07/19/2024

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Despite being born with severe hearing loss, Matt Maxey, who has been using hearing aids since the age of 2, wasn’t introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) until he was a teenager. Fittingly, given the Georgia native’s current job as a popular interpreter of hip-hop music for the deaf community, it was through music that he became fascinated. As a high school student, being asked to sign autographs for a local church choir on Sundays “made it easier for me to understand how to apply the sign language they taught me because I didn’t have the opportunity to use it in conversation,” Maxey told Yahoo Life, noting that he had little contact with 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 today, and Maxey’s mastery of ASL and passion for music, especially rap and hip-hop, has helped him carve out a strong space in the deaf community. As the founder of DEAFinitely Dope, Maxey is dedicated to bridging the gap between Deaf and hip-hop cultures with a mission that includes producing videos where his signature animated style is played alongside tracks like Tupac and 2 Chainz, interpreting at events (including the Chance the Rapper show), providing cannabis industry host ASL classes, and negotiate with businesses to increase accessibility. (You can also book his ASL Serenade Serenade classes through Airbnb.)

“It’s a language,” he says of his efforts to “break down the barriers between music and sign language” through DEAFinitely Dope. “It’s accessible. It has the potential to make life better for people who don’t know it’s possible. A lot of deaf people don’t go to music events because they already think it’s not made for them. But showing videos, showing culture, showing presentations, showing performances that involve sign language and music will help reduce that stigma and make it a norm rather than …… a novelty.”

Signing along to songs is a skill Maxey honed while attending Gallaudet University, the only university of its kind tailored to deaf and hearing-impaired students. He admits that he lagged behind his peers there because of his limited experience in ASL; most were already fluent, and Maxey had previously prioritized speech therapy over sign language. As he struggled to learn and communicate with his classmates, he decided to “take all the music I liked to listen to and could really understand and apply as much American Sign Language vocabulary as I could until I could apply it to the community.”

He calls music his “primary language” due to his close-knit family and their love of beloved artists like Mary J. Blige and Teddy Pendergrass, as well as hip-hop stars from Jay-Z to Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest. Hip-hop has been particularly useful in helping him connect the dots to ASL, thanks to its storytelling sensibility and Maxey’s personal joy in finding “deeper meaning” in his songs.

“Hip-hop has a lot of applications, puns, metaphors, wordplay, lyricism, and it intrigues me,” he says. Breaking down a song while singing helps him “put the whole story together,” which in turn influences his performance style – which DEAFinitely Dope describes as “visual art interpretation.

Rather than providing a word-for-word translation, Maxey’s richer understanding of a particular song helps him create an interpretation and flow that better reflects its message and vibe.

“It’s smoother. It’s more interesting. It’s more interesting. It’s more engaging,” he says. “So the process actually made me more focused and determined to make sure I was presenting the message in the right way, not as little as possible, because I didn’t realize – whether they were deaf, hard of hearing or hearing- Often times, people don’t hear the actual message of the song. But hearing the songs and seeing the sign language often takes a lot of people by surprise.”

He adds that his style offers “a more accurate representation,” which is crucial when working with hip-hop, an art form he likens to poetry.

“As I grew up and watched the music [performed], everything I saw had sign language that I couldn’t understand,” Maxi said. “I’ve never seen a black person sign hip-hop music. So I was thinking ……’ I’m sorry, I’m not vibrating. I can’t take it.’ I wanted to put it in a place where everyone could take it and add their own twist and flavor to it.” Maxey began posting videos of himself signing videos online, which helped him practice his technique while sharing some of his favorite underground hip-hop music. He also entered an Instagram freestyle rap contest, where he was the only deaf participant. Although some of the feedback was negative and ignorant-“‘You’re not clear. You sound funny,'” he recalls reading – he was eventually encouraged by commenters who cheered his personality and talent. Creating DEAfinitely Dope was his next move.

“They always said I was ‘absolutely dope,’ but all we had to do was add an ‘a’ and then I stood for [deaf] culture as well as hip-hop culture,” Maxey explained of the name.

He discovered himself in 2017 when he signed with D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli” at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee while Chance the Rapper watched backstage and he began translating live. Impressed by Maxey’s skill and arrogance, the Grammy winner asked for an introduction and eventually invited him to join him on his “Encouraged” tour.

Since that big break, Maxey has worked with everyone from Gwen Stefani to the MTV Music Video Awards. He has also just executive produced the documentary Sign the Show, which promotes accessibility in the deaf community and which he hopes will one day be shown in schools. Maxey grew up “trying to figure out how I could fit in as well as I could” .

“I’m probably not the best,” he says of becoming an interpreter. “I’m definitely not the only one. But if I can use my platform to create a ripple and domino effect that will last for the rest of history or help improve everything …… feel like my purpose here has been fulfilled.”

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