FREQ #16: Amber Galloway Gallego: Turning Music into Sign Language

Interview by Laura Hudson

Illustration by Lianna Oddi

Most hearing people don’t know the names of many sign language interpreters offhand, but you might know Amber Galloway Gallego even if you don’t realize it. An ASL interpreter by trade, her vibrant, impassioned translations of concerts by artists like Kendrick Lamar and The Red Hot Chili Peppers have gone viral more than once, and even earned her a spot in a sign language rap battle with Wiz Khalifa on Jimmy Kimmel Live. She’s translated that visibility into advocacy around the need for qualified ASL interpreters at music events, and equality and accessibility for deaf people in every aspect of life.

Galloway Gallego is hard of hearing herself, after contracting meningitis in 2002 while working as a sign language interpreter. Her work combines her lifelong love of music — and particularly rap music — with her passion for making entertainment accessible to the deaf community. She talked to FREQ about the joys in the poetry of ASL, misconceptions about music in the hearing community, and why closed captioning is not equal access.

FREQ: You’ve gotten a lot of attention for your work interpreting at concerts, but it seems like ASL music translation wasn’t exactly a popular field when you started out.

Amber Galloway Gallego:
It hasn’t been, because there are a lot of misconceptions about what deaf people like. Hearing people in our hearing-centric world think you have to be able to hear in order to enjoy music, and that’s a falsehood. There’s so much more to music, because music is vibration, and vibration can be felt. They don’t understand the deaf experience, or the level of understanding a deaf person can have, because it doesn’t make sense to them. Just because deaf people have a different journey, we shouldn’t tell them what they can have or can’t have, but hearing people do that often and deny them services every day. But there are deaf musicians and deaf people who are picking up instruments and saying, I can be a part of this because music is a part of humanity.

FREQ: What sparked your interest in ASL interpretation of concerts, specifically?

AGG: I went to the San Antonio livestock show and rodeo, and saw a very unsuccessful [ASL] music interpretation while sitting with my deaf friends. I asked them if they had been moved by the performance, because it was a really good band, and they said no. The music was boring to them, because of what [the translation] looked like. So we started out on this journey together, talking about what music was and what it should look like. I started researching and watched a performance by The Wild Zappers, a deaf dance troupe, and they blew me away with what they did with dancing and sign language and how they incorporated it, because it really showed me what music can be.

photo credit: Priceonomics

FREQ: Are there deaf musicians writing songs in ASL?

AGG: Very much so. I know one musician who’s working on making an entire song series based off of vibrations.

FREQ: People have compared your work to both dance and poetry. In poetry, a lot of the way you select words has as much do with sound and rhythm as meaning. Is there a similar process when translating music into ASL?

AGG: Oh, yeah. There’s alliteration that occurs in sign language that makes beautiful poetry. You can have the same hand shape flow throughout the entire story. Or an ABC story, where deaf people will form an entire story off of the hand shapes of the alphabet. They’ll form an A knocking on the door, and the B could be the door, and the C could be you looking inside. There is magic that happens with this. Deaf people create amazing metaphors in ASL. There’s one gentleman named Manny Hernandez who’s one of the best storytellers I’ve ever seen. You just watch his work and you’re in awe of what he does. He can make pictures come alive.

All languages have things that don’t translate perfectly, though. If you actually voiced out ABC storytelling it wouldn’t be as touching if you saw it and could understand it and how complicated it is. That’s where the true beauty lies. It’s the same thing when you hear certain rhymes and think, oh that was so clever. If you tried to translate a rhyme from English to Spanish, it might not completely carry over. But you can search for equivalents.

FREQ: How different is the grammar between ASL and spoken English?

AGG: The grammatical structure [of ASL] is drastically different. It’s a topicalized language. For example, if you wanted to say that the boy threw the ball, you could say “boy throw ball” or you could say “ball boy throw.” A lot of times deaf people will write in that grammar and people will judge them for that, but most of the time it’s because they’re writing in ASL grammar.

