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Watch These Hands: How Deaf Performers Are Making Music Accessible For Hearing-Impaired Fans
Deaf hip-hop artist Sean Forbes

PHOTO: Noah Elliott Morrison

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Watch These Hands: How Deaf Performers Are Making Music Accessible For Hearing-Impaired Fans

An estimated 400 million people have severe hearing loss. A growing group of musical pioneers is thriving to the sounds of silence. These interpreters, DJs and artists are making it their mission to help hard-of-hearing listeners feel the music.

GRAMMYs/May 6, 2022 - 03:18 pm

Sean Forbes and Wawa had been preparing for this specific moment for three weeks — and before that, their whole lives.

Standing in the hallway of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., they waited to perform before 80,000 screaming fans — and millions more on television — during the halftime show at the 2022 Super Bowl. Right beside them were Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and 50 Cent.

"Kill it," 50 Cent said just before they went out on the field. Forbes remembers his incredulity at the scenario taking place — in the words of one of his fellow performers, his palms were sweaty, knees weak and arms heavy. But then, he was reminded just how important this moment was:  He and Wawa were about to become the first-ever duo to simultaneously sign and be broadcast at the Super Bowl in front of the world’s deaf community.

As the halftime performance went on, Forbes and Wawa tag-teamed nearby, signing the lyrics under the direction of Amber Galloway Gallego, an expert musical sign interpreter who is commonly known as Amber G. 

"I knew the beat and where everything landed," says Forbes of the nearly 14-minute performance. "It was so loud and hard to hear anything, so we relied on the beat and vibration. I knew where everything was. That's how we practiced it. I told Wawa, 'We have to rely on the beat.’"

It was a landmark public appearance and also the result of years of effort by each party to advocate for deaf people in a hearing world. Galloway's Amber G. Productions provides sign interpreters at concerts at the request of touring artists or venues; she is one of a cohort of interpreters who are becoming more commonplace at concerts. Wawa, whose real name is Warren Snipe, is a deaf, Washington D.C.-based rapper who has been challenging preconceived notions of what can be achieved for nearly two decades. 

"I like to call Wawa my spiritual advisor," Forbes tells GRAMMY.com. "He is definitely somebody that a lot of people look up to in our community: 'The God Pop of Dip-Hop' (hip-hop through deaf eyes), that’s what he calls himself."

Forbes — who considers himself to be profoundly deaf with 90 percent hearing loss — feels that he did the deaf community proud. He hopes his work moved the goalposts forward for what will, hopefully, be an annual occurrence at Super Bowl halftime shows. "I was very happy with my performance and felt like I did all of the performers justice," he says. "Being able to perform 'Lose Yourself,’ the song that has given me everything that I have, at the Super Bowl, you just can't beat that. I feel like it’s the gift that keeps on giving."

Finding Commune At "Deaf Raves"

According to the World Health Organization, more than 5% of the world’s population — 430 million people — "require rehabilitation to address their 'disabling' hearing loss." By 2050, the WHO estimates that as many as one in 10 people around the world will have "disabling" hearing loss — that is hearing loss that's greater than 35 percent of that in their better hearing ear. These statistics  show a couple things: That quite a few people have trouble hearing, and that it’s often taken for granted until one, in fact, can't hear. What’s often not mentioned is the social stigma for those who can’t hear, a severe issue that carries over into any number of daily activities.

London-based DJ Troi Lee knows all about this stigma. Lee and his twin brother were born two months prematurely and Lee suffered a lack of oxygen from an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, which resulted in serious hearing loss. Today, he wears a hearing aid, reads lips and speaks well, due to countless hours of childhood speech therapy.

"There are four types of hearing loss, with number four being, you're stone deaf and can’t hear anything," he says. "I'm in the third category, profoundly deaf, which means I can hear with a hearing aid. I can hear vocals, whether it’s a man or woman, but I wouldn't be able to [distinguish] what they’re saying. Without an aid though, an AK-47 could be going off and I'd just be having happy dreams."

As a young member of the deaf community in London during the early 2000s, several events occurred which set Lee down his future career path. Since there was an absence of clubs or parties that deaf people could go to, as many as 500 people would meet up in a Waterloo pub once a month. Problems arose when bartenders and fellow hearing drinkers couldn't understand and communicate with the deaf. "Inevitably, there would be fights and we would be kicked out," Lee says. "At this time there were raves we could go to as well, but the deaf community always said, 'That’s for hearing people. We are deaf culture.'"

