Hearing people signing songs: cultural appropriation

Hearing people siGNing a song in sign language that attracts attention in public domain or media is both language appropriation and cultural appropriation (and "coolism") that is generally unacceptable and offensive to Deaf community. Cultural appropriation is not a single factor but also a long history of oppression plays in the fabric of factors.

Gone Viral

In May 2015, a hearing First Nations male friend, who knows some ASL, texted me a link to the signed interpretation of a song in ASL by Eminem (just before it went viral) and asked what I thought. I frankly replied. Finally, to help him see through his own cultural lens, I explained, "Suppose some White sings in Dene (or any languages of the First Nations) and showcases her Dene skills. What do you think?" He replied, "LOL, point taken."

Yes, exactly. Would one sing translating an English song into a non-native language (e.g. German, Jamaican, etc.) and proudly display it on YouTube? Would they expect to receive a number of likes and shares? Or a bunch of tomatoes? Seriously, would they dare to? Do they think they can get away with it? What's the difference with ASL? ASL as a language is no less than a spoken language.

Why did a few hearing signers singing in sign language do it? Many of hearing viewers often have no idea how naive and/or ignorant they are. They can be easily wowed by just looking at moving hands, while many first-language ASL (Deaf) speakers raise eyebrows. They are nowhere as close as some native (Deaf) talents who are often marginalized. Cultural appropriation is an immediate turn-off.

Many signed songs, including the viral ones, come with poor grammatical structure, incomprehensive production, awkward conceptual interpretation, un-authenticity, and so on. Yet, they received many applauses and thumb-ups while talented Deaf singers, performers, and storytellers are often marginalized in the society. Many professional interpreters of many years are aware that they do have grammar errors, hearing accent, and other things.

"OK... so... sign language is probably the most exploited language on Earth after seeing many bad tutorial videos on YouTube by hearies (or should I say signer-wannabes) teaching how to sing lyrics in ASL and it's making my blood boil. What's even worse, they're getting thousands of hits, earning them money, while fluent signers (meaning Deaf people) are nowhere close to the number. WHY?? Somebody, please explain that to me. *ahems* Oooommmm! Oooommmm..." -- Jody Birley, FB, Feb 11, 2017.

This comment represents a common response.

Deaf Talents

Here is a few examples of some talented native-signers.

Deaf Finnish rapper Marko Vuoriheimo a.k.a Signmark has performed many video and live music performances in his native Finnish sign language and some in ASL. He is the first deaf artist in the world to get a record deal with an international music label.

Other Deaf artists are Amber Zion, Rosa Lee Timm, Sean Forbes, Sean Berdy, and more.

The music video "Rolling in the Deep" was created with a team of deaf professionals and signed (translated) by Amber Zion who also performed the American national anthem at the Super Bowl in 2014.

Spring Awakening in sign language
Screenshot from Deaf West's YT channel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56TRT4dhQLM

A diverse mix of Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing performers can work together in different ways, such as Deaf West Theatre's Broadway revival of Spring Awakening (2015).

And, for fun. Karaoke gives both Deaf and hearing an equal access to having fun singing, following a captioned song on the screen. In the video below, the duo -- a native-ASL speaker (ASL instructor) and a hearing ally (interpreter) -- had fun singing karaoke together in ASL in 2007 at a Deaf event/party. Each of them have their own interpretation, some similar ideas, some different ideas.

Audism and Exploitation

Scenario: Several years ago (2010s), a hearing duo emailed me her request for helping her with signing a song for the internationally-recognized, well-respected event to pay respect to a tragic event (massacre) in another country. I inquired further and recommended that they invited Deaf persons signing in their country's native signed language. It's significant that Deaf people perform a song that they represent their own people's language. No, they wanted ASL and they were going to sign themselves (hearing privilege and cultural appropriation). In addition, did they expect me to spend all my volunteer hours tutoring them? This hearing person further tried to convince how important the event was. Again, I downright declined. It was important to herself that she herself signs in a spotlight instead of a Deaf person.

Dr Raychelle Harris shares a passage she wrote from pages 250-252 in Exploring Deaf Culture: Deaf Communities in the United States (Leigh, Andrews & Harris, 2018). She made this excerpt publicly shareable on Facebook, February 2017, and has granted permission to post here.

