Concerts have been an essential part of musical and cultural identities throughout the decades. Most people who consider themselves to be avid music lovers have gone to at least one concert or music festival in their lifetime. But as concerts provide audiences with meaningful experiences, we must ensure they are accessible to music lovers from all walks of life, including those of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
There is a wide misconception that deaf individuals cannot enjoy music because they are unable to hear it. However, music is a universal language; its meaning and value extend far beyond its sound. Deaf and hard-of-hearing concert-goers can enjoy a song’s lyricism, message and pace, as well as various visual aspects of an artist’s performance. Most of all, like all other concert-goers, they can feel an artist’s emotion and appreciate the beauty of music and stories behind songs.
Luckily, there are artists who are concerned with this issue and are actively working to make concerts more accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
One such artist is none other than one of hip-hop’s greatest solo acts, Chance the Rapper, who is known both for his incredible musical gifts and his strong advocacy efforts. Just when I thought I could not be any more impressed by Chance, last month he announced that he was bringing American Sign Language interpreters from DEAFinitely Dope, an Atlanta-based organization seeking to unite the hearing and deaf communities through sign language, along with him on the remainder of his current tour.
This initiative marks a major step in live music history, because Chance is the first rapper to bring his own interpreters on the road with him, rather than having individual venues provide them for his shows.
Not only does this new addition to his team show Chance’s commitment to increased accessibility to live music, but it also reflects on the importance of artists having their own interpreters. An unbelievable amount of work goes into just one show’s worth of ASL interpreting, so it makes sense that artists, rather than venues, work with interpreters to provide deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals with engaging musical experiences.
Just ask Holly Maniatty, one of the most acclaimed and in-demand ASL concert interpreters in the hip-hop scene. Having gone viral for interpreting at concerts for the likes of Snoop and the Wu-Tang Clan, Maniatty is an expert when it comes to making concerts as enjoyable for the deaf and hard-of-hearing as they are for their fellow hearing concert-goers.
COURTESY USA TODAY
Concert interpreting involves more than just fluency in ASL and the ability to memorize lyrics. With hip-hop and rap in particular, although with other genres as well, lyrics typically incorporate many cultural references that are essential to understanding the music as it is intended.
For example, Maniatty once recalled in an how she had to learn countless specific New York City references for a Beastie Boys concert.
Thus, ASL concert interpreters like Maniatty must do extensive research to prepare for each show, learning all of the cultural references the artist makes and practicing conveying as much of the meaning behind the lyrics as possible, while also trying to keep the pace of the song and translate the energy of the music into signs and body language. As interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego explains to Vox, interpreters have also been working to innovate ASL to better convey different auditory aspects of music, like rhythm, rhyme and depth of sound, through more specific hand motions and facial movements.
ASL concert interpreters also must be prepared to perform not only the planned set list, but also any songs the artist might choose to perform in the heat of the moment, in addition to freestyle performances. A team of interpreters will often split up an artist’s material in order to be prepared for whichever songs may be performed.
Thus, having the same interpreters travel with one artist, as is the case with Chance and DEAFinitley Dope, not only helps to improve the interpreter’s preparedness and familiarity with the music, but also to master every lyric, reference and beat in a song, so that everyone in the crowd can experience the same energy and emotion from the music, even if they are using different senses to do so.
As a hearing person, I am very accustomed to focusing on the music and lyrics of my favorite performers. However, in researching this topic, I found myself absorbed in watching interpreters perform alongside the artist, or in ASL music videos for their favorite songs, such as Logic’s “The High Life,” performed by DEAFinitely Dope founder Matthew Maxey.
COURTESY DEAFINITELY DOPE
This made me realize not only how important interpreters are for helping the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to see their favorite artists in person, but also for all of us hearing individuals to see interpreters as normal and necessary. This is an important step toward becoming more exposed to the thriving and diverse cultural community in which we live.
At the end of the day, though, while it is great to see the likes of DEAFinitely Dope and Maniatty achieve widespread recognition, it is important to remember that the main focus of ASL concert interpreters is to enrich the concert experience for deaf concert-goers. To see deaf and hard-of-hearing music lovers dancing to the same beat and reacting to the same lyrics and emotions as their hearing peers is what interpreting is all about.
Music is meant to unite everyone — that does not mean you have to hear it with your ears.
Claire Nenninger is a senior in the College. A.V. ID appears every other Saturday.
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