Black sign language interpreters are fighting for visibility in hip-hop both on and offline.
Before he worked with Chance the Rapper, Matthew Maxey just wanted to make underground rap music more accessible. A deaf metro Atlanta native with a deep love of music, Maxey said he didn’t really learn sign language until he attended college at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.
“I was like, ‘What if I combined sign language with music and used that as my way to start learning?’” he said.
From there, Maxey began posting online videos of himself interpreting music from popular mixtape libraries like DatPiff, unaware that this would transform into a career for himself.
Today, Maxey is one of the most prominent Black hip-hop interpreters in the deaf and hard of hearing community. He’s the founder of Deafinitely Dope, a company that provides interpreting, consulting and other services, and has toured with artists as an interpreter. In 2017, he toured with Chance during the Be Encouraged Tour. The Chicago rapper allotted 50 free tickets to the deaf and hard of hearing community during each stop on the tour.
Maxey received a lot of national press for this work, and received shoutouts from Chance online for teaching the rapper how to perform songs like “Blessings (Reprise)” in sign language. However, he said the recognition he’s received isn’t commonplace within the deaf or hearing communities, though. Even within the world of hip-hop, interpreters are often white. A quick google search of “interpreters at rap concerts” will yield results that showcase mostly white women “stealing the show” — as news reports tend to describe them as — as they perform alongside the likes of Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Twista, and Eminem.
Black interpreters like Maxey shared that they worry the cultural meanings of rap songs can get lost in translation based on who is working as an interpreter. For example, during a Zoom interview, Maxey used the word “drip” to show how the term could easily be misconstrued by a sign language interpreter who only knows its traditional meaning.
American Sign Language for drip would involve flexing your index finger repeatedly in a downward motion. Of course, rappers like Gunna aren’t referring to the flow of liquid when they use the word in their songs. So, using this sign would mean the deaf and hard of hearing community relying on this interpretation would be missing out on the cultural meaning assigned to the word. Instead, Maxey signs “drip” as it’s used today in hip-hop by rubbing his shoulders and chest, as if he’s showing off an impressive look.
This distinction is just one of several examples he uses to showcase why it’s not just important to increase the presence of interpreters in hip-hop, but to also be intentional in hiring Black people for the job.
“A lot of the culture is so natural for us,” he said. “We automatically understand it.”
Although viral posts from Black deaf and hard of hearing content creators in the age of Black Lives Matter have given increased attention to the importance of representation and accessibility, this certainly isn’t a new discussion.
Participating in a Zoom interview with the help of an interpreter, Joseph Hill, an associate professor whose work at Rochester Institute of Technology focuses on ASL and interpreting education, offered some helpful context for understanding Black ASL, and why the lack of Black interpreters can be so frustrating. ASL, he said, was created in Connecticut at the first American school for the deaf. During segregation, Black children attended different schools and would often incorporate the signs they learned from home.
“Each state had [some] kind of regional differences until many years later when integration happened,” Hill said, adding that nowadays, “the Black Deaf community still uses ASL that has some typical features that are found primarily in the Black community such as facial expressions, specific gestures and the way that they move.”
This helps explain why many Black music fans within the deaf and hard of hearing community have said they prefer to have people who look like them working as interpreters, including at live concerts and festivals.
“People think interpreting is just about language, but it’s everything that is part of that specific situation,” Hill said. “[A white interpreter] might not be able to bring everything that’s happening on stage — all the language choices being used, all the dance that’s happening from the artist — and convey that through their work to the deaf people that are attending the concert.”
Amber Galloway-Gallego, a white, hard of hearing interpreter who has worked with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Wiz Khalifa, said she tends to agree.
“I don’t think it’s always really well represented off of white hands. It often is not [represented well], especially if you don’t have any background in the culture,” she said.
Although hip-hop has long been an “integral” part of Galloway-Gallego’s life, she said she realizes she’s often been hired to interpret for acts within the genre because of the lack of diverse interpreters available in the early 2000s.
“I often got requested by Black deaf people to interpret rap and R&B because our field doesn’t have enough people of color,” she explained. “We need them desperately. Now there’s more but at that time there wasn’t a lot.”
As seen in many news articles and social media posts, Galloway-Gallego is generally praised for her work as an interpreter. Still, a white woman interpreting the words of Black artists has raised some eyebrows. Galloway-Gallego said she was criticized after a viral video of her signing the n-word during a Kendrick Lamar set went viral in 2013. Galloway-Gallego said she made the decision to sign the word at the time because she didn’t want the lyrics to lose their context and meaning to deaf or hard of hearing attendees who were relying on her. She also added that she was worried using ASL for “bro” or another substitute word would dilute Lamar’s work. Still, she said she can “totally understand” why the decision made people upset, and now often signs the letter “N” in place of the word.
