to all my friends at school, like, “go, go, go, go, go shorty, it’s your birthday.” That was my stuff, you know, these guys have been such a huge influence on me. And they changed my life in so many more ways than I’ve ever imagined, you know, the opportunity to actually meet Dr. Dre, too. I never in a million years thought I’d ever cross paths with him. Even though like, being part of the Eminem camp and everything, I just never thought that I would be able to go up to Dre and tell him thank you. Thank you, you have changed my life in so many more ways than you realize because, you know, having not discovered Eminem … a lot of these things that have happened in my life were directly impacted by Dre signing Eminem. All these opportunities that I’ve been afforded, and then the people around me that have supported my career, you know, so it was really very much a full circle moment with “Lose Yourself.”
CS: And it’s also clear that the more artists get introduced to you and something like your nonprofit, the Deaf Performing Arts Network, they’re becoming more aware of a need to make their music more accessible. Have you noticed kind of, just by becoming aware of what you’re doing that you’re pushing more artists to think about this and the accessibility of their music?
Sean Forbes: Exactly. And the whole week that we were there at the Super Bowl, we talked with every single artist about music access. We talked with 50 Cent about it. We talked with Dre and just everybody that we came across that was influential in the music business, we talked about music access. Eminem’s manager, Paul Rosenberg, came up to me and he was like, this is so awesome, that you’re here, that you’re doing this, it was really a Detroit moment right there, to be able to be there at the Super Bowl. Let’s just be real for a second. I never in a million years thought that Eminem would ever be at the Super Bowl. I mean, they would just never you could just never fathom that because the Super Bowl always went with safe acts, you know? All week, it was so hilarious because they kept doing things and I kept doing things because I was so used to performing these songs with all the F-bombs and all of the suggestive lyrics in there … and the fact that they were actually able to clean it up and to make this family friendly, so to speak. It was still very suggestive. I mean, obviously, you can’t censor the fact that every single Snoop and Dre song is about smoking weed. It is what it is, you know? It’s just really cool to be a part of that moment, to be in LA, to be a part of that whole thing that has really changed my life.
CS: So not only was this really the first time that hip-hop has been part of the halftime show at the Super Bowl, I’ve also read that this is the first time the NFL has incorporated sign language performances as part of the halftime program. But for some people that were watching the national broadcast, they may not have seen you doing the signing, because it was on the website. And I saw that you posted on Instagram, you know, that some people were a little upset about the lack of promotion, and the lack of inclusion that actually came over on the TV broadcast. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sean Forbes: Yeah. So every year the Super Bowl is hosted by a different network, which, you know, it’s problematic in a lot of ways, because when it comes to access, it’s often an afterthought. And, throughout the week, I’ll admit that I was pinching myself all week. And then of course there’s the other side of me that, you know, I’m a big advocate for access. And for me, I felt like NBC had done their job, by providing us on stream. Unfortunately, it was difficult for some people to get in there, because it required a cable subscription. I think that these things that have happened will just continue to push the conversation for inclusion. I mean, there were a lot of people there that were saying, I thought you were going to be on stage with them, and I’m like, OK, let me stop you for a second there, because, as you know, this is their moment. They have arrived. This is the first time hip-hop has ever been on the halftime show. It’s the first time they’ve ever had deaf rappers there as well. I represented my community. I came there to do the one job that I came there to do. And that was to deliver this performance in American Sign Language in the best way that I can, and I had a hell of a lot of fun doing it. You know, it’s just, people want it to be as easy as watching it on TV. And I don’t blame them for that, you know, it would have been awesome to have a picture in picture with WaWa and I right there on the screen, you know, that would have been awesome. But you know, I am grateful for this opportunity to be here. And I think that these are great conversation starters, the conversations that need to be had, you know, the networks and everything and, you know, my community, you know, we just want to be seen and you know, ASL is one of of the coolest languages in the world. And I really do feel that if people had seen it picture in picture they would have been out of their minds. Overall, I’m happy with what we got. And we got the opportunity to go there, we got the opportunity to network with people, you know, we could have not gone there at all. You know for the past several years I’ve made the Super Bowl accessible in my studio right here in Ferndale. We would always fly different deaf people to perform to the artist. We weren’t able to do that this year with the pandemic. Going from doing it here in Ferndale to actually going to the Super Bowl? That’s a huge step! It’s huge! Now, you know, the captions for it were awful. Captions in general are just awful. But you know, all these things are things that we need to focus on making better.