From the tiniest movement, from sign to sign, Jason Listman, a lecturer in American Sign Language (ASL) and Interpreting at in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), engages all his emotions and power in each moment of his performance. On the surface, Listman is translating a song; in reality, he feels every word, and constructs his interpretation to the flow of the rhythm to present music in a whole new language. It is a language that is as much about movement and timing as it is content.
Listman, as well as many other musicians and performers, is working to create an accessible medium for the expression of music. From the artful interpretation of pre-existing music to original content, an evolutionary front of music is growing, the goals of which are to be both accessible and enjoyable to everyone, deaf and hearing.
Sean Forbes, a 2008 graduate, and Listman are just two members of this expanding collective of performers. Both deaf from an early age, the two have produced highly acclaimed music videos in which they adapt modern songs into ASL. Forbes, a Deaf musician who raps and drums, is currently producing his first record with Bass Brothers, the record label which first signed Eminem.
“There is a misconception out there that Deaf people don’t enjoy music, but they do,” says Listman. “The Deaf community is very diverse. Some Deaf people don’t hear the sounds, but maybe they enjoy the poetry of it, other people enjoy the rhythm of the sign and enjoy listening to it.”
For Forbes and Listman, music has always been a part of their lives. Listman, born deaf, received a CD player at the age of 13 and he has loved music ever since. When he came to college, Listman began signing music to his friends at parties, where he was told he should pursue performance.
Forbes, who went deaf at the age of one, grew up in a household of musicians and songwriters. Living in Detroit, Mich., his father knew the big name producers who could take a nobody and make him or her famous. Music runs in Forbes’ family and is in his blood.
Yet growing up, there were less resources commonly available for the Deaf community, such as closed captioning. “My brothers would stand next to the TV or radio and lip sync for me, just so I could enjoy the music,” says Forbes.
When in college, Forbes also began signing music at parties and on road trips. His interpretations became extremely popular, and encouragements from the Deaf community lead him to make his first ASL music video. Upon completion, he sent the video to Bass Brothers.
“I remember standing in a room, showing off my video … Eminem himself was there, singing along to his own song,” recalls Forbes. “When it was finished, they were all stunned, they hadn’t seen anything like it, and demanded more.”
In 2010, Forbes produced his first original song “I’m Deaf.” Working with fellow RIT graduate Adrean Mangiardi, who shot and edited the video, the two wanted to make a music video which would be accessible to all. From signing ASL to signing the lyrics, to animated captions incorporated into the video, the two ensure anybody can find enjoyment in the video, regardless of language barriers.
Forbes has released two other original singles. “Let’s Mambo”, his second single, features Marlee Matlin, the only Deaf actress to win the Academy Award for best actress in a leading role. Forbes’ third single “Hammer,” is about a fellow RIT graduate and legendary fighter Matt Hamill.
In June, Forbes will be releasing his first album “Perfect Imperfections,” along with music videos to accompany each track. Forbes will also be appearing in the documentary “Motor City Rising”, in which he discusses the Detroit music scene as well as his own experiences as a deaf musician. Mangiardi, who now works as the producer of all of Forbes’ music videos, will also appear in the film, which premiers Friday, June 1 on the Audition Network.
Listman has a similar goal of portraying a universal language through music in his videos. For the Deaf community, he tries to translate the poetic meaning of the lyrics rather than just a straight interpretation. For the hearing community, he matches the movement of his hands to the rhythm for a visual performance.
“It’s really important to me to follow the rhythm, some translations don’t follow the beats and so I want to express the ASL that is conceptually correct and also has the beat in there,” says Listman.
To date, Listman has produced three videos: “Firework” by Katy Perry, “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars, and “The Best Thing about Me is You” by Ricky Martin. His first music video took him a month to perfect, with constant practicing, and a full weekend to shoot. Due to timing constraints, Listman has not produced a video in about a year, but is looking for a song that inspires him to make a fourth video.
Taking inspiration from the students he met at RIT, and people like Listman, Forbes established the Deaf Professional Artists Network (DPAN), a non-profit organization that helps Deaf artists be connected and find a home for their work.
Currently, DPAN consists mostly of music videos; however Forbes wishes to expand the organization to include all types of artists. “DPAN is about bringing together Deaf artists, but Sean Forbes is about accessibility,” explains Forbes.
Both Listman and Forbes, who have received 300,000 and 450,000 YouTube views respectively, have seen their work inspire many people through the comments alone. Moving forward, both wish to expose more of the Deaf community to this new way of experiencing music.
While Forbes wants to see more deaf performers, he believes that in order to be truly passionate about sign language music videos, the videos should be produced primarily by Deaf musicians performing for a Deaf audience. With that in mind, Forbes still encourages the videos to represent a universal language.
Listman’s dream project is to perform an original song, starting with the ASL sign and finding music to match what he is signing. To go further, Listman might have a singer standing behind him, translating his sign. He also wishes to use his videos as models to show RIT what he thinks ASL music videos should be. He has considered teaching a course on the subject and has even thought about forming an ASL glee club, though the project is currently on hold.
Regardless of where their futures lead them, Listman and Forbes will continue to bring the joy music has brought to them to people worldwide. Their goal is accessibility to everyone. Their medium: the movement of music.