Sign Of The Times

Sean Forbes is like many mid-twenties males; black T-shirt, spikey hair, loves music and plays the drums. When he says goodbye shortly after our first introduction, he gets into his car, rolls down the windows and leaves the parking lot with music bumping so loud he could be cited for noise pollution. Which might seem odd for anyone who knows him because Sean is deaf.

As one of the co-founders of the Ferndale -based non-profit organization D-PAN (Deaf Performing Artists Network), Sean is clearly an exceptional young man. Not just because he’s deaf, yet able to speak impeccably, or even because he’s a rapper. It’s because of his dedication to bridging the gap between the hearing and deaf worlds via music videos. Sean wants people know that music can be for everyone; not just the hearing. And from that mission D-PAN was born.

Music to his hands

With over 30 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the country, it was a shocking revelation to discover that until Sean’s organization came along, there was no society for deaf performers. Loosely formed in 2006, D-PAN’s initial foray into building a network for deaf performers was to re-make popular music videos using ASL (American Sign Language) performers to sign the lyrics.

Gradually building their connections within the music and entertainment industry, the videos are just the beginning of D-PAN’s plans for the future. As a non-profit organization, they are in the process of setting up an Education Affiliate Program for schools, and attracting business sponsors to keep the charitable organization growing. 

D-PAN was co-founded by 26-year-old Sean, (son of The Forbes Brothers’ Scott Forbes), Joel Martin (co-owner of Web Entertainment and 54 Sound), Scott Guy (a true music industry veteran) and Ronald Dans (A deaf ASL teacher). A few years ago, while attending Rochester Institute of Technology in New York (with roughly 2,000 deaf students), Sean came up with the idea of making ASL music videos, and knew that Martin was the perfect partner and connection. He created a relationship with Joel via email and inundated him with questions about what a deaf person like himself could do to break into the music industry.

“I emailed him constantly,” Sean says of his early contacts with Joel. “I bugged the shit out him. I was asking him, ‘What could I do? Should I go into this? Could I do something in this field?’ I couldn’t really grasp what I wanted.”

A deaf performer himself, the initial idea of D-PAN came to Sean when he was on a road trip with friends. Sean was the car DJ; playing songs by Usher, Hank Williams, whatever he could find. During the ride, his friends asked Sean to sign every song that came on. It hit him; “I was like, why couldn’t I make a music video, doing somebody else’s songs? I felt by doing that first, we’d be able to open doors for artists like myself.”

When Sean got back to school he and a cinematographer friend filmed their own ASL music video. Sean took Eminem’s hit song Lose Yourself,” and used ASL (as well as singing at the same time; known as simcom) in an interpretative performance. Returning to Michigan with DVD in hand he played it for the big wigs at 54 Sound. Immediately, Joel and company knew that Sean’s concept had great potential.

“I knew it was going to take someone like him [Joel] that has the experience, with a deaf brother-in-law, seeing what he goes through every day,” Sean says of Joel. “So I knew that it was in his heart to help the community.”

A common language

Music is unquestionably a huge part of today’s youth culture. For a deaf teen to be able to enjoy the same popular music as his or her peers could  be a bridge toward social acceptance. In 2006, D-PAN officially launched with an Internet video release of the ASL version of Fort Minor‘s “Where’d You Go?” If you compare the original video with D-PAN’s; it’s an almost flawless reproduction, made even more meaningful with ASL (a beautiful language on its own).

“For me, the idea for the first video was to try to get as wide of an audience as we could,” Sean says. “I wanted deaf people to be able to enjoy this, hard of hearing people who may not know sign language who maybe rely on lip reading more… I wanted to try and find that perfect balance.”

The video, (only available on or YouTube, due to legal restrictions) is an ideal example of what D-PAN can do. The Internet response to the video was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. In July, D-PAN released their first DVD, which included ASL videos for Christina Aguilera’sBeautiful,” John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” and, of course, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (in which Sean stars), along with homemade “community videos” produced by fans and supporters.

Music in his bones

At nine months old, Sean lost his hearing due to spinal meningitis. Able to hear some lower frequency sounds, it wasn’t until he was 12 that he first learned ASL.  A student at Bloomfield Hills’ Lahser High School, he was one of roughly 40 other deaf students bussed in from around Oakland County.

“We had to ride the special bus to school. The short one. It was cool,” Sean jokes about the short bus. Unlike most of his deaf peers, however, he grew up with music constantly around him. He started playing drums at five and hung out with friends of his dad’s like Mitch Ryder and drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek.

Though school speech therapy played a role, Sean credits his mom for his ability to read lips and speak so well.

“She worked with me constantly … and being in the public schools was good for me because I was able to have the deaf classroom, but I was also able to go out to the mainstream classes,” Sean recalls. “I had both and I think that was really good for me.”

One of the ways Sean’s mother helped him learn to speak was on family drives up north. With Sean upfront beside her, she played everything from Huey Lewis and the News to the Rolling Stones, singing along, making sure Sean could see her lips and  follow along.

“I would learn all the lyrics to the song while she was driving,” he recalls.” “But the thing that probably drove her crazy was that I would keep playing it [the same song] over and over again,” Sean chuckles.

Today Sean performs as a rapper, speaks at ASL conferences about D-PAN and, most recently, obsesses about James Brown and Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass.

The future sounds good

The July release of D-PAN’s first DVD came out with no publicity, just word of mouth and Internet feedback aplenty. The songs chosen for the videos–filmed by Lucky Airlines and Chrome Bumper Films –were picked not only because Joel and Scott had connections, but because those songs have a strong/moving message on their own.

“We certainly thought for the first step we needed to come out of the box strong,” Sean says. When you add ASL to the mix, songs can take on an even deeper meaning. Deaf performers came by the dozens to audition for the D-PAN videos. For most of them, it was their first time being part of the entertainment industry, let alone music. 

“I want to be able to go to and see rock songs, country songs, all different kinds of songs,” Sean enthuses of D-PAN’s current future goals.

The idea of ASL music videos is a little abstract at first, and some people are unsure of what it is, or even why it is. But once you see the videos it’s hard not to understand how D-PAN could change millions of people’s lives via a three minute song. It’s a valuable and emotional environment for a significant number of people who have waited their entire lives to feel part of American music culture.

“In the future we could get into so many different things,” Sean confirms. “My goal is to create opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing performers, directors, cinematographers, graphic design artists…. I see it developing relationships with hearing people, which doesn’t happen that much. Just like me working with Joel and Scott; I would love to have those opportunities for other deaf people.”

With 30 million people, who have literally been waiting on the world to change, prospects look good for Joel’s dream and D-Pan’s continued success. 

Shannon McCarthy is a Detroit-based  freelance writer. She has written for, Eye Weekly (Toronto), Metro Times (Detroit) and Under the Radar. Her previous article for Metromode was Ready, Set, Print.