FREQ: Are there special considerations that come into play with translating music, or rap specifically?

AGG: I’m not really into rehearsing, because I like my interpretations to be organic. But with the speed involved [in rap] sometimes I have to sign it a few times to see if it’s going to work. Or I’ll think of an ASL concept I think is equivalent and sometimes I have to rearrange it to make sure that the grammar is still there and I’m still representing the artist as well as being linguistically sound.

FREQ: You’ve talked a lot about the importance of having ASL interpreters at events instead of closed captioning. How does that change the experience?

AGG: If Martina McBride covers the same song as Whitney Houston, those are going to be very different songs. They’re going to connect with that song in very specific ways. But if you go to Songlyrics.com and just pull up the words, you have no idea. It’s no equivalent. If you’re only giving deaf people closed captioning, it shows no emotion, no tonality. You have no idea if the person is happy or sad. Why do we have so many arguments via text message? Because we don’t always see the emotions behind what’s being said. Captioning is not sufficient.

FREQ: Because artists don’t get up on stage and read their lyrics in a monotone.

AGG: Exactly.

FREQ: Do you feel the work that you do makes you a part of the performance, an entertainer as well as an interpreter?

AGG: That’s my goal: to make sure that the energy and personality that is coming off the artist can come through me, like I’m actually a part of the band. I’m an extension of the band and I’m one of their instruments, and that instrument is sign language. There are some bad artists out there that don’t bring it, and we show that as well. If we have an artist the doesn’t have high energy, we’re going to represent that it’s not high energy. So I think of myself as a conduit.

FREQ: Are there fandoms in the deaf community for different interpreters?

AGG: Absolutely. Think about it: who would you want to be your ears, or your voice? It’s pretty personal. So deaf people have different interpreters that they want. But the sad thing is that hearing people, yet again, are saying you’ll get whoever I choose. And it will probably be whoever’s the cheapest, and probably not as skilled. We have a lot of bad apples because a lot of states don’t require certification or any sort of accountability. [Fandom] is surreal for me in some ways because I’m just me, I’m just Amber. I’m doing the best I can with the skill set I have and I want deaf people to have equality in every aspect of their lives. And I fight really hard for the entertainment field because that’s where we can break away from the trials and tribulations we have daily. Deaf people are fighting for their right to have a part of that.

FREQ: The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that venues provide interpreters, but only if requested in advance. How does that work in practice?

AGG:
Let me show you a day in the life of a deaf person. Let’s say the Red Hot Chili Peppers have a gig coming up in two months that I want to go to. I call Ticketmaster or the venue and say, I would like to purchase a ticket. Is there a deaf section? And they might say, I don’t know what you’re talking about but you can click on the wheelchair and sit in the disabled section. And you say, I just need access to an interpreter, are there going to be interpreters? And they say, I don’t know about that. Then you spend about a month trying to find the right person to talk to. And you wait and wait, asking again and again, then maybe you find out that you purchased tickets for the wrong section. Or the venue will say we only have space for one person, and because you’re the deaf person, you have to go over here apart from your hearing friends or hearing husband or wife. Or you go and find that there is no interpreter, or not a qualified interpreter. So how deterred would you be after all that, about going to a concert?

Deaf people also experience this daily in finding a doctor that will accept them, trying to get counseling, trying to get interpreters for hospitals, trying to get interpreters for their children’s conferences. And if they try to take a break from it and go to a concert, they have to deal with this for months.

FREQ: What’s the next step towards creating the kind of changes you want to see for deaf music fans?

AGG:
We need more awareness from artists. They need to realize that deaf people are discriminated against, and that they have deaf fans who are fighting to see them but can’t get access. If the performer were to say, “When I go on tour, I want you to budget for a sign language interpreter at every show” — it’s not that expensive. it’s totally affordable. And if they want to contact me, I will tell them all the amazing interpreters who can bring their show to life. Because your deaf fans who love you deserve that.

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