Lee also lost his office job around the same time a deaf friend asked him to set up a sound system at a house party. When the first record hit the turntable, the whole house shook. Two hundred deaf attendees showed up. "Everyone said that was the best party," Lee recalls. "At the next pub event, everyone kept coming up to me and asking when the next party was."

A few months later, Lee found a venue, organized a DJ lineup, and invited members of the deaf community to buy tickets to his first event. More than 700 showed up, with many coming from other countries. Lee's concept of a "deaf rave" was born. 

For over a decade, Lee held raves several times a year with well over 1,000 people in attendance. Those who couldn’t hear would mix with those who lived with other handicaps, creating a community  they could call their own. In addition to DJs, each Deaf Rave featured sign language translation, sign rap, dance and other visual performances that the deaf attendees could relate to.

"What is the difference between a hearing rave and a deaf rave?" Lee asks. "Number one, everybody was hugging everybody and nobody was on drugs. It was just beautiful harmony. A deaf person will travel all over the country just to go meet another deaf person because we are a very marginalized community. We are very hard to reach. We are very isolated."

An Early Fascination With Music

Forbes lost his hearing when he was a year old due to suspected spinal meningitis. But the Detroit native grew up in a family of musicians, and was always exposed to music. His father was in one of Detroit's best known country acts, while his uncle was an audio engineer at one point for Bob Seger. Mitch Ryder and members of his band would often casually come over to the house and provide musical tips for Forbes, who was a budding drummer growing up. Motown musicians would visit during holidays. 

"I think my musical upbringing was something that resonated with me in so many ways, because I always wanted to be in the music business," he says. "I always wanted to do something today to make a difference in the deaf community. And for me, I’m extremely blessed to do that through the medium of music."

He learned about rock groups by watching his parents lip sync. Forbes went to see KISS when he was 8 years old, watched heavy metal acts on MTV with his brothers (who could hear), then fell in love with rap during college. Over the years, he realized that higher vocal registers, like Whitney Houston's, were difficult to hear and songs in lower keys, such as much of Nirvana's catalog, were easier to understand. 

Following this breakthrough, Forbes began to appreciate performers' nuances and would develop a greater understanding of a song with every listen. "Music is all about feel," he says. "It could be the vibration. But it's much deeper than that. And when I hear a song in a studio, maybe I can only hear three elements, but I'm visually able to see everything with Pro Tools, and then develop a memory of it."

For Lee, every London street corner when he was growing up seemed to have a different sound system blasting a different genre.He fell in love with Bob Marley and, as a teen, got into drum and bass, which soon became Lee's favorite genre — largely because he could hear the sounds and feel the vibrations.

While it was hard to mix on vinyl early on, laptops and DJ software now enable Lee to see the color waveforms, frequencies and beats. Today he uses Pioneer equipment and software, through which "music brings me to life on a daily basis. When I hear a good beat or rhythm, it gets me moving or inspires me to do creative things in life."

Other emerging technologies — whether it’s the latest DJ equipment or the Sub-Pac jacket, which enables users to physically feel sound — are further enabling deaf music lovers an opportunity to move forward with their dreams and feel included in society.

The Tech-Enabled Transformation Of Deaf Performance

Sixteen years ago, Forbes casually showed Eminem, his publisher and entourage a video of himself performing "Lose Yourself" — the rapper was incredulous. "Deaf people like music?" he responded. 

Eminem's publisher later urged Forbes to think about his career plans, and give him a call. "I was thinking 'This is your one shot, your one opportunity,’" he recalls, referencing Eminem's GRAMMY-winning song.

Today, Forbes' nonprofit DPAN is an ever-growing online sign language channel with more than 500,000 free subscribers. Alongside variety shows, artist interviews and news, there are signed renditions of songs from the likes of John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and the White Stripes. After artists approve the use of their songs, videos are reimagined using new performers and sign language.

But just when DPAN was starting to find its groove, the Coronavirus hit and Forbes found himself being the recipient of another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: The White House called, and they wanted to have American Sign Language (ASL) livestreams of their daily briefings.

 "It came down to me, in my basement, running all of these Trump livestreams for three months straight," he says. "At its heart, DPAN is all about creating access for the deaf community, whether that’s music or otherwise."

The Coronavirus similarly forced Troi Lee to transform his concept of a deaf musical community into new channels. On a smaller scale, he held intimate DJ training sessions for deaf people. From the confines of the famed London-based club Fabric, he created a four-hour live, online event that combined  dance, comedy, visual signing, juggling, fire acts, music and more. He's now in talks with the government in the UK to fund it for three more years. 

