ASL in the Music Industry
Music is more than just sound, it’s an escape from reality. Why should Deaf people be excluded from that? Why shouldn’t we be making a more active effort and pushing to make the live concert experience more inclusive?
My journey has been unique, to say the least. I grew up with learning disabilities and experienced bullying. I was much slower at learning than the other kids which made me an easy target to be bullied. One thing I always had and always felt safe in was music. No matter what happened, how mean the other kids were, I had music to help me through it. Anything I ever was dealing with, I always had music to guide me through. Growing up with learning disabilities I was put in special classes to teach me to pass the Florida standardized test known as FCAT. I never had enough room in my schedule for an elective. When I was a junior, I finally did and I chose American Sign Language 1, I didn’t know then, but that class would soon introduce me to something that would change my life. Over the following two years I consumed all the language and culture I could through the club that was offered, and instead of a free period I opted to double up on the classes my senior year. Through the program my high school offered, we taught a 1st grade class and even signed songs. At the time, I never believed this could become a career for me. After high school, I veered off to a different career path as a cosmetologist. It didn’t take me long to recognize not only was that career not for me, but was also detrimental to my mental health. Not long after that, I weighed my options for a new career path…and that’s when I was reminded of the classes I took in high school. And so I began my journey back to school as an American Sign Language Interpreting major.
How did I find myself interpreting for concerts? I became part of online community of music fans of artists to the likes of 5 Seconds of Summer, Halsey, and so many more artists. Through those artists I began to fall back in love with the pop- punk music I grew up loving. I began to see videos online titled as ‘ASL Cover’ or ‘ASL Interpretation’ of artists’ songs, and I knew right away it was not ASL. Eventually I began to say something about it for accuracy to the language and that’s how I met Riley. We began talking online about how this is something that happens often. They saw that I was a frequent concert goer and comment that they felt envious, because to them, concerts are inaccessible, and that is when it clicked for me. I thought, ‘this is a career’. As I went to shows, I began asking artists about whether this is something they would be open to including in their shows, and the results were a unanimous yes. Then one year I went to a workshop from ‘The Entertainment Institute’ at Warped Tour called ‘Finding Your Spark’ held by Kellin Quinn and Nick Martin. In that workshop they talked about finding what inspires you. At the end of that workshop, they took questions, and I explained the divide of the Deaf to hearing concert goers and asked if they would consider adding an interpreter to their tours and shows to create a more inclusive environment. They both ecstatically jumped in and said that is something they would love to do and asked for my contact information. After the workshop, I talked to Nick and gave him my email. He told me to stay in touch so we could arrange for that to happen. That was the first time a band had believed in what I was aiming to do. Later that year, as the Warped Tour 2017 dates were announced, I decided to take a chance: I reached out to Kevin Lyman about adding interpreters. We came to an agreement to do the Florida dates - Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach.
The following year, I was getting ready for my first big gig with the tour that had always felt like home to me. I was doing my best to prep and get the word out about the shows I was interpreting. Before I did my first show, I went to a Waterparks show. I knew how I might interpret their song ‘Stupid For You’ but I had no intentions of signing with them…But something came over me during the show and I asked Awsten if I could join them for that song. He replied “Sure if you know how”. In doing that, I felt like I was somewhere I was supposed to be, doing something I was supposed to be doing. I explained to them after the show in more detail what I am trying to do with inclusion with concerts, and they were very understanding and supportive of that. Shortly after that show, the Warped line- up was released, and it was time to prep for the tour. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was in for. I had chosen what I felt were the best artists, bands and stage to do. My goal has always been to work with bands who mean something to people, and that’s what I did. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I also knew it would be worth it. My first day was not what I expected, and everything seemed to go wrong. I thought I would feel in my element, but I felt like a fish out of water. However, by the end of my dates I did feel I did what I went there to do and the artists I worked with were very accepting and understanding of what I was there to do. They understood music is not only for those who can hear.
