If the idea of a night of music played by, and for, those who can’t hear it might raise eyebrows, it proved to be both possible and successful on Sunday (Dec. 16) night in Detroit.
The Deaf and Loud Concert Experience was the first event of its kind, ever — a collaboration between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Deaf Professional Arts Network, which for 12 years has been dedicated to making music accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired. Over the course of just over two hours and 21 songs, it was, as world-class deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie noted, “a classic example of true inclusiveness” and a model for how music can be made accessible to the hearing impaired, without condescension, and also be relevant, and resonant, to an audience that can hear it.
“I’ve never been to a symphonic show,” D-PAN co-founder and rapper Sean Forbes, told Billboard. “As an artist, it is my goal to see how we can create something fresh by merging ideas together. So for me it wasn’t just the symphonic infusion with hip-hop and rap, or vice versa — it was more about how can we create an immersive experience for everyone.”
With a repertoire that combined originals by Forbes and America’s Got Talent finalist Mandy Harvey, with Motown classics and other Detroit favorites — Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Funkadelic’s “Hit It and Quit It” — Deaf and Loud was fortified by an impressive cast of additional musicians. Motown veteran Martha Reeves made a surprise appearance to sing “Dancing in the Street,” while Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey played on several songs. Early Eminem producer Jeff Bass, whose son Jake did most of the arrangements for the 60 piece orchestra, shredded a guitar solo at the end of “Lose Yourself,” and Was (Not Was) keyboardist and the song’s co-writer Luis Resto played piano on that and “Seven Nation Army.”
They were joined by a cadre of American Sign Language performers who conveyed the songs’ lyrics and melodic feels — with genuine stage presence and style — for the crowd. The lyrics as well as close-captioned remarks were also captured on video screens above the stage.
“It’s all about making something for everyone to enjoy,” Jake Bass said. “This has never been done for the deaf community before. They’ve never had something to go to (an orchestral concert) and experience and fully understand, from start to finish.”
Deaf and Loud was inspired when Glennie was referenced in a Washington Post story about D-PAN three years ago. The British virtuoso reached out to Forbes, and he and Bass visited her in Vermont while she was performing there. “During the meeting she mentioned wanting to do something with hip-hop and rap and how she liked Eminem, and wanted to know if we knew or liked that kind of music,” Forbes said. He and Bass subsequently flew to London, where they honed the idea further with Glennie.
Forbes acknowledged during Sunday’s show that the whole thing seemed “far-fetched,” but there was no question it worked. “It’s not just that there were deaf musicians on stage proving that deaf can,” Harvey, who will be releasing her fourth album next spring, said. “It’s welcoming a community aspect with the world to say that we bleed together, we grow together, we are one and music is all in us and we all express it differently, that’s all.”
Forbes noted that the goal is to take Deaf and Loud “all over the world, to play these songs people know with sign language and accessibility.” He’s already received inquiries from other parties, and Glennie said she’s definitely game to keep it going. “From tonight we can learn a lot — what worked, what can be tightened up structure-wise and whatever else,” she said. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter what kind of music is being played; If it’s played to a good standard, then it’s open to everybody and it belongs to every kind of venue.”