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Hip-Hop Sign Language Is Hard Work

CELESTE HEADLEE: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee; Michel Martin is away. Coming up, having honest conversations about race can require a lot of patience, but the writer behind the "Yo, Is This Racist?" blog says there's value in getting angry and even profane in those debates. He'll explain.

First, though, the challenge of interpreting music with your hands. Our next guest has performed with musicians from Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen to Mumford and Sons, but Holly Maniatty became a viral video star after this year's Bonnaroo festival, when she joined a live performance of this song...


METHOD MAN: Check it, my method on the microphone's bangin' / Wu-Tang slang that leave your headpiece hangin' / Bust this, I'm kickin like Seagal, Out for JusticeThe roughness, yes, the rudeness, ruckus / Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue / Murder one, my style shocks ya, knock like a stun-gun / I'm hectic, I wreck it with the quickness...

HEADLEE: That's "Bring Da Ruckus," by Wu-Tang Clan. Rapper Method Man, there, called her Bonnaroo performance "dope." But Holly Maniatty isn't a rapper, and she's not a singer. She's a sign language interpreter. She's gearing up for her next big event, which is the Phish concert this weekend in Washington state, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

HOLLY MANIATTY: Hi, thank you very much.

HEADLEE: Take me back a little bit, Holly, 'cause you decided to go to college to become a sign language interpreter. How did you end up doing hip-hop?

MANIATTY: That was kind of a natural progression. About 10 years ago, I started doing performance interpreting for a variety of different professional performers. And through that, I just was offered a bunch of different concerts and different performances and as I started to do more hip-hop, I found that it was kind of my niche in terms of musical interpreting, something that I really enjoy. It's very, very challenging, so - I love challenges and I love the idea of making something accessible for a deaf person.

HEADLEE: I have to ask, if you understand why this is your niche, what makes you so good at this?

MANIATTY: I think I had some really good teachers and some really great mentors.

HEADLEE: You had good teachers in hip-hop sign language?

MANIATTY: No, I had really great teachers in American Sign Language linguistics and the ability to analyze texts for meaning and understanding. And from there, there has to be some sort of natural knack and talent that kind of picks it up and is able to apply it to something like hip-hop.

So for me, the foundation was laid in having some really rich use of American Sign Language as well as text analysis and analysis of speakers. So taking those two kind of rudimentary tools and applying them to a genre of music which I also very much enjoy is kind of where that skill emerged. And it's taken a long time to hone that skill, and I continue to work on it with every performance that I do.

HEADLEE: I have to imagine that the amount of slang that's used in a hip-hop concert is one of those challenges. But another one is the curse words, as well. I mean, we didn't hear much of it in that excerpt from "Bring Da Ruckus." The rest of the song is - we can't broadcast it. Do all of these words, all of these different permutations of curse words have translations in American Sign Language?

MANIATTY: Yes. American Sign Language, as any other language across the globe, has their own idiomatic expressions - be them, you know, appropriate or inappropriate. And there are equivalencies from English to American Sign Language, so, you know, just as if there's swears in Spanish, and spoken French, and German, there are swears in American Sign Language.

HEADLEE: Well, you know, another issue with American Sign Language is there's been a lot of criticism of ASL because some of the signs seem to be ethnically racist - the signs for Jew, or Chinese, or gay - have been problematic for people. Has that ever been an issue in your interpretations?

MANIATTY: All the signs that you just mentioned have actually changed in the last 10 or 15 years, and specifically in the last five years for a couple of them. And the reason that is is that deaf people became able to travel, able to, you know, video commute with people and meet deaf people from all over the world. So for example, if they met someone in China, they would ask the person who is deaf in China, what's your sign for China, and then that would be integrated into the language, because it would be the closest culture-bound, or Chinese language-bound sign.

So all those signs that you mentioned at one point may have been offensive to other people, but now as, you know, the world is much more closely connected with technology, a lot of them have evolved. But yeah, there are some risks that you take as an interpreter when you're signing something in a public venue. And you know that risk when you stand up in front of 10,000 people. I mean, you assume there's going to be more than two people there at a Wu-Tang concert, so.

Some people made some comments or, I guess, threw some heat my way about signing the N-word during that concert, and it's interesting that all those people that said that that wasn't appropriate - none of them were users of ASL and/or interpreters. And as an interpreter, we're ethically bound not to change the message that we're given. So in that situation, that was Method Man's choice to use that word. So in that case, as an interpreter, I feel that I have to give the opportunity to the deaf patron to either be down with it or offended. And it's not my role to, A, take away that opportunity, or B, censor somebody who - this is their art form and their livelihood.

HEADLEE: But do you make decisions on who to sign for and who not? I mean, I can't imagine it's too much of a problem with somebody like Bruce Springsteen. But, you know, if you're dealing in hip-hop, there could be some lyrics that are offensive to you as a female, that could be offensive to you because of the violence of the lyric. Have you ever said, I'm not going to sign that?

MANIATTY: I haven't had that situation, where I've read something and said I'm not going to sign that. 'Cause again, it's not my words. And that lyric or that feeling came from the person who wrote it and an experience that they had.

And they've decided to make that public to people, and I don't see any reason why deaf people shouldn't have the same opportunity to be offended or wonder what happened to them or be connected to that experience, 'cause maybe they were a victim of violence, too.

HEADLEE: I mean, I highly recommend that anyone who's listening and intrigued by this interview go and take a look at some of your work. It really very much reminds me of a dancer, in that you're really using your whole body. Do you have to stretch out? I mean, what do you do to prepare for a performance?

MANIATTY: Well, as an interpreter, your body is your tool and you have to take care of that. But beyond that, you really need to prepare for a concert. You need to know where the performers are from, actually, physically - where were they born, where did they grow up, you know, what political affiliations do they have, nonprofit work, stuff like that.

HEADLEE: Wait, wait, wait. So before you do a concert for a band, you find out what nonprofits they support?

MANIATTY: Absolutely, I find out absolutely every possible thing that I can about a performer.

HEADLEE: Why? How does that change your signing?

MANIATTY: It changes it quite a bit. For example, if you're having somebody who supports - you know, is a Democrat or a Republican, I'll use that, it's a very general example - some of their words may be put out there in a neutral tone, however have a really sarcastic intent, and you would know that based on where they lie politically on the spectrum. Also, you need to know where people are from. When I did the Killer Mike show at Bonnaroo, he was born and raised in Atlanta.

So any kind of slang stuff that he was - any; well, most of his stuff was slang - he was throwing out in his performances, I made sure to make it as an indigenous as possible to Atlanta. So for example, the sign "brotha" in Atlanta is different than the one for New York City. So in order to make the interpretations as authentic as possible so the deaf patron is getting as close to the same experience as the hearing people are getting, I'm using signs that are, you know, indigenous to where that person, you know, grew up, or where they're from or where they're living currently.

HEADLEE: But how do you know when you're connecting with the deaf people in the audience? How do you know when you're doing your job right?

MANIATTY: Well, at the end of the Wu-Tang show I was, you know, getting down and getting some water and one of the patrons came up to me and he was signing to me, and he said, you know, I never really got why people like hip-hop so much and now I get it.


MANIATTY: Yeah, as an interpreter you can't ask for anything better - like, he was at that show about something he thought was popular in general culture, and through the interpretation was able to see why people love Method Man or Wu-Tang in general. So for me, that's kind of the mark of success.

HEADLEE: Holly Maniatty is an American Sign Language interpreter who interprets concerts, especially hip-hop. Her next big event is signing at the Phish concert in Washington State this weekend. She joined us from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Portland. Thank you so much, Holly.

MANIATTY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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