[Ed note: This post was updated on the occasion of The Best of GMN 2015-2016 reading, August 3, 2016]
by Ryan Johnson
“Deaf” and “music” are two words that are rarely seen in the same sentence. “Deaf musician” is something seen even less often. Of course, we all know the story of Beethoven going Deaf and continuing composing, but did you know some of his music may be as memorable as it is because he was Deaf? The way he felt the vibrations of his piano was different than how he heard them, leading him to compose innovative and everlasting music because of, not in spite of, his Deafness.
But, certainly, Beethoven’s story is unique today, right? Not quite.
The reality is, in the music establishment, an establishment structured around the hearing world, too few seek out Deaf musicians. As an American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreting student, I was elated to discover the crossover between my love for ASL and music.
Signmark (Marko Vuoriheimo) is a Finnish rapper who creates his raps in International Sign Language, which is a sort of summary of various national sign languages that creates a way of international communication for the Deaf. Signmark chooses to not use his spoken voice, so his albums are released as CD/DVD combos. Signmark performs in International Sign Language, and feature rapper Brandon Bauer performs Signmark’s work vocally. Within Sign Language, rhythms and rhymes are created using shape rather than sound, so Signmark uses signs with the same handshape to create rhymes in his tracks. Like many rappers, Signmark’s songs feature a variety of life topics, but the track “Our Life (Deaf Rap)” focuses on discrimination he has faced being a Deaf individual, as well as touching on Deaf history, signing proudly in the chorus “This is our life, unheard and as you’ve never seen.”
Some of Signmark’s lyrics, like those in my favorite “Smells Like Victory,” don’t directly acknowledge his Deafness, but make no mistake: his work comes from his Deaf experience. He and other Deaf musicians often feature their Deaf experience in their work to bring awareness and education. So it was significant when Signmark became the first Deaf recording artist to be signed by an international recording label, Warner Music. That event wasn’t only exciting for Vuoriheimo, but was a milestone for Deaf musicians and the Deaf community. There are various testaments to his impact on the Deaf community, from grateful students recalling that “seeing him reminds me there is the whole world out there waiting for me to do something,” and even politicians remarking “Signmark is contributing to a global change in attitudes.”
Signmark isn’t the only Deaf rapper on my playlists. Sean Forbes is a Deaf rapper a little closer to home, based out of Michigan. Forbes raps in American Sign Language (ASL), but performs his pieces verbally as well. Forbes discography varies from songs that follow popular culture, topics like Deaf girls at clubs in “Deaf Def Girls,” explores the life of Deaf UFC fighter Matt “The Hammer” Hamill in “Hammer,” and even dismantles the stereotype that Deaf individuals can’t dance in the track “Let’s Mambo.” These tracks are unique windows into the Deaf community that a lot of hearing individuals would never have thought of, placed in a comfort space for “hearies” music.
Though they’re a small group, Deaf rappers create great songs while making the world of music more accessible to the Deaf community. Sean Forbes, while not rapping, works on the company he co-founded, The Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN). D-PAN is a media platform to promote Deaf artists in a variety of mediums, while also creating and producing music videos of popular songs into ASL.The accessibility of music, as well as the beauty and fluidity of ASL is something that hearing musicians are also beginning to catch on to. Earlier this year American Authors released an official video for their radio mix of popular song “Pride” with Deaf broadway actress Sandra Mae Frank doing an ASL interpretation. While the song itself is lovely, the reason I’ve had the video on repeat is for the beauty of Frank’s signing and expression. Even two weeks ago, Ingrid Michaelson released a video for the hit “Hell No” with a group of Deaf actors interpreting. These artists are adding a layer of accessibility to the world of pop hits by offering their music to the Deaf community in the language they know best.
As most music fans know, music is more than just sound. Music is feeling and stories that call forth our human connections. Why should the Deaf community be excluded from that because they simply can’t listen with their ears? There is so much more to music than just listening. Deaf musicians provide a unique and valuable perspective in a space in which the hearing world has made it hard for them to succeed. But succeed they have.