Today Shawn Dale Barnett participates in deaf-related events and he teaches music in various schools for the deaf, helping the students understand vibrations and rhythm. He talks with them about his career experiences, his family and lifestyle, and learning to live in a hearing world. He continues to provide an appreciation of music to the deaf community.
Barnett was born totally deaf in 1963 and spent his early years in Leavenworth, Kansas. At the age of six months, several tumors were removed from his left arm. Part of the damage was permanent, so the arm retained some weakness. It did not, however, hinder his ability to grasp a drumstick. Very early in Barnett's life, it became obvious that he could sense musical sounds. When he was five, he started to play a drum. His family was amazed at his ability to "keep time." As he put it, "I had a natural rhythm."
One of Barnett's friends was a future musical idol: Melissa Etheridge. The two of them frequently talked about their destiny in show business and how they "dreamed of making it big."
While he was attending Kansas School for the Deaf at Olathe, Barnett was discouraged from pursuing his dreams in music. When he tried to tell classmates about his drumming, he was ridiculed and physically beaten. Just before his graduation in 1981, he was able to convince them. At a local bar called "Clown," Barnett bet some K.S.D. students $20 that he could play the drums with the house band. The leader agreed to let Barnett "sit in," and he "rocked the house!" He walked away with $20 and the strong belief that he could make a living playing the drums. From that time on, he considered himself a "professional."
Having been rejected by his peers, Barnett entered the hearing world never mentioning his deafness unless asked directly. His life has had its ups and downs, its triumphs and its tragedies. Barnett puts it this way: "Being a deaf man in the rock music industry isn't easy." However, he proceeded to " ...shatter myths about deaf musicians ..."
Shortly after his K.S.D. graduation, Barnett lost his one-year-old daughter from S.I.D. (Sudden Infant Death) Syndrome. This incident was later the inspiration for "My Baby, My Child," one of the songs he has written. (He composes lyrics.)
A trip to Hollywood in 1983 with his band (including his brother Steven Todd Barnett) began a six-month period of "living on the streets" and "growing up fast." Then he "hooked up" with the band that evolved into today's "Alice-in-Chains" and went on tour, opening for such groups as "REO Speedwagon," "Skid Row," "Warrunt," "White Lion," and "L A Guns."
In 1987 Barnett wrote a song, "Leave the Light On," which was recorded by Belinda Carlisle. It eventually climbed to the Number 7 spot on "Billboard's Top Ten" list.
Barnett returned to Kansas and established his own business: S.D.B. Entertainment. This year he released his first five-song EP: "Silents in Black N' White (Music from the Soul of A Deaf Man)." His brother took part also, playing guitar and providing vocals. Contained in this EP were three drum solos plus the following songs written by Barnett "Bury Me in the Sand" (about Barnett's loneliness at school); and "Rosemary's Garden" (about Rosemary Kennedy, the mentally retarded sister of President John Kennedy).
According to Barnett, he wrote the latter song after reading an article about the "forgotten" Kennedy. Trying to imagine her in the White House Rose Garden, he pictured her mentally as " .. a lonely figure roaming ... in a white dress ..." Barnett felt a connection to Miss Kennedy because " ... there is ... a stigma that being deaf is like being retarded ..." This song was also released as a single and sold 25,000 copies on the Internet.
Barnett has performed in all 50 states and in five foreign countries.
At one time or another, Barnett has played various kinds of music: rock; country; pop; blues; classical; rap; alternative. He has developed sounds that have been labeled "deaf music." This is performed with drums only, along with visual effects.
Over the past four years Barnett has concentrated on his own culture, " ... reconnecting with the deaf community ... " Last year he presented his one-man show to more than 200,000 people, was featured in newspaper stories, and appeared on television programs for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
Barnett is available to perform at events to attended by deaf music fans where he plays and provides free balloons, loudspeakers, smoke, flashing lights, and "pyros" (flash pots and firecrackers)
The depth of Barnett's feeling about his music is reflected in these personal statements: "The drummer is the keeper of the rhythm of society's hearts!" As encouragement to young deaf performers, he said: "We can't hear what the critics are saying, anyway!"