Opinion

Signkid: 'I’ll fight deaf people’s right to space in the music industry'

Deaf rapper Signkid says fans and performers need to feel like they're part of the scene

I am the UK’s first and only deaf music producer, writer, and performer to have integrated British Sign Language (BSL) into live hip-hop music performance.

In other words: I rap with my hands.

People often ask me how I can enjoy music as a deaf person. I’m deaf in my right ear and can pick up a little sound in my left ear thanks to a hearing aid. I don’t hear full lyrics but, if I’m in a club, I can feel the beat and the bass. The music pulses through your feet on the floor, the bass moving up your body. It helps my creativity to think of music as something you feel. If a beat catches my attention, I’ll find out the track title and look up the lyrics when I get home – something lots of hearing people do, too.

When I was young, my big brother was watching a Michael Jackson music video on TV, and I was so moved by his dancing. At that time subtitles weren’t available for the music video, so I could only sense the beat through his movements. Despite not hearing the sound, I was fascinated and caught the music bug. I was inspired to forge my own path in the music industry. I loved the creativity of making my own beats and rhymes which would speak to deaf people just as much as they would hearing people.

It’s a dream of mine to have that kind of impact on a young person – to inspire them to go out and be confident in their creativity.

I grew up feeling inspired by hearing artists, but my writing process is a little different from theirs. I start by writing lyrics, like a lot of musicians. But I then have to interpret my own lyrics into BSL so that I can perform them. It’s hard work, more than you’d think, and I absolutely love it. After that, I’ll work it over in the studio on top of a beat.

Music videos still aren’t very accessible for people with hearing difficulties. It’s really important to me that my work is accessible and inclusive, which is why my BSL performance is the focal point of my videos – but overlayed with a hearing rapper, who performs my rhymes verbally too.

When I was 19 years old I spent a lot of time reading Tupac’s book and song lyrics at the library. I was desperate to learn more from him because he wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. He lay his mind and heart bare during interviews. His honesty about his own experiences motivated me to compose songs about the struggles of being deaf. It’s a dream of mine to have that kind of impact on a young person – to inspire them to go out and be confident in their creativity.

I haven’t found festivals to be a particularly accessible environment though some, like Wireless, make sure there is a sign interpreter with every act. But otherwise, without even a text screen, deaf people’s options are really limited. Some organisers might think they don’t need to accommodate people with hearing problems, but I’m determined to fight for deaf people’s right to space in the music industry – as fans and as artists.

I was invited to perform with Big Shaq at Wireless festival last year, and that experience highlighted some of the unique challenges raised by being a deaf person in hip-hop. ‘Sign-songing’ in a genre that often relies on slang requires a lot of creativity and quick thinking because not every word will have a sign – so you have to create one yourself. Performing Man’s Not Hot was a challenge I won’t forget.

As I’ve developed as an artist, Chance the Rapper has had a huge impact on me. Not just because he makes great music without the help of a record label, but because he hired his own sign language interpreters to join him on stage. He made sure his deaf fans knew they were part of the experience too. He’s in a position to set a precedent for the rest of the industry, so it meant even more.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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