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 (as well as "coolism") that is generally unacceptable and offensive to Deaf people and allies.

With a few exceptions, such as Deaf West Theatre's Broadway revival of Spring Awakening (2015), with the direction of Deaf professionals and talents working with hearing performers.

Cultural appropriation is not a single factor but also plays in the fabric factors of a long history of oppression. This post discusses two main sections: scenarios of cultural appropration and Deaf talents in performing and singing.

Cultural appropriation: audism

In May 2015, a hearing First Nations male friend, who knows some ASL, texted me a link to the video of a signed a song in ASL by Eminem (just before it went viral) and asked what I thought. I frankly replied. After a few texts back and forth, 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? Depends on who the audience is.

Furthermore, would they go further as to performing an anthem or a song in non-native language that doesn't represent their own people on a formal platform such as graduation ceremony or national/international stage? Seriously, would they dare to? Do they think they can get away with it?

What's the difference with ASL? This signed language as a language is no less than a spoken language.

Why would a few hearing signers singing in sign language actually do it? Blissful ignorance? Many hearing viewers may be easily wowed by just looking at moving hands, while many first-language ASL (Deaf) speakers raise eyebrows, because many signed songs by hearing signers, including the viral ones, come with grammatical errors, structure, incomprehensive production, awkward conceptual interpretation, un-authenticity, and lack of cultural and social awareness.

Yet, they received many applauses and thumb-ups while talented Deaf singers, performers, and storytellers are often marginalized in the society. They are nowhere as close as native (Deaf) talents who are often marginalized. Cultural appropriation is a painful reminder of oppression.

Have you noticed that there has been never a hearing person performing the American anthem in ASL at the annual Super Bowl? All of them have been Deaf talents singing the anthem in ASL.


"...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 feeling of Deaf people.


Scenario: Several years ago (2010s), a hearing American duo emailed me her request for helping her with signing a song for the international event of remembrance (on a tragic massacre that happened in the country in South America). Thinking they were some coordinators of the event, 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, country, and/or language. No, they wanted ASL and they were going to sign themselves. In addition, did they expect to exploit a deaf person's volunteer hours of tutoring them? Learning and practicing a language takes many years.

Cultural appreciation

A Deaf ASL teacher told me her pet peeve was whenever one of her students emailed her, sharing a link to the 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 assuming a Deaf people to appreciate your hearing culture of music, find a way to appreciate Deaf people's artistic works. Ask your Deaf instructor for a resource of literary art works. Or, ask your Deaf friend what they enjoy. Some deaf may enjoy hearing-way music and musical interpretation in sign language, while some others don't.

There are many talented Deaf performers, signing singers, actors and other talents, as well as some emerging and new potential deaf talents.

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.

Related post

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]

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