It was fall of 2011, and I was in a loading dock at Gallaudet University, the U.S.’s primary college for the Deaf and hard of hearing (HOH), for a campus party. Mylar laid on the floor reflected sharp green lasers and shot across the cave-like venue. The stage is packed, too, with a revolving rotation of DJs and rappers signing as they spat. Leading up to that night, many students effectively scared me with warnings. “Wait until tonight,” they told me through an interpreter. Multiple people emphatically advised earplugs. “If not, you’ll be Deaf, too!” one joked.
A sinister-looking stack of subwoofers didn’t threaten my loss of hearing as much as a loss of dinner. The actual music wasn’t any louder than a Boris concert, but the heavy vibrations were all-consuming. I visited the porta-potty just outside, hollering in a truly futile fashion when I heard what I thought was someone banging on the door. I stepped out and no one was even close. During several instances throughout my five-hour stay, I wondered if I might vomit.
It is shocking to me how astounded people are when they learn that Deaf people not only adore but also make music.
Rapper Darius “Prinz-D” McCall grew up in Birmingham, Alabama’s projects and there’s a trace of twang in his deep, smooth flow. He’s worked with a speech therapist for years to eliminate audio evidence of his Deafness and frankly, considering his performance and recordings, his hustle paid off. In general, his Southern-fried trappy style is on par with the chest-puffed, slurry delivery of say, Soulja Boy. Or T.I.
I first saw Prinz-D in 2011, in a basement rec room at Gallaudet. He stood tall and confident, dressed in all white, coolly holding the mic to his side until the beat dropped in. The grounding 808 sub-bass kick drums ignited the stage, his limbs and the audience. As a general rule with predominantly Deaf audiences, Prinz-D performs in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English. The ASL is compromised when he holds a microphone, which is one reason why most Deaf or HOH entertainers perform without one, opting instead to shout along to a track and focus the performance on accentuating the signs and dancing. Some members of the audience were clearly annoyed by his haphazard attention to signing, but in general, Prinz-D kept the crowd engaged. They were feeling it — literally.
This kind of response wasn’t always this way. Warren “Wawa” Snipe, a Deaf entertainer, kicked off his performance career without even a lukewarm reception. He first took the stage as a student at Gallaudet in the late ’80s. It took a lot of guts for Wawa, who’s originally from Philadelphia but now lives in North Virginia, to perform publicly — even just in front of his fellow students. His first attempt was cut short, when the panicked sound guys unplugged his set after two minutes. “They said, ‘Stop the music! What are you trying to do?’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I thought Deaf people supported each other,’” he told me when we met at a D.C. cafe in July of last year. He wears a hearing aid and reads lips well enough that we can communicate without signing, and is animated when talking about his career. “I was restless, restless. I was amped up, ready to go for it. And I did — several times…but people said, ‘A Deaf rapper is impossible.’”
Wawa explained that much of the opposition to his performance stemmed from the political climate in the Deaf community. Some detractors accused him of rejecting Deaf culture, claiming he was “trying to be part of the hearing community…’trying to be like these people.’ Over time, they’ve almost — and I say almost — come together into one Deaf community.”
National Association of the Deaf CEO Howard A. Rosenblum attributes much of the shift in attitude to the growing popularity of social media and video streaming sites like YouTube. “Deaf and hard of hearing people have started to reclaim sound in recent years, especially with the advent of new technology that makes music more accessible and visual,” he said via email. “Twenty years ago, music videos were done by studios with a huge amount of resources. But now anyone with a smartphone can create clever or compelling music videos. As a result, music videos have become more accessible to everyone.”
The arrival of easily homemade videos and apps like Shazam unlocked the puzzle of lyrics. Videos allowed sharper focus on the emotions and stories explored in the lyric content that had been previously a mystery. From Shazam, they could take the artist and title to research the song online — learning the specific lyrics and any surrounding narrative. It revealed a new poetic component, another facet to marvel over and mimic for a whole new audience and group of creators.