"The biggest new door to open is that when you’re online streaming, you can work with any deaf person on the planet," he says. "So I'm now working with a deaf performer in China and working with a performer in India or working with a person in Somalia or Bolivia. Our ultimate aim is to support UK artists, but it also enables me to go work with international deaf artists."

Even Online, The World Is Small

Due to the time difference, Lee didn't get to see Forbes perform at the Super Bowl.

But he knew all about it. "It's f-ing incredible man," he says. "Promoting sign language on an international level, it's mind blowing. Respect. We want to see more deaf music people coming."

And, as it turns out, Forbes knows all about Lee. That just shows how tight knit and hungry these music lovers are. "Technology has given us access," he says. "In the current state right now, there has been a lot of progress, because of things that Amber has done, WaWa has done or Troi Lee over in England. So I'm looking for the next person to come along — and I’m looking for them. So pick up a guitar. Go learn the piano."

Meet Question, A Rapper/Producer Who Doesn't Want To Be Boxed In By Blindness

Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show Recap: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar & More Blow The Roof Off SoFi Stadium
Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show Recap: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar & More Blow The Roof Off SoFi Stadium

The Super Bowl LVI halftime show promised to be a giddy monument to rap's best and brightest. Boasting a multigenerational lineup and surprise appearances from 50 Cent and Anderson .Paak, it didn't disappoint.

GRAMMYs/Feb 14, 2022 - 03:02 am

The history of Super Bowl halftime shows is something of a mixed bag — that's why they're good fodder for impassioned arguments and comprehensive rankings. But there was extra anticipation for this one, and not just because of how many GRAMMYs juggernauts there'd be.

"Snoop Dogg told me that hip-hop's always been in the culture of the NFL," sportscaster Maria Taylor said during the 2022 Super Bowl. "But for the first time ever, hip-hop and rap will take center stage." Thus, she primed the audience for a hell of a ride, filled with rap royalty from multiple scenes and lineages — and the Pepsi Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show did not disappoint.

From the opening seconds, it looked like viewers were in for yet another first: Dr. Dre, enthroned on an office chair, pushed faders on a massive, pearl-white mixing board. Is this the first shout-out to producers and engineers on the halftime stage? That's probably for the Recording Academy's P&E Wing to debate among themselves on Monday. But in the moment, it simply felt like a fitting salute to Dre's legacy as a visionary behind the board.

Dre then stood up, arms outstretched, surveying his dominion. More than a year after his 2021 aneurysm briefly laid him low, it's poignant to see him back in action on such a grand scale. The set was revealed to be a city block (or, as multiple tweets jokingly surmised, a WeWork) on top of a map of L.A. Then, a joyous yelp of "Snoop Doooooogg!" What an homage to the West Coast; what a colossal party. Everybody's celebratin'.

Festooned in blue before a sea of Crip-walking dancers, The artist formerly known as Snoop Lion — who planted his flag as a hungry upstart on The Chronic back in 1992 — joined Dre for performances of "The Next Episode" and "California Love" — the latter being, of course, a Tupac Shakur joint. And if that wasn't enough of a throwback, surprise! An upside-down — then right-side-up — 50 Cent performed his once-inescapable, GRAMMY-nominated 2003 hit "In Da Club."

In what was destined to bowl over Twitter, a highly reflective Mary J. Blige appeared to perform "Family Affair," backed up by silvery dancers. She went from high-octane to heart-on-sleeve with "No More Drama," which she capped off with a flourish and a faux-faint. But it wasn't time to say goodnight: whether by flames or by chains, when it comes to bringing things to another level of high-concept drama, you can always count on Kendrick Lamar.

K-Dot — who's been finishing up his follow-up to DAMN. and collecting beach cruisers — blew minds the world over with an aerodynamic performance of "Alright," which won the GRAMMY for Best Rap Song at the 2016 GRAMMY Awards. Whatever he's got up his suit jacket sleeve for 2022 and beyond, be advised to brace yourselves.

Never one to be easily upstaged, Eminem brought the heat with "Lose Yourself" — you know, the one about a matriarch's certain Italian staple. And if that wasn't Anderson .Paak on drums! (Silk Sonic, his high thread count duo with Bruno Mars, is up for four GRAMMYs at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards.)