This, she noted, is just one example of why having Black interpreters whenever possible would be a better cultural fit.
“Deaf people, they are very diverse, and they deserve to have more than white people signing for them day in and day out,” she said.
Maxey said the lack of diversity when it comes to interpreters in hip-hop is indicative of a bigger issue that the larger deaf and hard of hearing communities continue to grapple with.
“There’s so many people of color — Black people specifically — that go to learn sign language and they don’t see anyone who looks like them. Not a single person,” he said. “It’s frustrating. It’s like if I talk the way I want to talk, I have everybody and their momma correcting me. I’m not going to suppress my culture to fit your culture.”
In general, there are other problems the deaf and hard of hearing communities deal with when it comes to live music experiences. From the misconception that interpreters are a distraction from the musician who’s performing onstage to interpreters not being properly placed on stage (or, at the very least, visible to those that need to see them), trying to enjoy a beloved artist live can be a challenge for deaf and hard of hearing people. But at the core of this is the incorrect notion that deaf people cannot partake in the artform.
Raven Sutton, a dancer and interpreter, said people often wonder aloud how she is able to move along with the music as a deaf woman. Sutton, who also participated in a Zoom interview with the help of an interpreter, emphasized that deaf people can feel the vibrations of each song, which adds to their ability to partake in and enjoy music “just like everyone else.”
“We love to go out to concerts and events and have fun, celebrate and feel the beat,” she said.
While she’s had her own personal experiences with enjoying music in public spaces, Sutton didn’t intend to become a central voice in online discussions about accessibility in hip-hop. In 2020, she stayed up late waiting for Megan thee Stallion and Cardi B to release their hit single “WAP.”
“How can I let everyone understand what WAP means,” she wondered once she heard the song for the first time. “It inspired me, as a woman, to feel a part of something [about our pleasure]. It was so empowering and inspiring.”
Sutton quickly posted a video of herself dancing and interpreting the song in sign language to TikTok before going to bed that night. By the time she woke up, it had already started to get attention. It has since been seen by more than 1 million people on TikTok alone. This is the type of visibility Black deaf and hard of hearing people have been fighting for in music on and offline. However, shortly after Sutton created the interpretation, Kelly Kurdi, a white hearing interpreter, went viral in a video that showcased her working as an interpreter at Lollapalooza during Megan thee Stallion’s performance of the song. “Thanks for the love on my page from hearing people but I’m just an interpreter passionate about providing access to a community I love and have learned everything from,” Kurdi said in a post that tagged Sutton.
Although she gave credit to Sutton for her interpretation, Kurdi’s virality was an example of an ongoing frustration within the Black deaf community, further signaling that people who are not deaf/hard of hearing and/or white interpreters sometimes get the most recognition even though they often lack the crucial cultural experiences.
“There’s something about being [a deaf interpreter] that allows you to add another layer of your experience to provide an even better experience for the deaf people attending [a concert],” Hill explained. “Especially if that deaf person is Black and has that cultural experience.”
Reflecting on working as a live interpreter on tour for the first time, Maxey said Chance hiring him (and also embracing ASL himself) should be a lesson for other rappers in how to improve accessibility for their fans.
“When Chance learned sign language for the deaf audience just to be like, ‘Are you ready for your blessings,’ the look on their faces was unrivaled,” he said. “How often do you see someone you watch on TV knowing sign language?”
Last year, Maxey served as an executive producer (along with rapper Waka Flocka) for the documentary Sign the Show, which worked to highlight the importance of accessibility at concerts of all genres. He said he hopes projects like this will help address some of the false notions often held about interpreters at concerts.
Even as we’ve seen videos of interpreters going viral, Hill and others note there’s still a long way to go to ensure that hip-hop and the larger music industry are more inclusive. And, while artists should play a role in making sure there’s an interpreter (preferably someone who is Black and deaf when working with Black artists), other key players within the touring ecosystem are responsible for ensuring accessibility, too.
“It’s not just the performers and their people,” Hill said. “Everyone who is responsible for the events, be it the vendors, the venue, or the performers needs to be involved.”
Jewel Wicker writes about entertainment and culture for publications such as Billboard, Teen Vogue, Atlanta magazine and GQ. The Atlanta native recently served as co-host and writer for the Crooked Media and Tenderfoot TV podcast Gaining Ground: The New Georgia.
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer