Less than a week after hosting a lecture from California rapper Lil’ B, New York University continued its Hip-Hop lovefest last night (April 16) with an event called “Signs & Rhymes: Intersections of Deaf and Hip-Hop Cultures,” a unique concert headlined by SignMark, a deaf MC from Finland.
While the Hip-Hop community is not totally unaware that rappers with physical impairments exist — viewers of BET’s 106 & Park became familiar with visually-impaired MC Blind Fury through his “Freestyle Friday” victories and appearance in one of the network’s popular awards show rap cyphers — most are unaware that a community of hearing impaired Hip-Hop fans and acts even exists. NYU junior Community Music Therapy major Jesse Warner organized the free “Signs & Rhymes” concert to introduce people to this unexpected sector of rap fandom while also providing an opportunity to “connect communities and bridge cultures.”
“[These] musicians are deaf and are using music to bridge that gap” between the hearing and non-hearing communities, Warner tells the Washington Square News, NYU’s daily student newspaper. “I don’t think people really realize the rich culture that exists and cultural norms and different trends that are so different than the hearing community.”
Warner, 20, who minors in American Sign Language (ASL) and has worked with the hearing impaired since childhood, says she was inspired to put the concert together after seeing one of SignMark’s performances last year.
“I’m highlighting the fact that the deaf community has its own cultural norms,” she tells the New York Daily News, “and they really enjoy experiencing music, which you would not expect,”
Marko “SignMark” Vuoriheimo, a 34-year-old MC who was born deaf, delivers his rhymes in ASL, relying on an amplified bass line to help him keep tempo. Fellow rapper Brandon Bauer spits Signmark’s lyrics in English for the hearing audience, creating a bilingual experience at every show. SignMark is a popular figure on the deaf Hip-Hop scene thanks to his high-energy performances, advocacy for deaf rights and equality, and for releasing Breaking the Rules, the first sign language Hip-Hop DVD. SignMark is also the first deaf Hip-Hop artist to receive a deal from an international record label, having signed with Warner Music in 2009.
“Nobody believed that deaf and music could be put together at all or that a deaf person would ever be able to pursue a career in music,” SignMark said in an online interview. Though he just started creating music in 2004, the trailblazing MC has already become one of the biggest and most visible advocates for deaf rights. He’s even a special assistant to the United Nations Foreign Affairs administration working on disabled human rights. “It’s not a question of being deaf, hearing or having different religion or skin colour, because everyone has a right to strive for his or her dreams. No one has the right to define who is normal and who needs to change towards being more normal. Everyone should be respected the way they are!”
The concert itself was hosted by deaf actor and comic CJ Jones and brought together people from inside and outside of both the NYU community and the deaf community at large, hopefully helping them all understand each other a little better.
“Events like this are important to show that there is professional deaf talent,” Jones told the Daily News. “We have a lot of successes. You do not need to be ‘hearing’ to function in your world.”
SignMark and Jones are just two of the names working to help bring the deaf community and its talents to the mainstream’s attention. Unbeknownst to many, the list of deaf MCs is already a lengthy one that includes names like Def Familia, Silent Mob, Def Row, Ghetto Hands Boyz and The Helix Boyz. The MCs of the deaf community are just as proud and confident as their hearing counterparts.
“I’m no different from them, just deaf,” Silent Mob member James “Def Thug” Taylor told website CityLimits back in 2010.
At the end of the day, MCs from the deaf community want the same things all MCs do: To be respected for their craft and seen as equals.
“Being deaf is not a disability,” SignMark says. “Music is not only for the hearing. … Music is for all.”
Watch: Signmark – “Our Life”
Watch: Bowery Poetry Club’s Deaf Poetry Slam (NYC)