To commemorate International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we are pleased to share this post from Jeannette Jones about her experiences with music in Deaf culture.
There’s a legendary world in Deaf culture lore. It’s like Earth but it’s for people of the eye, so they call it Eyeth (get it? EARth, EYEth). In this world, people listen with their eyes with the comfort of being typical, just the way life is, unlike the existence of a Deaf person on Earth, heavily mediated through hearing devices, pads of paper, interpreters, lip reading, and gestures.
I got a small peek into what Eyeth might look like a year and a half ago, when I attended the biennial National Association of the Deaf (NAD) meeting on a sweltering weekend in July in Louisville, KY. When I got there, DeaFestival, a day of arts and fun, was just launching. My goal was to catch as much music and time with musicians as possible, especially with the Deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare. And my job for the day was “listening” (LISTEN-EYES in American Sign Language).
When I stepped across the crosswalk of the streets bordering the convention center, I crossed the threshold into a Deaf world. Everyone around me was signing. Every restaurant in the vicinity had a pad of paper on its counter, a few adventuresome servers had learned some signs. I have been in Deaf environments before, for example at the local Deaf school. But this was different, it was like a small town with adults conducting business in ASL.
A break in the afternoon allowed me to approach the drummer of the band, “Let’s talk.” He says “Ok.” And I’m whisked into a conversation about music with total strangers. A woman about my age said she’s never liked music, she never understood it, and it wasn’t fun to try to lip-read bands. Her friend said, “Oh, you need to learn how to feel it. I love music! It’s like a drug!” She’s open to being convinced. All afternoon I followed the drummer, Bob Hiltermann, around the vendor booths of the NAD meeting, talking to people about music. Another woman was “forced” to take music classes in her mainstream education. Many Deaf people haven’t had opportunities to experience music so it is nothing; others love it and over and over again I heard, “Once you connect what you’re feeling with what’s going on on-stage, it’s amazing!”
I turned to the bass player of Beethoven’s Nightmare, Ed Chevy, “Let’s talk.” We sit down. It is 104 degrees under the tent. He tells me again how much they want to reach out to their Deaf culture with music. Chevy explains that in Deaf culture there is a rich tradition of story-telling and mime, but not so much a musical culture. Beethoven’s Nightmare wants to change that, opening the door of possibility of a musical experience, but first they have to disassociate the notion that this experience is going to be LISTEN-EARS like it is for a hearing person. For them their Deaf musical experience is feeling the beat along with sign language and movement.
Later as evening fell, everyone gathered under the tent for the music. The young Deaf rapper, Sean Forbes, came out waving his arms, getting the crowd excited. Deaf teens and college-aged kids flocked around the stage, screaming and cheering, enthusiastically waving their hands and pounding the air with the beat. He raps in American Sign Language, performing vocals in English over his signs. Forbes’s songs are suffused with his experience as a Deaf person. Creating a bridge between the Deaf and hearing worlds is a driving motivation in his work. He is an inspiration for American Deaf youth, who sport his fan T-shirts that say “I’m Deaf!” in the bold letters from one his songs. In Forbes, Deaf youth see an artistic world that does not exclude them.
While waiting for Beethoven’s Nightmare to get situated for their set, the emcee called for people to come up to the stage to share their memories of being at Gallaudet University, the only Deaf liberal arts college in the world, with the members of the band: “You know we Deaf folks share our stories to preserve our history and preserve our culture, and this is a way of documenting our past.” One woman excitedly came to the stage, and recounted her memory: “I was there in 1977. I knew Ed…they were there for my freshman, sophomore, junior years. They were the best! So great!” Another couple sitting near me also shared about their time at Gallaudet with the band members, telling of how the band played often on Friday nights, for their fellow Deaf students who danced along. Hiltermann distinguishes their group as the only Deaf rock band, describing what they do as “rock and roll infused with American Sign Language.” With this statement Hiltermann is calling on us to consider that ASL is part of the music—not just a text that stands alone, nor a translation of preexisting English lyrics. In their performance, a vocalist sings in English, while signers on stage perform the song in ASL.
Thinking about my day in Eyeth, I am challenged, as a hearing person, to reevaluate how I experience music. I feel the bass pounding deep in my core. I see the music, the lyrics, moving my hands with the beat, performing signs with the chorus along with the rest of the audience. My intersection with a Deaf experience of music has made visible certain multi-sensory aspects of my own hearing as a hearing person that often go unmentioned, and I believe that the binary of the categories of Deaf and hearing becomes are blurred, as we begin to understand the broad spectrum on which musical experiences can lie, somewhere between the ears, the eyes, and the body.