Breaking Barriers: How Matt Maxey Combines American Sign Language (ASL) and Hip-Hop

signz

By Matt Maxey

My name is Matt Maxey, I'm a 24-year-old deaf man. I can talk and speak with hearing friends, and I can use sign language in silence with my deaf friends, but it wasn't always like that.

I grew up in Texas and Georgia, going to public schools and being the only deaf person in the whole school. I took extensive speech therapy to be able to communicate with people, and I had no knowledge of the deaf world. After high school, I received an academic scholarship to attend Gallaudet University, a deaf liberal arts university in Washington DC, and I jumped at the opportunity to be able to experience my own kind, my own culture, and learn what its like to be deaf, similar to how African Americans travel to Africa to learn more about where we come from and see other people like us.

When I got to Gallaudet, everybody on the campus used sign language, and I barely knew how to say my own name in sign language. I had to attend a new signers program as a transitional class to the deaf society, and in the beginning, I hated it. Deaf students didn't like me at first, because I would always be singing out loud, (they're deaf, I didn't think it bothered them), or talking on my cell phone, or talking with people instead of communicating in sign language, and in that world, it offends them, similar to how the hearing world doesn't like when you whisper right in front of them and they can't understand what you are saying.

I wanted to have the best of both worlds, to be able to blend in with hearing people and to blend in with the deaf society—and what helped me is music.

I wanted to have the best of both worlds, to be able to blend in with hearing people and to blend in with the deaf society—and what helped me is music. I listen to music all the time, even with a severely profound hearing loss. I have two hearing aids, that I take off to listen to my headphones, and since I've always loved music my whole life, I actually hear it pretty well, like it's a part of me. To help me learn sign language, I would always practice trying to keep up with the lyrics in sign language, it was frustrating at first—the lyrics were too fast and my hands were too slow to keep up. I was determined though, and after three years in DC, I started being able to keep up with the songs with my hands.

A friend saw me signing songs one day, told me that it was pretty cool, and he took me to the computer lab to sign "One Night Stand" by Lil Jon and Oobie and put it on YouTube. I didn't think that would work, because he only had 200 views on his video, and I thought my signing was terrible. We did the video, put it on YouTube and it shot to 3,000 views off the bat. I was excited because I thought, "Wow, people actually like this," and I was proud that I was able to sign songs now. Another friend then contacted me to do "The Winner" by Drake. We went to the computer lab and knocked it out, and the deaf world LOVED IT. Everybody would walk up to me, signing, "I deserve this shit" like it says in the chorus, telling me I was a breath of fresh air to the "deaf rap" scene.

The one that really set the bar was "One Wish" by Ray J. That one shot to over 10,000 views and 100 likes, and I was surprised, because I was completely drunk signing that song (going through a rough time in life), and I thought I could do much better, but people were loving that video. Everybody encouraged me to keep doing it. So I kept doing it!

How it's done:

I rap along with the songs perfectly through repetition. I practice whenever I can and over time it becomes second nature to know how to sign a specific song. Because I am deaf, I do have to learn the lyrics first, perfectly, then I try to match the signs to the lyrics.

Deaf people will have different signs for different words that make the song seem cooler—similar to how we talk in slang—so that goes to show there is "slang" in sign language too. I feel the vibrations through hearing it out loud with my hearing aids, and I'm able to hear the words clearer out loud, but I also have to hear it through my headphones because that helps me get my timing of the song right, and helps me to notice little parts of the music that makes me feel like I connect with the song more because that's all I hear is the music and nothing else.

Also, experiencing hip hop at a party is the same way for a deaf person like it is for a hearing person because of the deep bass, and steady rhythm, although it is hard for a deaf person to understand the lyrics without having to use websites like Rap Genius but even without knowing all the words, we do still feel the vibrations and we're able to dance too, just like everybody else.

Click below to see some of your favorite songs in a whole new language.

CLICK TO WATCH MATT AT WORK