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Why sign language translators are the unsung heroes of live music

Sign language interpreters are truly the unsung heroes of live music, from signing the Rap God lyrics, to literally anything else.

Sign language interpreters have been an increasingly common occurrence at music festivals, which is nothing short of excellent news. However, interpreters of live music don’t just translate Rap God lyrics to ASL (American Sign Language) or Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

They communicate the emotions of the song in every physical way possible. Let’s take a closer look.

rap god lyrics
Photo of: Barbie Parker

Here’s a sentiment to think about. The gift of music doesn’t have to be exclusive to people that can hear. Or anyone, for that matter. Although not deaf, my brother has many intellectual disabilities – but still, music helps him feel liberated and escape from a society that is difficult for him to comprehend.

When I discovered that people with hearing impairments also have ways to participate in live music, I was thrilled. One of the ways this is possible is through bass frequencies, which many deaf people can still hear and other frequencies; through adjusting the settings on their hearing aids. Another way for music to be further enjoyed by the deaf community is through sign language interpreters.

With interpreters like Barbie Parker (pictured above) enthusiastically able to sign the lyrics as artists perform, another boundary for the hearing impaired is crossed. But why stop there? Parker and many other interpreters pull out all the stops. From air guitar to mouthing the words, and of course, grooving along to the song, emotion is carried to a larger percentage of the crowd. To celebrate these underappreciated heroes that make music more accessible for all, let’s relish in some of their most rockstar moments.

Waka Flocka – Hard In Da Paint (interpreted by Holly Maniatty)

Holly Maniatty is probably the biggest ASL live music interpreter on the planet. And for good reason. With her effortless grooves and ability to keep up with the lyrics, Maniatty has gone on to interpret for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2. Here, rapper Waka Flocka mistakes (we’re pretty sure) her interpretations as dance moves, proceeding to jump off the main stage to go vibe out with her. A genuinely iconic moment.

Highlight: “I go hard in the motherfucking paint n****” (0:34)

Shana Tucker – Fast Car (interpreted by Kyla Wilkenfeld)

Shana Tucka delivers a stunning cover of folk classic Fast Car by Tracy Chapman, wielding a cello with great efficiency. At the front is the equally impressive Kyla Wilkefeld, who portrays the heartfelt story with great passion and rhythmic sensibility. It’s worth watching the whole performance.

Highlight: When the two embrace at the end (5:42)

Kendrick Lamar – Fuckin Problems (interpreted by Amber Galloway Gallego)

Gallego matches the “fuck off” energy Kendrick Lamar conveys in Fuckin Problems to a tee. Signing for his 2013 set at Lollapalooza, Gallego instantly went viral on YouTube for her badassery and total physical dedication, introducing many to the growing art of sign language interpretation at live music.

Highlight: “Girl, you know you want this dick!” (1:14)

Eminem – Rap God (interpreted by Holly Maniatty)

We all have that one mate who dedicated his waking moments to learning all the Rap God lyrics so that he/she could dish them out as a party trick. Slightly cringe, but yes, impressive. Now, imagine having to sign all those rapid-fire-lyrics for a crowd of Eminem stans. Interpreter Holly was clearly up to the task. Fingers crossed she earned a raise for this one.

Highlight: When the ultra-fast verse comes in (0:15)

Logic – Freestyle Performance (interpreted by KAABOO)

Logic takes his appreciation of sign language performance a step further by putting interpreter KAABOO to the test. While Logic freestyles the lyrics, KAABOO has to keep up and match the energy. In our opinion, we reckon he outperforms Logic. What do you think?

Highlight: “he goes with the flow” (1:34)