Category Archives: musical ASL interpretation for the deaf

The SNL Sign Language Mime and More ASL in Music

SIA-SNL-sia-chandelier-ASL-sign-language-1Last weekend, singer/songwriter Sia was accompanied by a noteworthy performer as she sang her hit “Chandelier” on Saturday Night Live. With his face painted white like a mime, the visual performer used a mix of expressive American Sign Language and interpretive gestures to bring Sia’s words to life. On one hand, it is refreshing to see musical interpreting on a show that has such a wide audience. But on the other hand, perhaps there are more inclusionary and culturally competent ways to incorporate elements of Deaf culture into pop music.

asl-in-music-depp-portman-2There is a fine line between showcasing the beauty of ASL, and utilizing sign language as a gimmick. Hearing artists often toe this line without even considering the opportunities that exist for better collaboration. To give an example, there was a bit of controversy surrounding the use of ASL in Paul McCartney’s “My Valentine” video. The simplistic black and white video features Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman, neither of whom are native ASL users, each facing the camera and signing lyrics. Deaf individuals were quick to notice a number of errors in the actors’ signing– including both Portman and Depp appearing to interpret “tampon” instead of “appear.” (Whoops!)

asl-in-music-paul-mccartney-3How did the music video for a world renowned artist, starring famous actors, get released with these fairly simple mistakes? In the end, accuracy took a back seat to aesthetics because McCartney’s video was not really intended to provide deaf people with access to his music. The use of ASL was merely an “artistic” choice; it was used to entertain hearing audiences.

asl-in-music-signmarkIf musicians want to truly connect with the Deaf community, there are plenty of ways to incorporate in Deaf voices into their work. Instead of hiring actors who are not fluent in the language to do ASL interpretation, creative directors could seek out some of the many talented deaf performers who are working hard to make a name for themselves.

asl-in-music-5First off, there are some truly incredible Deaf music artists out there. If a hearing performer wants to challenge themselves to be more inclusive, working with a deaf musician could be an enlightening experience. SignMark is a deaf Finnish rapper who signs his lyrics and tours with a vocal interpreter. In 2009, he became the first deaf person to sign a recording contract with an international record company. Sean Forbes is a deaf hip hop artist from Detroit, and the co-founder of the Deaf Professional Artists Network (D-PAN) which was created to “make asl-in-music-robbie-wilde-6music more accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.” D-PAN produces ASL music videos for popular songs, and works to connect deaf artists from all walks of life. Hearing musicians could learn a thing or two from people like percussionist Evelyn Glennie, That Deaf DJ Robbie Wilde, and deaf Jazz singer Mandy Harvey– people who never let deafness hold them back from pursuing their passions.

asl-in-music-7Music artists can work with deaf dancers, as Jamie xx did for his music video “Sleep Sound”. This approach underscores the fact that music can be unifying, yet everyone enjoys it their own unique way. British singer Ed Sheeran asked CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) actor Matthew Morgan to sign the lyrics for his music video “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” in British Sign Language. For lyrical artists, making your music videos or live performances deaf friendly is a great way to expand your audience.

asl-in-music-siaSign language is a cornerstone of Deaf culture, and deaf individuals are very proud of their silent communication. It’s likely Sia was well-intentioned when she had her interpreter dress as a mime, but any message of deaf empowerment becomes a bit muddied when presented with this deaf/mute stereotype. Her performance on SNL was not the first time Sia incorporated sign language into her music. In 2008, her video for “Soon We’ll Be Found” featured Sia, as well as a group of performers, using ASL, shadow puppets, and interpretive dance. According to the artist, “I’ve always been obsessed with the beauty of sign language… The real beauty is the communication hidden within these perfect shapes.”

SIA-SNL-sia-chandelier-ASL-mime-9ASL is visually captivating, so it’s no wonder hearing artists are fascinated by this deeply expressive language. It is important, however, for these performers to remember that ASL is a legitimate language, complete with a distinct vocabulary and set of grammar rules. American Sign Language is not arbitrary hand waving– each gesture, facial expression, and classifier impacts the overall meaning. The best way to ensure a performance is culturally competent, respectful, and tactful is to consult with deaf parties directly about their language and expectations.

Musical interpreting is a nuanced process that requires an intimate knowledge of the language. Deaf people who use ASL rely on a full interpretation; this means if you are truly creating for deaf audiences, ASL is not optional based on the whim of the artistic director, and it can’t be “close enough.” Consulting deaf people on set, behind the scenes, and throughout the creative process helps amplify deaf voices in mainstream media. Collaborating with deaf performers and artists opens the door for education and cultural understanding.

Music Without Sound

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On December 28, Madison Square Garden was a sea of colorful tie-dye, flashing LED lights, and smiling faces. The crowd energy in the sold out venue reached a frenzy when the house lights went down, and rock band Phish took the stage. As Phish pulsated the building with their signature jams, their renowned lighting director illuminated the arena perfectly in sync with the music. The audience swayed, spun, and reacted to the antics on stage– including a profoundly Deaf fan who I had the privilege of interpreting for.

Music is for everyone!

