Sean Forbes had expected to experience this year’s Super Bowl like usual — in front of a television.
Then the deaf Detroit rapper got the electrifying phone call that promised a career milestone: The NFL wanted him for its upcoming Super Bowl LVI halftime show, performing alongside Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J. Blige in the 56-year-old game’s first-ever hip-hop extravaganza.
And so there Forbes will be Feb. 13 at L.A.’s SoFi Stadium, where he and fellow deaf rapper Warren (WaWa) Snipe will perform sign-language interpretations of the headliners’ music.
It’s the first time the NFL has incorporated sign-language performances as part of the halftime program. Their American Sign Language (ASL) renditions, what the NFL describes as an elevated accessibility experience, will be viewable at NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.
“The doors to accessibility are busted wide open with something like this,” Forbes said.
He can’t disclose much about the closely guarded halftime set, but he does know he’ll be accompanying the appearances of Eminem and Snoop. He heads to Los Angeles on Sunday for a week of rehearsals.
Onstage, Forbes and Wawa aren’t mere ASL interpreters. They’re full-on performers, spirited and expressive, lending the music their own creative flourishes and artistry.
Wawa has already made a Super Bowl mark, wowing audiences last February with his animated, elegant performance of the national anthem alongside Jazmine Sullivan and Eric Church, along with a rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
For Forbes, who turns 40 Saturday, there’s some poetic symmetry in joining Eminem at the Super Bowl. He has a long connection to the Detroit hip-hop star — a link that began with his father, who was close to some of the folks inside Em’s business and studio circles. Forbes was a regular at Ferndale’s 54 Sound studio, where Eminem cut much of his early work.
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“So this is very much a full-circle moment, being from Detroit, being part of the Eminem camp — or even going back to being 12 and listening to N.W.A., Dre and Snoop on my Walkman,” Forbes said.
At 54 Sound in 2005, he got the chance to show Eminem a video of his intense ASL interpretation of “Lose Yourself” — drawing a response Forbes often gets from hearing folks: “Deaf people like music?”
They do indeed, as Forbes has learned to explain, feeling the rhythm through bass vibrations and drawn to the lyricism of the words.
“That was purely Sean Forbes trying to find an opportunity in the music industry,” Forbes said. “I just wasn’t sure what that was yet.”
He went on to help launch the Deaf Performing Arts Network (DPAN), which made a specialty out of ASL interpretations of pop music hits and eventually made its way into news and information programming for the deaf.
As a solo artist, Forbes carved out a name as one of the most significant figures in the world of ASL performing, as he toured and collaborated with people such as actress Marlee Matlin. His 2020 album “Little Victories” topped the Amazon sales charts the week of release.
Since getting the call-up from the NFL at the top of the year, Forbes was sworn to secrecy ahead of the NFL’s pending announcement.
He chuckled to himself as friends texted the viral meme that sprang up when Matthew Stafford’s Los Angeles Rams secured their spot in the big game. With the ex-Lions quarterback on the field and Eminem playing halftime, the meme went, “this is the closest Detroit has ever been to actually being in a (Super Bowl).”
Forbes knew there was one more Detroiter who’d be in the mix.
He thinks back to being that 12-year-old rap fan, realizing that never in his wildest dreams could he imagine he’d be performing in the Super Bowl’s first hip-hop halftime show.
“My goal is to get out there, show what we can do, and have fun,” Forbes said. “And I want to open the door for other deaf performers.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]