Deaf Music Fans Are Finally Starting To Be Heard

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Posted on: August 28, 2017

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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.

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.

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

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.

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.

Brittany Sowacke

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.

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

Brittany Sowacke for BuzzFeed News

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.

Amber Galloway Gallego

YouTube / Via youtube.com

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).


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