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One of the most common misconceptions about deafness is that Deaf people can’t enjoy music. This is absolutely not true. Music is for everyone! Music embodies joy, pain, love, or heartbreak. Music comes from within the heart of the artist, and resonates with the souls of the audience. Each of us may have a different connection to a song, yet we can still enjoy it together. Deaf people are able to appreciate music because it’s not really about hearing; it is about sharing an experience.

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At a concert, Deaf fans use their other heightened senses to enjoy the crowd, the lights, the energy, the visual performance, and bass vibrations. When provided an interpreter, Deaf audience members can also be involved in the lyrical aspects of the concert. Interpreting at Phish was one of the most fun moments of my career; sharing the excitement of the performance with another fan felt so natural. Over the past few years, musical interpreting has gained quite a bit of attention. Barbie Parker has become well known for her emotionally-charged work at Lollapalooza, and other interpreters have been praised for their interesting interpretations of rap performances. Finally, music festivals like Bonnaroo, venues like Madison Square Garden, and performers like Bruce Springsteen have come to recognize that quality interpreters make or break a Deaf concert goers’ experience.

deaf-people-in-music-4Deaf people can also be incredible musicians! Sean Forbes, co-founder of the Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN), is a well-known deaf hip-hop artist who both raps and signs his lyrics. Forbes brings a vibrating dance floor to each show so fans can actually feel the music, colorful lights to set the mood, and his lyrics are projected onto screens for a truly all-inclusive performance. Another performer paving the way is DJ Robbie Wilde, AKA “That Deaf DJ.” With the help of a computer software which differentiates waveforms, Wilde produces music using his vision and the vibrations of the bass. Someone at Hewlett-Packard even took note of Wilde’s impressive skills, and they featured him in a commercial for one of their products! Deaf rap artist Signmark takes a slightly different approach to music by expressively signing his entire performance while a vocal interpreter raps the lyrics. The vocalist is actually part of the “band,” but it is Signmark who commands the show, signing the words to each song in his own emotional style. And these are only a few of the many amazing Deaf musicians who have adapted music to fit their lives.

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It is believed in Eastern religion that Om– the simple yet deeply primal chant you may be familiar with from yoga– allows the body to come into connection with the vibration of life on this planet. The widespread use of this mantra makes a powerful statement about the belief that physical vibrations connect us. Music is a part of social bonding; allowing us to share something familiar, yet deeply personal. I find it tragic that deaf people should ever feel excluded from such an integral part of the human experience. No deaf individual should think that music is not for them just because they can’t hear. I’ll say it again: Music is for EVERYONE!

If you are deaf or HoH and would like attend a concert, simply notify the venue in advance to receive accommodation. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires arenas to provide deaf patrons with an interpreter so that they may fully experience the event.

If you are in the greater NYC area and would like to request my services for an event, please do not hesitate to contact me for more information!

ASL Interpreters: United We Stand

Thanks to social media, pop culture now spreads more quickly than it ever has before. When video of one interpreter’s incredible ASL interpretations of Wu Tang Clan went viral, I was reminded of what a mixed emotional experience it is when interpreters become memes.

asl-deaf-interpretation-wu-tang-clanIt is wonderful to see passionate interpreters out there serving the deaf community, and a rush of mainstream attention opens up proactive dialogue about Deaf culture. As interpreters become more visible, they become less of a “novelty” to the hearing community, and our society moves toward further integration. Unfortunately, sometimes within that dialogue, focus shifts away from deaf consumers and on to detailed critiques of the terps job performance. In my own experience, the opinions which cut deepest on every blog and forum come from those within the profession. Public criticism of other interpreters is discouraging, unprofessional, and does a major disservice to all parties involved.

asl-musical-interpretation-for-weddingWhen you are an interpreter, you go to work every day knowing that you are likely to be part of something important. You could be interpreting a speech, a wedding, or a job interview. Platform interpreting (that is, interpreting for a performance or public figure) is a whole different challenge, and it should not be something interpreters are reluctant to take on because they are afraid of their delivery being dissected detail by detail. When we are judging and picking other interpreters apart, we’re forgetting the consumer. If an interpreter feels qualified enough to take the job, and they succeed at what they were hired to do; being overly-critical on the internet accomplishes very little.

lydia-callis-mayor-bloomberg-asl-interpreterAs I have mentioned previously  I strongly believe that interpreters require constant peer evaluation to continue evolving. Tearing another interpreter down in a public forum is counterproductive to these efforts. Those within the profession should be well aware of the vulnerability and nervousness one feels before interpreting in front of cameras or a crowd. As discussed on Street Leverage, the increased presence of cameras and social media at events has created an atmosphere where qualified interpreters are turning down prospects because they afraid of ridicule. We need to stop fearing vulnerability and begin appreciating that quality in each other– it will take a concentrated effort on the part of the interpreting community to do so.

asl-musical-interpretations-deafAt the end of the day, interpreters need to remember we are blessed with the opportunity to serve the Deaf community in a unique way. We should be working together, not against one another. Whether we are novice or veteran terps; whether we are deaf, CODAs, or hearing; we are all here to provide and promote equal access for the Deaf community.When done in a respectful and private manner, constructive criticism can lead to improved service, and professional growth. If entertainment interpreters are the catalyst to social change, exposing hearing people to deaf culture, I think the interpreting community has a responsibility to unify.