Deaf Music Fans Are Finally Starting To Be Heard



Deaf music fans want more than viral fame. They want the access
— and independence — of the hearing-centric music world.

Posted on August 26, 2017, 14:44 GMT

You can only get so close to an industrial speaker the
size of a golf cart before it hijacks your body. A force
field of bass vibrates around each limb, and it feels like
sound is filling your insides from navel to nape. For most
people, this proximity is painfully loud.

But Lisa Cryer loves it. My ears are already throbbing when I
find her posted up in front of a massive speaker arranged for
Zara Larsson’s Swedish electro-pop performance at the
Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. Cryer has the lean
frame and unaffected cool of ’70s-era Patti Smith. And in a
sea of Lollapalooza festgoers who have obviously dressed for
a style blogger’s camera, Cryer is low-key in denim and a
faded tee that shows off her minimally inked arms. While I’m
terrified that my ears will start bleeding at any moment,
Cryer looks perfectly at ease within arm’s reach of the
amplifiers.

Born profoundly deaf (meaning her ears detect no sound at any
level), Cryer likes to get as close as possible to the
music’s source. She brings me to the front of the crowd and
instructs me to put my foot on an aluminum stage barrier so I
can feel the music’s vibration through the metal. She plucks
an empty water bottle off the ground for me to hold so I can
feel the bass in my fingertips.

“Music is not about the sound for me; it’s about how I feel,”
Cryer says. “My hearing comes through my eyes and my body.”
(Throughout the weekend I communicate with Cryer and other
music fans from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community via
written notes, text messages, phone apps, body language, and
American Sign Language interpreters who are considered as
invisible facilitators.)

“My hearing comes through my eyes and my body.”

Growing up deaf in a hearing family didn’t limit her access
to music, she says. As a little girl, she would sit on her
grandfather’s lap while he played the accordion in order to
feel the air whoosh in and out of the bellows, and she
recalls how the feeling of the music filling up her body made
her “giddy with delight.” As an adult, she experimented with
different hairstyles that would help intensify the way sound
moved around her head. (These days, she wears her dark waves
cropped mid-neck.)

By day, the 45-year-old music obsessive travels the Midwest
as an advocate for deaf children. Those skills come in handy
for a music fan who is deaf; after years of going to concerts
where the experience ranged from disappointing to miserable,
Cryer and other music fans who are deaf and hard-of-hearing
have pushed for access in the hearing-centric music world.

Going to shows that didn’t have access — chiefly, no American
Sign Language (ASL) interpreter — had become too
discouraging, often for safety reasons, Cryer says. The lack
of an interpreter, or “terp,” is the surest signal that
there’s no security or seating anywhere near the front of the
stage to see the music. A terp’s presence indicates that a
venue has taken the time to actually provide space or seating
so that deaf guests can fully participate in the concert
experience.

Cryer has spent years adapting to a culture that regularly
ignores the fact that she and other fans like her exist. But
after enduring decades of limited access at shows, she’s
hopeful that the mainstream perception of music fans in the
DHH community has finally reached a watershed moment.

The rise in mainstream visibility of DHH folks has been
gradual, playing out mostly in pop culture and in social
media. In 2012, the ABC Family drama Switched at Birth
was recognized with a prestigious Peabody Award for
storytelling; the show featured deaf actors in starring roles
and scenes presented entirely in ASL. Then, in 2013, a
YouTube video of veteran ASL interpreter
Amber Galloway Gallego signing rapper Kendrick Lamar’s
performance of A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin Problems” went viral.
That led to a 2014 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!,
where Galloway Gallego and two other well-known ASL music
interpreters, Holly Maniatty and JoAnn Benfield, squared off
in an ASL rap battle — which in turn prompted a popular Vox
explainer video about ASL and music
interpreting and articles like “What It’s Like Listening to Music as a Deaf
Person.”

And when Aziz Ansari’s popular Netflix dramedy Master
of
None returned earlier this year, it drew praise
for an episode that included a vignette about a deaf bodega
clerk who navigated work, friendship, and a hilarious
shopping scene where her and her partner’s graphic argument
about their sex life is “overheard” by a trio of ASL-fluent
children and their indignant mother.