After rumors of a behind-the-scenes kerfuffle over whether Em would kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, he did just that — as Dre plunked out the melody to Tupac's "I Ain't Mad at Cha" on a gleaming piano. Before the next round of commercials piped in and the Rams rode to victory, all five headlining musicians — plus 50 — joined together for a celebratory version of "Still D.R.E."

"I still got love for these streets," the pioneering MC and producer declared to the entire planet, toasting to the everlasting global supremacy of rap, flanked by his mightiest colleagues and compatriots. So do we, Dre. So do we.

Watch Country Leading Light Mickey Guyton Perform The National Anthem At Super Bowl LVI

Watch Country Leading Light Mickey Guyton Perform The National Anthem At Super Bowl LVI
Mickey Guyton

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation

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Watch Country Leading Light Mickey Guyton Perform The National Anthem At Super Bowl LVI

Four-time GRAMMY nominee Mickey Guyton’s star just keeps getting brighter — she just performed an ascendant version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 2022 Super Bowl

GRAMMYs/Feb 14, 2022 - 12:32 am

After Jhené Aiko set the stage with her beautifully restrained version of "America the Beautiful," Nashville luminary Mickey Guyton brought the house down with a stunning rendition of the National Anthem.

Donning a long, deep-blue dress before a choir dressed in white, Guyton — introduced as having the "voice of an angel" — sang our anthem with grace and panache. Her full-throated passion visibly moved those at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, as well as a phalanx of troops overseas in Kuwait.

On the final note — the famous braaaaave! — Guyton pointed skyward, as if to chart her borderless future as a leading light of Nashville. Check out the thrilling, patriotic performance here, and keep checking GRAMMY.com for coverage of the Super Bowl LVI halftime show.

GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Mary J. Blige Win GRAMMY For Best R&B Vocal Performance For "Be Without You" At The 2007 GRAMMY Awards
Mary J. Blige

Photo: Gabriel Bouys

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Mary J. Blige Win GRAMMY For Best R&B Vocal Performance For "Be Without You" At The 2007 GRAMMY Awards

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, watch Mary J. Blige — who just stole the show at Super Bowl LVI — win Best R&B Vocal Performance for "Be Without You" at the 49th GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 18, 2022 - 05:13 pm

Mary J. Blige just blew minds with her emotive performance at Super Bowl LVI alongside fellow rap royalty. Her reign dates back to 1992, and 15 years ago, she accepted a GRAMMY like a true queen.

At the 49th GRAMMY Awards in 2007, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul strutted to the stage with panache, and offered thanks heavenward. "Praise you, Father — thank you, Jesus!" Blige said with visible emotion.

She went on to offer a moving meditation on why the highs and lows of a creative journey must be taken together: "I don't think you can have a peak if you don't have a valley," Blige said, "And it's in the valley when we learn who we really are."

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, go back to 2007 and bask in Blige's radiant joy at her GRAMMY win for "Be Without You," from her 2005 album The Breakthrough. (Blige took home two other GRAMMYs that night, Best R&B Song for "Be Without You" and Best R&B Album for The Breakthrough.)

Enjoy the heartfelt, throwback clip above and keep checking back for more episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show Recap: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar & More Blow The Roof Off SoFi Stadium

Watch Jhené Aiko Kick Off 2022 Super Bowl With A Solemn Rendition Of "America The Beautiful"
Jhené Aiko

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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Watch Jhené Aiko Kick Off 2022 Super Bowl With A Solemn Rendition Of "America The Beautiful"

To kick off Super Bowl LVI — the first NFL playoff championship game held in Los Angeles since 1993 — watch six-time GRAMMY nominee Jhené Aiko sang a muted "America the Beautiful"

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2022 - 11:48 pm

There’s never been a Super Bowl like this. Not only is LVI the first held in Los Angeles in almost 30 years; it’s just as the pandemic (hopefully, finally) fades into the background for good.

On top of that, it’s the first Super Bowl after the death of John Madden — acknowledged in a moving tribute featuring the legendary NFL coach and commentator’s sons and their families.

That momentousness and solemnity was mirrored in a performance of the timeless patriotic song "America the Beautiful" by GRAMMY-nominated singer, and "L.A’s own," Jhené Aiko.

Donning a sequined burgundy-brown dress and a glittery ear cuff, Aiko did her Angeleno roots proud, keeping the song feathery and loungey in a mellow midrange while accompanied by a harpist.

Watch the poignant performance here and keep checking GRAMMY.com for musical moments at the 2022 Super Bowl.