Musical legends join forces for the Deaf and Loud Experience.
Julie Edgar Contributing Writer
Rapper Sean Forbes and two other deaf performers will share the stage with the DSO at Orchestra Hall Dec. 16 for a performance of Motown and other Detroit-centric music that is bound to be as profound as it will be unusual.
Forbes, Grammy-winning percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and Mandy Harvey, a finalist on America’s Got Talent in 2017, will perform in the “Deaf and Loud Experience,” which might be the first-ever to feature deaf musicians. Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), who is deaf (and Jewish), will be on hand, along with an array of local musicians, including Jake Bass of Berkley, Forbes’ songwriting partner and son of Oak Park-native Jeff Bass of the famed Bass Brothers, also known as the Funky Bass Team (FBT, the producers who groomed and signed Eminem). Simon Cowell, creator of America’s Got Talent, is a main sponsor of the show, along with the Motown Museum, which is bringing in Detroit music legend Paul Riser to arrange a set of Motown classics.
How do deaf musicians “hear” what they play? And how do deaf and hard of hearing people receive music? The answer, as delivered by the Deaf and Loud Experience, includes sign language, captioning, vibrations, pitch, rhythm and a lot of heart.
“You’ll see beautiful music in a way the artist expressed it,” says Forbes, 36, of Royal Oak. Forbes is a hip-hop artist who has made pop music accessible to the deaf community through his music videos, recordings and the recently launched web-based American Sign Language channel he runs, DPAN.TV.
The genesis of the DSO show began with a 2015 Washington Post story on Forbes, who had recorded an album, Perfect Imperfection, and worked himself into a career as head of D-PAN (Deaf Professional Arts Network), a Detroit-based nonprofit founded in 2006 by Joel Bacow — manager of FBT — of Huntington Woods. The concert will benefit the organization, created to make music and culture accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
Glennie, a Scotland native who lost her hearing at age 12, saw the article and contacted Forbes, inviting him and Jake Bass to London, where the three jammed together. She was intrigued by Detroit and its rich musical legacy and suggested they make it official and perform live with the DSO, an orchestra she has worked with. Bacow, a longtime music producer in Detroit who launched Eminem’s career, helped make it happen.
After watching Harvey perform — and come in fourth place on America’s Got Talent — the three reached out and invited her to perform with them on Dec. 16. Harvey was hard of hearing until she lost her hearing at age 18.
“This is the first foray into a full immersion for a deaf person as it relates to the whole picture at a concert,” Bacow says. “It’s the only way a deaf person can understand what is going on, as far as lyrics. Evelyn reads lips. Mandy was excited to participate in this because Evelyn is one of the greatest musicians in the world, who happens to be deaf. It puts a spotlight on diversity and inclusion by adding sign language to this concert.”
Bacow (cousin of Harvard’s new president, Lawrence Bacow), 61, runs 54 Studio in Ferndale, where Eminem recorded and where Forbes visited more than a dozen years ago years ago with the hope of meeting the rapper. He had memorized Eminem’s signature hit, “Lose Yourself,” and performed it for the artist, who was impressed.
Bacow was familiar with the deaf community because his brother-in-law is deaf, but he hadn’t been initiated into the ideological perspectives on deaf communication. He learned that closed captions are inadequate, that many deaf people are taught “oralism,” or how to speak, but that American Sign Language (ASL) is the most complete way of “talking” because it is a rich language capable of conveying all that language conveys — except sound.
With Forbes, Bacow saw the potential for signed music to reach bigger audiences. Early on, he helped Forbes record and post music videos online, all of them translated into sign language. The reception was amazing, leading Bacow to start DPAN.TV out of the studio. News and other information was eventually added to the mix, and today the channel has more than 100,000 subscribers.
One of the viewers of the early videos was Marlee Matlin, who loved what she saw and contacted Forbes. Their collaboration led to a music video called “Let’s Mambo.” Coincidentally, Matlin and Forbes’ wife, Joanne (director of OCC’s Sign Language Studies program), went to the same high school in Chicago. The Forbes have a 3-year-old daughter and another child on the way.
Bass, who was hanging around the studio with his dad and creating his own music when Forbes arrived on the scene, started writing and recording with Forbes. The pair went on tour to promote “Perfect Imperfection,” stopping in Israel for two weeks at the invitation of the U.S. State Department. Forbes is not Jewish, but he found the place enchanting. Bass found it “electric.”
“I felt connected to a place I’d never been. I felt so comfortable. We performed at an outside festival that was off the Mediterranean. To the right of me was the sea; to the left was sand and buildings in Tel Aviv. It was a spiritual experience,” says Bass, 28, who runs Bassment Sounds 2.0. He and his wife (and baby) are members of Temple Shir Shalom.
The concert is a first for him, along with Forbes. Bass has been composing and arranging for the 60-piece orchestra and rhythm section, hiring vocalists and a DJ who will be on hand for a “silent disco” following the show. Participants will listen to the same music through headphones, an experience aimed at inviting hearing people into the deaf world.
“I was passionate about this project and I wanted to achieve this with Sean,” his “partner in rhyme,” Bass says. “The whole point of this is to show the world what you can do and achieve no matter what. It’s on a major level — we’re having the three most distinctive deaf artists in the world.”
Adds Forbes, “I want people to experience music the way I’ve always presented it — performing it in American Sign Language, with visual lyrics behind me, and of course, loud and fun,” the rapper said. “And I also get to do this in my hometown, with the famed DSO, and on stage with legends and dames.”
The Deaf and Loud Experience will be performed, followed by a Silent Disco, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16, at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall. DSO.org.
The concert will benefit D-PAN.