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

Lisa Cryer, of Joliet, Illinois, at Lollapalooza in
Chicago on Aug. 6, 2017. Cryer often holds empty water
bottles or other hollow containers to feel the vibrations
echo in her hands.

In 2014 alone, 32 million people attended at least one US
music festival, according to Nielsen Music.

As pop culture has begun to better recognize the experiences
of deaf Americans, there have also been signs of progress for
the Deaf community in sports and politics. The Obama White
House included two deaf women in prominent roles – Leah Katz-Hernandez,
the first deaf person to serve as the receptionist of the
United States (one of the first people to greet White House
visitors), and Claudia Gordon, the public engagement adviser
for the disability community in the Office of Public
Engagement, who is also the first deaf black female attorney
in the US. Around the same time, Seattle Seahawks fullback
Derrick Coleman became the first deaf Super Bowl champion
during Super Bowl 48; Coleman’s status as the NFL’s first
deaf offensive player prompted a major halftime commercial by Duracell batteries
(the tie-in being Coleman’s use of battery-powered hearing
aids). In 2016, Smirnoff vodka featured deaf dance instructor
Chris Fonseca as part of its inclusivity-minded “We’re Open”
campaign.

Though Deaf culture has nudged closer to mainstream
visibility in the past several years, progress remains
stunted in spaces where DHH people aren’t considered part of
the equation to begin with. Music festivals in particular
have been slow to include the DHH community, despite the
industry’s explosive growth over the past quarter century. In
2014 alone, 32 million people attended at least one
US music festival, according to Nielsen Music.

Historically, members of the DHH music community have taken
matters into their own hands by creating their own festivals,
though the type of music performed at these festivals was
often limited. Organizers of the annual Brickfest — hosted on
alternating years by the Rochester Institute of Technology
and the Washington D.C.- based Gallaudet University, a
private school for deaf students — learned this the hard way
in 1995.

“The organizers would only play rock and roll,” recalls Greg
Perez, who attended Gallaudet at the time and is president of
the advocacy group Deaf Planet Soul. “People didn’t want to
pay $55 for only rock, and Gallaudet students said they
wouldn’t come unless they were allowed to host a party of
their own. BrickFest lost $12,000 that year because everyone
else went to the [competing] party. And BrickFest learned
they couldn’t segregate music.”

More recent festivals organized by DHH fans for their
community, like Louisville’s DeaFestival Kentucky and San
Antonio’s Good Vibrations festival, nail the accessibility
angle of staging a festival. But while they excel at creating
a strong community and camaraderie among DHH fans, these
festivals typically lack the star power of bigger productions
like Coachella or Bonnaroo.

But in 2015, thanks to a concerted push from DHH advocates
and a growing cohort of employees plugged in to the DHH
community, festival organizers have been prioritizing access
for DHH fans. At Lollapalooza this year, a fifth of the 170
performances scheduled had ASL interpreters.

ASL-accessible sets are increasingly incorporated into larger
festivals like Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza, where the
factors of an established festival and strong local DHH
community are in place. But industry insiders say it wasn’t
until around 2014 that both festivals (which share a
producer, C3 Presents) more formally established an
accessibility program for DHH guests. And even though some
festivals had proved that they could pull off an admirable
level of access, no one was stepping up to declare it a
planning priority.

Then, in June, the DHH music community saw the boost it was
waiting for. Chance the Rapper announced that he was hiring a
team of ASL interpreters for the remainder of his tour, which
would include stops at major festivals like Bonnaroo,
Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits. Chance’s 2017
announcement made him the first artist to provide his own
interpreting team for a tour. And to the DHH community, it
signaled that a door that had long been shut was finally
cracking open.

Brittany Sowacke

Hard-of-hearing music fans show their love for the
performer by showing the ASL sign for “I love you” at
Lollapalooza in Chicago on Aug. 6, 2017.

Hearing people tend think of deafness as one side of
an on or off switch — you can hear everything or nothing —
but deafness is actually a spectrum. You can range from
profoundly deaf (what some in the DHH community call “big ‘D’
Deaf”) to some ability to hear sound above a certain
threshold (“little ‘d’ deaf”) to hard-of-hearing with the
ability to process speech, usually with the help of hearing
aids or implants. The DHH community is also a large one:
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other
Communication Disorders (NIDCD), a quarter of the population will have
“disabling hearing loss” between the ages of 65 and 74;
it jumps to 50% by the time people reach age 75. Music fans
exist across the entire DHH spectrum and have devised many
alternate ways of listening when their ears are of limited
use.

