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Translating Music in Sign Language

Have you been following all the news on Justina Miles? Everyone is stunned by her performance as I am to Rihanna’s songs. The first Black female SuperBowl halftime ASL performer did amazing and garnered lots of media attention that she deserves.

Like all languages, American Sign Language (ASL) is a means of communication but also a means of art expression. Music is inclusive and it is meant for everyone to enjoy. Yes, we do enjoy music! There is absolutely no reason to deprive Deaf people from experiencing a good time. We are always pushing for access. Three different roles play this out to give us, the Deaf community, an experience.

A certified ASL interpreter is a person that translates music into sign language. They are hired to provide a service of interpreting for musicians to Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. They are either Deaf or non-deaf interpreters enthusiastically signing music. These interpreters respect the language and its parameters, and are clearly enhancing its communication impact when appropriate. Signing songs are not signed word for word, they would convey multiple layers to the song. It is a lot of prep work, research, memorization and grunt work that happens behind the scenes. 

Oftentimes an audience fascinated would film the interpreter at concerts and it goes viral. Non-deaf people will praise the signers because it’s something foreign to them. Usually they don’t see it as a language but more like a cool dance, and that’s where the problem lies. The attention would be on the interpreters to be called in for interviews. This part is tricky because the interpreters have to tread carefully not to have the media focus on them as individuals. The main topic is, the reason for their existence, is accessibility. Interpreters are providing a service, not to be applauded equally as the Artists. Their job is to refer to the Deaf community to speak on this topic.
Amber G Productions is one of the teams that are well known that provide interpreting in the USA.

An ASL Performer is a Deaf person who showcases their talent or art doing covers of other artist’s music. They have a vibe that is their own that brings lyrics, emotion, story, volume that are brought to life visually. They are dedicated to their craft because it brings them joy. They are expressive and easy on the eyes. Some have hearing devices to assist them, others rely on the vibration of the music where they turn up the sound. The performers do not require certification, they are just being themselves, outshining anyone as they please. They have YouTube, Instagram or TikTok entertaining their viewers. There are many that are unknown, not all get the spotlight.

Oftentimes the amazing performers become the Deaf interpreters and are brought on stage too. There are lots of memorization onsite of the material as they do not solely depend on their hearing to do the work for them in-person. Some of them work with a feeder which is a non-deaf team interpreter that feeds information they work with to keep them on cue.
ASL performers are Rosa Lee Timm, Canadian – Robert ‘258Signs’ Bhola and Juan Jaramillo and more.
ASL performers/interpreters Justina ‘_JTay_’ Miles, Raven Sutton, Matt ‘DEAFintely Dope’ Maxey, Canadian – Gaitrie ‘Phoenix the Fire’ Killings and more.

Then there are ASL Artists who happen to be Deaf and create their own content from scratch. They create, write their own lyrics and may have a band. They show their audience what Deaf Culture is and succeed in spreading the message. They are proof they can do anything like their non-deaf peers. The ASL Artists work two, three, four times harder to be equal or better than non-deaf peers. They have recordings and market their merchandise. They work hard to share their gift.
Artists/Creators are people like Warren “Wawa” Snipe, Sean Forbes, Mandy Harvey and more.

All interpreters, performers and artists play a significant role in the music world that benefits Deaf and non-deaf viewers. The other thing they consider is that representation matters when performing for an artist, matching culturally with appropriate persons on the world stage.

Christine Sun Kim performed American the Beautiful in 2020 sums this up, “Our rights can easily disappear if we do not continue to show up in places like the Super Bowl. I had hoped to provide a public service for deaf viewers, and believed that my appearance might raise awareness of the systemic barriers and the stigmas attached to our deafness — and move some people to action. I hope that despite the failure of the broadcaster to make the performance accessible to all, it did do that.” 

Sadly to this day, a short glimpse of the signers are shown on TV and continue to show separately online. Picture in Picture, sharing half screen or even the singing Artists have the signers side by side with them (1993, Garth Brooks with Marlee Matlin) would make a grand difference. 

Be an ally and make some noise to broadcasters to bring them on TV, not seperated online for small viewers as they entertain EVERYONE.

Side note regarding online materials signed by non-deaf: There are many signed songs (even those teaching ASL), including the viral ones, come with poor grammatical structure, incomprehensive production, awkward conceptual interpretation, and so on. Yet, they received many applauses and thumb-ups while many first-language ASL Deaf raised eyebrows. It makes it more difficult to find better quality interpretations of the songs and starve out Deaf creators of potential hits, attention, and even money if they’re a Youtube partner. Let’s do better and follow the right people!

Illustration by Leah Riddell of Kelly Kurdi signing INTERPRETER, Justina Miles signing PERFORMER and Warren Snipes signing ARTIST.
Illustrates people she knows or is known to her.

1 thought on “Translating Music in Sign Language

  1. I agree 💯 on that! Thanks 🙏🏾 for sharing this. 👍🏾

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