How this music buff is using hip-hop and ASL to 'break barriers between music and sign language'

·6 min read

Despite being born with severe hearing loss, Matt Maxey, who has used hearing aids since age 2, wasn't introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) until his teens. Fittingly, given the Georgia native's current work as an in-demand interpreter making hip-hop accessible for the deaf community, it was through music that he got hooked. Being asked to sign for his local church choir on Sundays as a high schooler "made it easier for me to understand how to apply the sign language they were teaching me because I didn't have the opportunity to use it in conversation," Maxey tells Yahoo Life, noting that he had little exposure to others with limited or no hearing growing up, relying instead on his hearing aids and speech therapy to help him communicate with the world at large.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Maxey's mastery of ASL, and passion for music, specifically rap and hip-hop, have helped him carve out a powerful space in the deaf community. As the founder of DEAFinitely Dope, Maxey works to bridge the gap between deaf culture and hip-hop culture, a mission that includes creating videos in which signs along, in his trademark animated style, to tracks from the likes of Tupac and 2 Chainz, interpreting at events (including Chance the Rapper shows), hosting ASL lessons for the cannabis industry and consulting with businesses to boost accessibility. (He can also be booked through Airbnb for a lesson in serenading a sweetheart in ASL.)

"It's a language," he says of his efforts to "break barriers between music and sign language" with DEAFinitely Dope. "It's accessible. It's a possibility to make life better for the people that didn't know it was possible. So many deaf people don't go to music events because they already assume that it's not made for them. But to show the videos, to show the culture, to show presentations, to show performances involving sign language and music, would help lessen that stigma so that it became more of a norm instead of ... a novelty."

(Photo: Matt Maxey)
Matt Maxey's mastery of ASL and passion for music have helped him carve out a powerful space in the deaf community. (Photo: Matt Maxey)

Signing along to songs is a skill Maxey honed while attending Gallaudet University, the only college of its kind tailored for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. He admits that he lagged behind his peers there due to his limited experience with ASL; most were already fluent, while Maxey had previously prioritized speech therapy over signing. Struggling to learn and communicate with his classmates, he decided to "take all the music that I loved listening to and could actually understand, and try to apply as much ASL vocabulary as possible until I could apply it into society."

He calls music his "primary language," something he attributes to his close-knit family and their love of soulful singers like Mary J. Blige and Teddy Pendergrass and hip-hop stars ranging from Jay-Z to Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest. Hip-hop was particularly useful in helping him connect the dots with ASL thanks to its storytelling sensibility and Maxey's personal joy in finding "deeper meaning" within a song.

"Hip-hop applied that a lot, with the double entendres, the metaphors, the wordplay, the lyricism, and it caught my interest," he says. Breaking down a song while working on his singing helped him "piece the whole story together," which in turn influenced his performance style — something the DEAFinitely Dope style describes as "visually artistic interpreting."

Rather than offering literal word-for-word translations, Maxey's richer understanding of a particular song helped him create interpretations and flows that better reflected its message and vibe.

"It's more smooth. It's more fun. It's more entertaining. It's more engaging," he says. "And so that process actually made me more focused and determined on making sure that I show the message in the right way, instead of as little as possible, because I did not realize that — whether they're deaf, hard of hearing or hearing — a lot of times, people don't listen to the actual message of the song. But hearing the song and seeing the sign language oftentimes left a lot of people mind-blown."

His style offers a "more accurate representation," he adds, something that's vital when working with hip-hop, an art form he compares to poetry.

"As I was growing up and watching music [performances], everything that I saw that did have sign language, I couldn't relate to," Maxey says. "I never saw a Black man signing hip-hop. So I'm thinking ... 'I'm sorry, I'm not vibing. I can't get jiggy with it.' And I wanted to put it in a way where everybody could get jiggy with it and add their own twist and flavor to it."

Maxey started posting videos of himself signing online, something that helped him practice his technique while at the same time sharing some of the more underground hip-hop he enjoyed. He also entered an Instagram freestyle rap competition, in which he was the only deaf participant. Though some feedback was negative and ignorant — "'You're not clear. You sound funny,'" he recalls reading — he was ultimately buoyed by commenters cheering on his individuality and talent. Creating DEAFinitely Dope was his next move.

"They always said that I'm 'definitely dope,' but all we had to do is just add an "a," and then I'm representing for the [deaf] culture as well as for the hip-hop culture," Maxey explains of the name.

He also started interpreting live, which is how he found himself, in 2017, signing along to D.R.A.M.'s "Broccoli" at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee as Chance the Rapper watched backstage. Impressed by Maxey's skills and swagger, the Grammy winner requested an introduction and ultimately invited him to join him on his "Be Encouraged" tour.

Since that big break, Maxey has worked with everyone from Gwen Stefani to the MTV Video Music Awards. He's also just executive-produced the documentary Sign the Show, which champions accessibility for the deaf community and is something he hopes will one day be screened in schools. Having grown up "trying to figure out how I could fit in as best as possible," Maxey now hopes his work inspires others to realize "there is space for you here as well" — whether that entails learning to be an interpreter or pursuing music.

"I may not be the best," he says of being an interpreter. "I'm definitely not the only one. But if I can use my platform to create a ripple and domino effect that would last for the rest of history or contribute to the betterment of everything ... it feels like my purpose here is fulfilled."

—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.

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