“Any music I want to see or attend, I must plan very far in
advance — ask for access, hope they cooperate, hope they can
find people, hope the people are qualified to be up there.”

For years, “Deafheads” — the Grateful Dead’s deaf
fans — have been recognizable by the balloons they hold to
catch sound vibrations during the Dead’s lengthy jams.
Hard-of-hearing fans will often seek out a front-row space
near the speakers so they can hear vocals that would
otherwise be inaudible from the back. At dance parties with
EDM and bass-heavy music, a DHH-savvy DJ might place the
speakers facedown on the floor instead of on speaker poles.
Deaf artists and tech entrepreneurs are even developing
Bluetooth-enabled wearable vibrative technology in the form
of vests, backpacks, and bracelets that can be synced to a
beat.

But while these innovations and adaptations help
well-connected DHH fans tap into the larger music experience,
Cryer notes that most venues and festivals don’t start from a
point of accessibility; the burden is on DHH people to find
the proper (and often obscure) channel and request access.
Ideally, Cryer says, DHH access would be structured the way
wheelchair access is: It’s required by law, and it exists for
someone who needs it whether or not the venue is aware in
advance of the need.

“Any music I want to see or attend, I must plan very far in
advance — ask for access, hope they cooperate, hope they can
find people, hope the people are qualified to be up there,”
Cryer says. “I can never just get last-minute tickets, or
join a friend that has an extra — it takes a long time to get
that set up and it’s not easy to do, which is infuriating
because the [Americans With Disability Act] requires that
they make it accessible.”

At a few sets during the weekend we’re at Lollapalooza, Cryer
will point out the dearth of teenage DHH fans in the
audience. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other
Communication Disorders, roughly 90% of deaf children
have hearing parents, like Cryer, but few learn ASL, and they
often don’t consider the ways that a lack of access to
experiences like music festivals can further isolate them.
Particularly for millennials — DHH or not — music
festivals are an increasingly popular social experience and
cultural rite of passage; the chance to see multiple bands
and share in a community of like-minded fans is one which DHH
youth don’t want to be excluded from.

“People would say, ‘Why do you get to be up front? You can’t
hear, so you should be in the back.’”

Krista Reese is one of them. She’s been coming to
Lollapalooza since she was 21 (she’s 26 now) and is enjoying
the Zara Larsson set so much I almost feel guilty asking her
to talk about times when festgoing wasn’t so great. “People
would say, ‘Why do you get to be up front? You can’t hear, so
you should be in the back,’” says Reese, who is
hard-of-hearing. “I’ve never been close enough. Before this,
I only listened to dance music, because I could feel the
beat. But now I can branch out to other genres.” We both
watch the ASL interpreter while Larsson sings “Make That Money Girl.” The music morphs
from audible to tactile as the interpreter smacks her pinched
fingers against her open palm to form the sign for money; you
can imagine the fat stack of bills slapping back and forth in
the interpreter’s hands.

“Without [an ASL interpreter], I miss almost all the words,”
Reese adds. Since the festival’s DHH accessibility program
was formalized in 2014, the steady improvement has made this
the best concert experience in her five years of going to
Lollapalooza — and has widened her circle of friends. “It’s
been really good to know I’m not the only young person
dealing with this,” Reese says.

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

Matt Maxexy, the founder of Deafintely Dope, interprets
Chance the Rapper’s Lollapalooza performance on Aug. 6,
2017

Amber Galloway Gallego makes sure she puts her whole
body into the music when she’s interpreting.

Her cheeks puff out while interpreting the thick bass line in
a 2014 interpretation of Meghan Trainor’s “All About
That Bass.” She shuts her eyes and winces with her hands
up near her chest to interpret the looping guitar riff of
Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” in another video earlier this year. Galloway
Gallego wants to be sure fans catch not only the artist’s
lyrics, but their entire emotional vibe. As the DHH fans who
watch her will attest, simply knowing the proper signs in ASL
is only one facet of effectively communicating with it.