[Excerpt begins] A common practice that is of concern to the Deaf community is when hearing people sign songs in what they think is ASL, achieving some popularity online, for monetary gain. The practice of gaining fame and/or making money from sign language that is rendered incorrectly is not ethical and is often considered to be cultural and language appropriation (Maler, 2013; Torrance, 2014; Whitworth, 2014; Zola, 2015). Cultural and language appropriation happens when elements of a language or culture are taken from a minority culture, and used by members of the majority culture, often associated with portraying themselves as seeming charitable and sweet by helping disabled people or minority groups, possibly used to gain fame, earn revenue, find job opportunities, or increase their social media presence by having more followers (Hill, 2008).

Hearing people learning sign language often think it is fun to translate songs written in English to ASL, often with good intentions, but they do not realize that this practice is offensive to the Deaf community. Although they mean well, hearing amateurs signing songs are found on YouTube, and their links often have more viewers than actual Deaf signing professionals and their professionally translated ASL songs (Zola, 2015). Often the hearing signers or interpreters, signing songs, are more there for hearing people's enjoyment and awe, rather than to provide actual, authentic access for Deaf audiences. This is a good example of what is termed inspiration porn, where people with disabilities or instruments needed for their access (e.g., walking cane or sign language) are objectified and made into something that makes hearing audiences feel good about themselves (Grushkin, 2014; 2015). Westfall (2015) adds that opportunities, paid or not, to translate songs from English to ASL are often given to hearing people who sign, while numerous expert Deaf actors and performers are frequently and inadvertently overlooked. A recent example of language and cultural appropriation was when Jimmy Kimmel hosted a "rap battle," where people on stage translated Wiz Khalifa's song as he performed "Black and Yellow". Of the three white women on stage, two were hearing (Okrent, 2014; Zola, 2015). Why weren't professional Black Deaf rappers, who spent years studying and performing their craft, invited?

Another example of unintentional language and cultural appropriation is when Brian Guendling, an ASL student at Texas State University, decided to "put on the First Sign Language Concert Ever" by performing "Uptown Funk" at a bar (Patterson, 2015). He posted the video footage of his performance on YouTube and within 3 days, there were over 65,000 views (a few months later, his video had over 228,000 views), and he woke up to over 200 messages, as well as many media and interview requests, and had many articles about him published in prominent news outlets such as CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated (Rodriguez, 2015). After a few weeks, Guendling revised his YouTube video description, eliminating the line, "First Sign Language Concert Ever" and replacing that line with: I know this is not the first ASL "concert" as I do want to acknowledge those that work very hard and do a fantastic job at what they do, The Wild Zappers, Sean P Forbes, WaWa (Warren Snipe), and the San Antonio Deaf Dance company" (Guendling, 2015, p.1).

"Contrast this with a popular Deaf ASL song translator in the Deaf community, Rosa Lee Timm, a professional Deaf performance artist honing her craft for over two decades. Her very popular live solo performances for the Deaf community all over the United States are always sold out. She has approximately 7,000 subscribers for her YouTube page, and none of her professionally produced ASL translations have reached the numbers ASL student Brian Guendling reached in 3 days. Pictured in Figure 9-16 is Rosa Lee signing a translation of "What's Love Got to Do With It?" by Tina Turner.

"Sign language came from Deaf people, who share their language with hearing people freely and in abundance. How might they feel when hearing people take credit in using sign language that belongs to Deaf people and Deaf communities? Many Deaf community members feel this way: Hearing people who learn sign language can certainly embrace the role of an ally. However, it is strongly recommended that they keep their often sadly butchered, signed songs to the confines of their shower stall and work to ensure that the spotlight is kept on Deaf artists and performers when it comes to expressing ASL translated songs in their culture and language (Efron, 2014). Although this may seem a harsh criticism, it is not, because this issue points to how the Deaf community is uncomfortable with hearing person's misuse of their language and lack of linguistic respect for ASL. [Text Box: Explore the meaning of an ally. Norma Morán, a Deaf Latina, noted that there is no such thing as an ally, but instead, acts of allyship. What are examples of acts of allyship that you have done with marginalized communities?]"

[Excerpt ends]


My ASL teaching colleague told me her pet peeve whenever one of her students sent her an email, sharing a signed song that she had no interest in. She replied with explanation and shared a few links to the Deaf-created literary arts.

Instead of expecting a Deaf people to appreciate your hearing culture of music and arts in contexts (e.g. ASL classes), find a way to appreciate Deaf people's artistic works. Ask your Deaf instructor for a resource of literary art works.

Occasionally, I'd receive an email asking for help with their hearing school-age students' performance in sign language. I suggested them to contact Deaf teachers and work with them and have Deaf students in the mix in a performance.

Related posts

Related topic: cultural appropriation in hearing world.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be useful for intermediate-level learners and ASL students to review as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)