The following year, when it was announced that 2018 would be the last cross- country Vans Warped Tour, I reached out again, and this time I got on for eight dates. I was excited, but bracing myself because I wanted to take on a lot more to make more sets accessible. When the line- up was announced I made a list of 16 artists across three stages - I didn’t manage to get to all of them. I took that list, and rationalized what I could do and thought back again to which bands mean a lot to people. Picking out bands such as Simple Plan and All Time Low were no brainers for me. The message those bands send to their fans, I knew those two were important. I saw the band that helped me find my purpose: Waterparks. I knew I could make a difference with them. I chose a couple bands who were on a smaller stage, such as Palaye Royale and With Confidence. I was familiar with the message With Confidence sends to their fanbase and what they stand for. In California I made an active effort to introduce myself to the bands before I went onstage, so they were aware of what was going on. When I did, they were very kind and even excited to make their music and their sets accessible to even more people. At my Nashville date was when I did the smaller bands. I again introduced myself and explained what I was going to be doing, and again the bands were very open and accepting of this. One band was already aware that they have a Deaf fan base, so they were ecstatic to see Warped Tour offering an interpreter. During that date I saw a band that had a connection with their audience yet never even made it onto my list. I watched their set and listened to their lyrics, saw the interaction with the fans, and I could see what the band meant to the fans. In that moment, I wrote the bands name down so that when I went home, I could prep to do their set. That band was As It Is. As my remaining dates were winding down, I was ready to take on the last week of Warped Tour. It was time for me to introduce myself to As It Is and explain to them what was going to happen. When I saw Patty, I took the chance and stopped him and explained like I had been doing for the rest of the bands. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it exceeded any expectation I could have had. In 2018, contrary to the previous year I felt like what I was doing belonged there. However, in career like mine, I need to be sure I am doing everything I can to be an advocate as well. I took time to not only interpret, but to talk to the bands I worked with. I told them my message of inclusion at shows and how they can continue it outside the walls of Warped Tour. Being kind to fans is important but making sure everyone of all abilities is included is equally important.
After Warped Tour, I wanted to keep things going. As new tours got announced, I would reach out to artists - through whatever contacts I could find - to continue making this scene more inclusive. I ended up being able to do both night of Real Friends in Orlando as my last shows for 2018. Before the year ended I also announced my first 2019 shows which I felt were more important for me to do than anything I had ever done before - As It Is. In talking to Patty over the summer about inclusion, I knew I didn’t want Warped Tour to be the last time I worked with the band and I knew it would be important to continue my work with them. They value making their shows a safe and inclusive place but, being on the bands, own tour felt like the most natural thing in the world. Interpreting music about the stigma surrounding mental health was not only therapeutic for me but important to the audience I was interpreting for.
This all sounds (and is) great, but is there any negativity that is received from bands? Is what I do always well received? The short answer is no. There have been situations where artists have been less that pleased with me and did not want to so to speak ‘share their space’ with me. I couldn’t tell you if it’s from my own doing or their thought process or ego- I’m still unsure. You are never going to please everyone no matter what you do in life, and accepting that can be difficult. Knowing you are doing something important and something that matters to other people… that’s what matters to me.
Moving forward how can bands make sure they are Deaf friendly? First and foremost- have qualified interpreters at their shows. Don’t be afraid to share the stage- we are not there to steal your spotlight, we are there to do a job just like you. By having the interpreter on stage, it creates equal access, that way Deaf fans don’t have to choose where their attention goes. They can enjoy both the stage show and the interpreter. Typically, the Deaf fans pay full price for the show just to find out the interpreter isn’t even on the stage. Additionally, when planning your lighting accommodate the interpreter, they should not be in the dark for the whole show. Consider the fact that music interpreters, contrary to popular belief do not just sign off the cuff, that is the farthest thing from the truth. It takes months on end to prepare for a show before a set list is even becomes available. There are ‘mock setlists’ that are prepared from past setlists and song stats, but it is also helpful to plan your setlist early if you know you are having an interpreter. For general admission shows-have an early entry option for the Deaf fans like wheelchair- using fans have that way they have access the side of the stage where the interpreter will be. As many bands tour internationally be sure you have an interpreter signing the country’s signed language ie: ASL for America, BSL for England, Auslan for Australia etc. Sign language, like spoken language, is not international. The next suggestion is one of the most important things a band can do, and that is to make sure all announcements, music videos, interviews, and any other video content is all accurately captioned - not auto- captioned, but actually, properly captioned. A Deaf YouTuber and activist named Rikki Poynter has many videos on how to do this. On that same note release your lyrics! Make them available to the public! This seems like it should not need to be said but there are many bands who withhold their lyrics and refuse to release them for one reason or another, that is inaccessible and unacceptable. The music industry is always changing and it’s time to see the accessibility change with it. Taking that into consideration when planning tours, shows and festivals will end up making it better for everyone all around. Many bands pride themselves on being inclusive… so why not carry that belief over to a Deaf fanbase?
Both Photos Credited to: Kelly Fox
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