ASL mirrors spoken language: It has its own dialects (you can
get into a version of the “pop” vs “soda” debate in ASL), and
fluent speakers say they can pick up regional and even rural
or city accents. As the name implies, ASL is also uniquely
American — though it’s actually closer to French Sign
Language (LSF) than British Sign Language (BSL).

Galloway Gallego is one of the most popular ASL music
interpreters in the country because she and her team have
perfected the art. Interpreters spend weeks preparing for a
single set by memorizing lyrics, slang, and where the beat
drops. They have to understand the musician’s personality,
since they interpret not only their music but any interaction
the artist has with the audience — and any mistakes the
artist makes.

ASL mirrors spoken language: It has its own dialects (you can
get into a version of the “pop” vs “soda” debate in ASL).

If a musician’s vocals are frayed or their instruments are
out of tune, it comes across in the interpretation (a “this
is really bad” face might accompany an out-of-tune guitar
riff). During Zara Larsson’s set, the Swedish singer flubbed
the name of the festival, calling it “Lola” instead of
“Lolla.” Since flubs get interpreted, a few DHH members of
the crowd were flashing the same bemused smile as the folks
in the hearing section.

This warts-and-all philosophy toward music interpretation is
the one DHH music fans — both in person and online — say they
like best, and it’s the one practiced by the next generation
of interpreters. One of them is Matt Maxey, the 29-year-old
founder of Deafinitely Dope, the team of young black
interpreters that Chance the Rapper hired for his tour.

“I founded Deafinitely Dope to break barriers between the
hearing and deaf communities through music and sign
language,” wrote Maxey in an email to me a week after
Lollapalooza. When asked about the importance of having
representation by black ASL interpreters, he responded: “It’s
important and helpful because a lot of times, unwarranted or
not, rappers become role models for the new generation, and
for the deaf community to have people that embody that
persona; it changes their perspective of the world around
them.”

Rachel Arfa, a 39-year-old civil rights lawyer in Chicago who
describes herself as “little ‘d’” deaf, singled out Maxey as
her favorite interpreter of the festival. “Matt has been
rapping songs for years in American Sign Language so this is
a natural fit for him. Other artists, when they get ASL
interpreter requests, they simply call local interpreting
agencies and hire two ASL interpreters who are available, and
do not give them preparation or time,” Arfa wrote. “Matt is
able to honor Chance’s personality and philosophy as a rapper
and that has a greater impact on conveying the songs during
the performance.”

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

An ASL interpreter performs at Lollapalooza in Chicago on
Aug. 6, 2017.

Even with one day left in the festival, Saturday night
is a sort of early finale — the crowning moment of the
festival for DHH fans. Chance the Rapper’s set is the last
one of Saturday night, and it’s on the biggest stage in the
park, where we’re all hanging out.

Even though it’s more than an hour before showtime, the DHH
audience is packed before the area reaches capacity — as
folks take the opportunity to chat with fellow DHH music fans
in one place. Cryer is among them, chatting, asking
questions, and making introductions.

Some of the people in the area are Cryer’s friends. The rest
are strangers, but only for a moment; friendships form fast
in this crowd. (Later on she’ll laugh when our photographer
and I ask for the names of her new friends: “I don’t know
their English names, only their ASL names!”)

With Cryer and her friends deep in conversation, I stand to
the side and smile widely, despite knowing that I can’t smile
away my awkwardness. An ASL interpreter floating through the
area can tell I’m helpless and comes to my rescue. Once she
knows I’m trying to talk to Cryer, she stands to the side to
interpret while Cryer and I face each other (it’s considered
bad manners for a hearing person to turn and face the
interpreter) and Cryer’s friends look on.

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

Lisa Cryer at Lollapalooza in Chicago on Aug. 6, 2017.

“We’re talking about things like who has cigarettes and weed,
right in front of you,” Cryer explains. She’s revealing
tidbits of the surrounding atmosphere that I was completely
oblivious to — including the fact that the young man sitting
near me looking pained has to urgently pee. She pulls me to a
safer area before continuing.