Obviously, Deafness presents a major obstacle in a field dominated by sound. A person who grew up and mostly communicates in ASL approaches spoken American English as almost a second language. For starters, the sentence structure in signing is completely different, which means writing lyrics takes careful attention so that the words make sense to a hearing audience. D.C.-based rapper Shawn “Polar Bear” Self, who was born Deaf and raised in a Deaf family, explains it as follows: “If you’re a Deaf person who grew up in a Deaf school, you don’t have a strong understanding of English. In ASL, it’s not ‘I’m gonna go to the store. I’m gonna buy me some milk.’ It’s ‘me, you, go store.’” Developing a writing style that overlaps with the hearing world without alienating their core Deaf fans is tricky.
Then there is the process of losing the “Deaf accent,” a slight speech impediment that can develop when a person doesn’t hear his or her own voice and adjust volume or annunciation subconsciously. Sometimes the accent so thick it obscures words or phrases completely. Polar Bear and Prinz-D say they take classes to shake theirs, but often they must rely on fully hearing ears to confirm their clarity. Many of the young men I spoke with speculated that producers feel nervous approaching Deafness as anything but a “disability,” guilting themselves out of providing honest feedback to the artists in the booth. One name that came up a lot in my research, though, was producer DJ Nicar, a Gallaudet alum who is also hearing — making him part of the approximately 5 percent minority of hearing students the school allows to enroll.
“He gets it,” Polar Bear said, explaining Nicar’s forthright approach to recording. He demands take after take until words are clearly enunciated. It’s a candor that is both appreciated and, sadly, rare. “I think there’s a misconception of inability,” Nicar said. “[Deaf people] just speak a different language and have a different culture. I feel a lot of hearing people haven’t recognized that [culture]. I learned about the culture part and didn’t really focus on the disability part.”
Nicar works with both Deaf and hearing people. He said even though there are, of course, challenges when it comes to recording Deaf musicians, these artists also carry something of a superpower. “[Hearing artists] write their lyrics to the strings — they don’t pay as much attention to the drums,” he said. “Deaf people really home in on the drums because that’s what they feel the most.” As a result, Deaf artists have a potent knack for identifying and syncing with beats — a crucial component in rap.
This explains why Deaf people who are interested in making music tend to chase hip-hop specifically. Deaf DJ Kazeem Babatunde idolizes DJ Qbert, obsessing over proper proportions in levels and matching beats per minute while making rap mixes. “Trap music is all about drops, bass — it’s like a heavy short bass that kicks you real hard,” he said.
“I look for heavy beats every day,” Polar Bear said. “Like trap beats that really go off the chart. Deaf people go crazy about it.”
So even after these artists nail a certain mark sound-wise, the next struggle involves being heard outside the Deaf community. They relentlessly strive to be taken seriously. Wawa explained a recent attempt to find management. He visited a small artist-management agency’s office, played his track and faced immediate skepticism. He says the potential manager told him, “This is not you. This can’t be you. This has got to be somebody else.”
“I said, ‘But this is my voice,’” Wawa told me. “He said, ‘If you can bring in this guy rapping and we pair him with you, we can do that. But I don’t think the world is ready for just you.’ I said, ‘But this is me! This is my voice! This is me!’ I said, ‘Have a good day. Kiss my ass.’” Wawa explained the same sort of stigma affecting hearing producers seeps into the management world. “I think it’s just fear of communication,” he said. “They think, ‘Deaf? He’s Deaf! Oh my god. I have to hire an interpreter, I gotta do all this stuff!’ That isn’t the case.”
Wawa said sometimes the hearing public’s uncertainty on how to interpret Deaf musicians’ work ends up crippling their efforts. “We get the door slammed in our face a lot,” he said. “Maybe sometimes some of us will go on the stage and say, ‘OK, no sign, just rap.’” Later, hearing people are confused because there’s no signing. “Well you won’t accept us when we sign,” Wawa said. “So we have to do it twice.”
The level of dedication these young men apply to their craft is astounding — but they reject any special treatment. “We don’t want pity,” Polar Bear said. “We’re happy to be who we are.”