How ASL Interpreters Are Enhancing Live Music for the Deaf

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A still from “Anybody [Official Sign Video]” by Young Thug (ft. Nicki Minaj)

In the realm of "Would you rather...?" questions, one of the most commonly posed is: "Would you rather be deaf or blind?" The hypothetical is almost always met with at least one person declaring, "Blind. I couldn't live without music." It's a widely-held belief among the hearing that to be deaf is to live in total silence, completely unenriched by music. This is a fallacy.

Jonny Cotsen, a performer, playwright, and consultant, has been deaf since birth and passionate about music since his teens. "I hear music completely differently to how a hearing person does," he says. "I know I'll never hear it like a hearing person, but my language of music is about what my hearing aids hear. They amplify music down, so I'll hear one mono sound. If you asked me 'How many instruments in that track?' I have no idea; I can't differentiate. But it's more about the feeling. It's almost like I've created a language of my own in terms of how I hear. And I'm sure other deaf people do the same."

Cotsen is right; he's not alone. And, increasingly, artists and venues are realizing it. After the introduction of 1990's Americans With Disabilities Act, ASL interpreters have become an increasingly common sight at concerts, particularly those in larger venues. And some of these translators are becoming stars in their own right.

Take, for example, Eminem's interpreter, Holly Maniatty. One of the reasons for Em's two-decades-long success is his impressive hyper-speed rapping ability. Trying to convey what he does with his voice, word-for-word, using only physical actions seems like a fairly impossible task—and yet, not only does Maniatty manage it, she does it with the kind of passion and precision it's impossible to look away from:


Maniatty got her start in the music world when she heard Marilyn Manson was having difficulty finding an interpreter for a show and volunteered her services. Since then, she's worked with the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Waka Flocka Flame, and Snoop Dogg.

For Cotsen, hip-hop is one of his favorite genres because its tone is more accessible for him. "My favorite type of music has changed over the years," he says. "I guess I like all kinds of music, but when the bass is louder, that's the type of music I most like—trip hop, electronic. It's weird with rap, because I never understand any of the lyrics at all, but I love the bass that they use—[artists like] Beastie Boys, the Jungle Brothers, a Tribe Called Quest."

This might explain why ASL interpreters are so in demand with hip-hop artists right now—though translating this particular genre poses a very specific set of problems, such as keeping up with ever-evolving slang. Chance the Rapper's translator, Matt Maxey, demonstrated to GQ last year how it's done, signing the likes of "Gucci," "Molly," "Thot," and (yes, really) "Skkrt! Skkrt!" Observe the majesty:

Coming up with these kinds of translations can be a complex task. Last year, in an interview with CBC Radio, Holly Maniatty revealed her process.  "I do a lot of research about if they're talking about a specific kind of car or an event," she said. "For example, when I was getting ready for the Wu-Tang show, they talk about riots... [so you] go see when that song was written and see that they're probably talking about the L.A. riots. And then think about something that's iconic about the L.A. riots in terms of visual accessibility, and kind of build your interpretation that way to make it as as authentic and close to the meaning of the person who wrote it [as] you can."

These days, truly great ASL interpreters inject as much feeling into their performance as the artist is putting into theirs. Amber Galloway Gallego—who has worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Destiny's Child, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake—describes how she goes about conveying not just words, but also the sounds of instruments in her signing. "If we merely show the sign for 'music'," Gallego says in the Vox video below, "then we are doing an injustice as an interpreter."

To fully understand her point, you really need to see her in action:

Cotsen is pleased that more and more artists are employing interpreters to sign songs. "Any deaf person going to a gig is going to have a much better time," he says. "I don't want to be the sad deaf man staying home. I want to go out and socialize with my friends. It's just about enjoying myself and trying to get the most out of what I hear."

Undoubtedly, an increase in ASL signing at shows would aid in that. "It's a ridiculous myth that deaf people can't enjoy music. In the end, it's up to organizations to change the way that we go to shows and experience it."