Cryer understands that I felt adrift in the midst of the DHH
crowd — excluded, to an extent, though not intentionally —
and points out that I just experienced a tiny sliver of what
it’s like for her and other DHH people when they try to do
something as routine as going to a concert. “That is what my
everyday life is like, not knowing what’s around me,” she
says. “Access is important. Something as simple as being able
to ask for a piece of gum in my native language with my
friends is so very, very rare.”

Without access, the otherwise fun and social experience of
seeing live music is not only more lonely, it’s sometimes
scary.

Without access, the otherwise fun and social experience of
seeing live music is not only more lonely, it’s sometimes
scary. Men have grown angry at her when she doesn’t respond
to them — like a security guard cutting through a crowd or a
guy hitting on her — because they don’t know she’s deaf.
Without an interpreter, there’s no way to get clarification
other than tapping out lengthy sentences on a phone or
writing it on paper (which Cryer has graciously done, for my
benefit). When severe weather forced an evacuation on the
festival’s first night, thousands of festgoers with dead
phones and no signal extracted info on where to exit or take
cover from the people talking around them. Cryer says she’s
shut out of this kind of “incidental information” that
hearing people have access to all the time.

As if on cue, another emergency situation pops up at the
Chance show. Behind us, someone in the general admission
section on the other side of the DHH barrier needs a medic.
Word travels quickly, thanks to the ASL interpreting
volunteers clad in blue shirts who are roaming the DHH area,
and in less than a minute, people in the DHH crowd are
helping to hoist a peaked-looking young woman over the
barrier. Directions from security have already been
disseminated, and the DHH crowd makes a path for the woman’s
exit. It’s easy to imagine the situation unfolding a lot more
chaotically, had there been no access area in the venue.
Having this level of access is new, Cryer says, and having it
makes her feel comfortable and safe. Access, she says, is
ultimately independence.

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

ASL interpreters from Deafinitely Dope interpret Chance
the Rapper’s set at Lollapalooza in Chicago on Aug. 6,
2017.

Chance the Rapper is late, and the crowd is getting
restless. The sun is almost down, making it harder for people
to see one another sign, but the anticipation is evident from
the sea of widened eyes and and the people shifting their
weight from foot to foot.

The DHH area has gone from crowded to sardine-like in the
past hour. While Chance’s fanbase is largely identified as
millennial, the fact that at least a hundred DHH fans are
eager for his set indicates that his appeal is even broader.
“This year Lolla is a bigger deal because of Chance. The fact
that everyone knows that he has made it clear he will provide
access is a big deal,” Cryer says. DHH fans, including those
who have never attended a festival before, came just to see
him.

With so much built-up anticipation, the rapper’s lateness
starts to worry some fans who are aware of the tightly
enforced cutoff time. It’s gotten to the point where the
audience cheers when anyone appears on stage. A roadie gets a
cheer. A sound checker gets a cheer. Members of the Chicago
Fire Department get cheers (Chance will later enlist their
assistance to help him douse the audience with a firehose).

When the video screens crackle to life and play a highlight
reel of Chance’s biggest moments over the past year —
performing for the Obamas, winning a Grammy — a few DHH fans
express disappointment that the video isn’t captioned. That
was an easy one. But the ASL interpreters are in position.
The video ends, fog fills the stage, and a wall of hands
shoot up into the air, wagging back and forth.

The applause is thunderous.

As Chance begins his set, Cryer pauses to reflect on how just
a fraction of her 45 years as a music fan have been
accessible. Decades of struggling for space, of being
disappointed by lackluster experiences, of fighting to simply
enjoy something she loves so much — at this moment, they fade
into the background and there’s nothing between her and the
music.

“I’ve gone 30-something years waiting for this,” she says.
“It feels like home.” ●

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

Hard of hearing music fans often show their love for the
performer by showing the ASL sign for “I love you,” at
Lollapalooza music Festival in Chicago, on Saturday,
August 6th 2017.

CORRECTION

Aug. 27, 2017, at 22:29 PM

Derrick Coleman is the NFL’s first deaf offensive player. A
previous version of this post misstated his position.

Kim Bellware is a reporter living in Chicago. She
previously covered criminal justice, breaking news and
politics for The Huffington Post.

Contact Kim Bellware at kbellware@gmail.com.


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