When Dr. Oscar P. Cohen worked at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City, the school’s theatre program put on a production of “The Sound of Music,” but they called it “Without the Sound of Music.” The school held a prom every year with DJs, and between the wooden floor and the volume, students loved to dance. A program called “eurhythmics” had kindergarteners placing their hands on top of a grand piano while a teacher played music. The students could feel the vibrations, and the concepts of rhythm and beat were both stimulating and exciting to them.
Cohen, the former Superintendent and Chief Executive Officer of the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City, is hearing but both of his parents are Deaf—otherwise known as a Child of Deaf Adult—and he grew up in the Deaf community. He explained that the Lexington School has always included music in its curriculum. He said, “It was always used as a motivator, as a way to stimulate.” The Lexington School is not alone in their mission to incorporate the Deaf community into the music world.
Shirley Childress, the late American Sign Language interpreter for the acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, once wrote, “Music is often perceived as another sound-based communication barrier, an instrument of discrimination and oppression of Hearing upon Deaf.” Childress saw a fundamental flaw in the lack of Deaf accessibility in music, and spent much of her life trying to bridge this gap. Her actions, and the actions of institutions like the Lexington School, are being built upon as awareness of Deaf accessibility in music surges and grows.
Two to three of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears. While some Deaf people may not be able to fully hear the sounds of music, they can still feel the vibrations in their body and can understand the meaning of the lyrics through ASL. Hearing aids and cochlear implants (electronic devices that function like the inner ear and send sound signals to the brain) can also help Hard of Hearing or Deaf people hear and understand music. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing community’s needs are becoming more recognized by both artists and institutions.
Sweet Honey in the Rock was one of the first music groups to prioritize Deaf accessibility. The all-female, all-Black ensemble was founded in the 1970s with the goal of acting as an advocate for social justice causes. The group described themselves as “artists, activists, and humanitarians…[who address] the critical issues of democracy, freedom, racism, and economic and social justice.”
As part their advocacy, Sweet Honey in the Rock wanted to make their music accessible to the Deaf community, and, at first, they used ASL interpreters supplied by festival organizers. However, this proved to be problematic, in part because the vast majority of these interpreters were White. Sweet Honey in the Rock felt that these White interpreters were not fully communicating the messages of their all-Black group, especially in an instance when a White interpreter signed the word “Africa” by miming putting a ring through her nose. The group believed that there was a significant cultural chasm between the messages of their music and the way that White interpreters were communicating the lyrics. They also wanted to acknowledge the multi-racial makeup of the Deaf community.
In 1980, the group added Childress, not just as their ASL interpreter, but as a full-fledged group member. Childress was costumed like the other members and stood in the semi-circle with them while they all performed. Her status as a full group member was a departure from the convention of interpreters standing off to the side of the stage and not being a part of the performance. Childress died this past March, and her role in the group has not yet been replaced. Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, who retired from the group four years ago, told the Washington City Paper about the impact of Childress; “[The Deaf community] would know what we were singing about, they would have an appreciation for aspects of the music—the language, the rhythm, the way in which we as different singers were working together, and the meaning of the songs.”
An interpreter can make all the difference when it comes to Deaf accessibility in music. Through a video relay service (a video telecommunication service that allows Deaf people to communicate over the telephone via an interpreter), Jim Lipsky, a Deaf Tufts professor, said, “If you want accessibility in music, it’s important to have someone who’s a professional sign language interpreter. When we have Deaf conferences, we have workshops related to music interpreting and how to do it. Learning how to translate English into ASL in accordance with the rhythm is very welcome knowledge.” Lispky teaches ASL classes at Tufts, and while he personally does not enjoy music, he acknowledged that many other Deaf people do.
Contemporary interpreters are also striving to fully communicate the messages of music to the Deaf community. Amber Galloway-Gallego is an ASL interpreter who specializes in interpreting rap and hip-hop. A video of her interpreting a Kendrick Lamar cover of A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” at Lollapalooza in 2013 went viral and has since garnered over 1.5 million views. She is notable for her signing style. She mouths the words, changes her facial expressions, and moves her entire body to the music. Her interpretations communicate when the bass drops, when the music slows, and when a new instrument enters the song. She has also been incorporated into artists’ performances, which is unusual for an ASL interpreter. At Lollapallooza in 2016, she interpreted on stage with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and became a focal point of their performance. Cohen commented on interpreters in general, “Interpreters are performers themselves, it’s an arm form in and of itself.”
Some artists have also taken the initiative to make their music more Deaf accessible. Chance the Rapper made headlines in June when he announced that he had hired ASL interpreters for not only his show in Tampa, but also for the remainder of his Coloring Book tour. This news caused ripples across the Deaf community because while venues usually provide interpreters upon request, Chance is the first rapper to handpick an interpreter. Kelly Kurdi, one of the interpreters on tour with him, said in an interview with WTSP, a Florida news station, “We’ve all been close to tears since we met him, because we just can’t believe that he’s willing to provide interpreters on his own.”
While artists like Chance are taking their own steps to make their shows more Deaf accessible, institutional changes are also taking hold. This past May, the first large-scale Deaf-friendly music festival was held in San Antonio, Texas. The Good Vibrations Music Fest offered different, specialized features in order to make the music accessible: live captioning, ASL interpretation, telecoiling (a coil inside hearing aids that picks up a magnetic signal and can make it easier to hear), synchronized vibrating backpacks, and LED dance floors and light shows that were synced to the music. All profits went to Aid the Silent, a Christian nonprofit that raises funds for deaf research, education, and resources. The date for the 2018 festival will be announced soon.
While these reforms are indicative of growing awareness, there are still changes that can further increase accessibility. Cohen suggested, “People should firstly not assume that Deaf people do not value music or assume what kinds of events Deaf people would be interested in or would benefit from.” He also emphasized, “Music is an avenue that is crucial to the development of a culture, and Deaf people have the right to access all aspects of arts and culture. Expanding Deaf accessibility in music would be a contribution to the benefit of the entire world, not just Deaf people.”