Breaking Through the Sound Barrier
For many people, music is experienced primarily through auditory input. It can be hard for some to even imagine how someone who cannot hear could enjoy music—much less work within the industry. This year, as we explore D.C. music communities and the 2019 Folklife Festival theme of the “social power of music,” we challenge ourselves to think about the many ways people connect to the music experience. We recognize there is a large deaf community in the D.C. area and want to carefully consider how that community might engage with our Festival programming.
Deaf artists within the music industry are more prevalent than many might realize and span the range of performers, producers, DJs, and more. We reached out to two D/deaf artists to learn more about their creative process and their perspectives on the art form and the industry. Both will be showcased on June 16 at the new Apple Carnegie Library in D.C.
Leyland “Lee” Lyken (aka DJ SupaLee) is a nightlife promoter and DJ, who learned his chops from his father and honed them in New York and D.C. In 2009, he founded the American Sign Language (ASL) poetry open mic at Busboys and Poets, the longest running event of its kind in the Deaf community.
Warren “Wawa” Snipe is a recording artist who performs in a genre he calls “Dip Hop” (hip-hop through deaf eyes). Through his writing and rhyming, he makes powerful art and strives to educate people about deaf musicians in the hearing world.
*Note: this blog uses both “Big D and little d” spellings of the word “deaf.” The lowercase “d” refers to those who are audiologically deaf, while the uppercase “D” tends to refer to those who identify both culturally and linguistically with the Deaf community. The artists used both of these spellings during the written interview process.
When did you know that you wanted to work professionally in the music industry? What was your path to get there?
Lee: I grew up watching my father DJ. Whenever it was his turn to babysit me, he would take me to parties and I would fall asleep on the speakers. I basically was born into the industry. I DJ’d my first party in Brooklyn when I was sixteen years old. I felt so much joy, motivation, and passion after my first gig. I saw how it influenced people, and I knew this was something I could see myself doing in the long run.
Wawa: I grew up enjoying music, but I couldn’t understand the words. My sister would write down the lyrics of a song for me, and I would follow along as she sang and mouthed the words. As I followed along, I would begin to understand the story. This was also right around when MTV was starting, so that visual experience of music really made an impact on me.
I wanted to show the Deaf community that we could also tell a story in this way. I started out with poetry and then worked on rapping. The first time I performed rap for an audience at a deaf open mic night, the DJ actually stopped me halfway through and said, “Deaf people aren’t ready for that.” I was way ahead of my time and got shut down fast!
What do you think they meant by “not ready”?
Wawa: I was told I was signing too fast. It didn’t look like “singing,” and it was nothing like R&B or classic rock that folks would perform and sign. People wanted me to stay within a norm, but I was in love with hip-hop from the beginning. Years later, another deaf hip-hop artist emerged rapping a cover song. People were reaching out and saying, “Have you seen this?!?” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s what I was doing back in the ’90s and y’all weren’t ready!”
What are some of your influences and favorite musical styles?
Lee: A lot of my main music influences are hip-hop and R&B. I also play a lot of Caribbean music because that’s where my family is from.
Wawa: I have a global approach and appreciation, and so I have influences from all over. I love R&B for sure, but I like a lot of different styles. I really love jazz, and sometimes people are really surprised to learn that about me.
Do you think your creative process is different compared to that of a hearing artist?
Lee: I believe as a DJ I take a unique approach because I am really focusing on the beats and rhythms—primarily the bass levels because many deaf people need and want that to sync with the music experience. I don’t always understand the words of a song, but I feel the beats and use that to create the blend. As a DJ, my job is to feel out the crowd and pick the best music to move them.
Wawa: For me, I’m a storyteller. I love telling a story, and it’s really a challenge because I am working in two different languages—English and ASL—and working to make choices to tell the story in both of those languages. With the English I’m focusing on the message and word play within the rap; with the ASL I’m focusing on the visual aspects of how to tell the story. This takes more time for me to prepare for shows and videos, because I’m working to tell the story twice! When I perform live, I am signing ASL against a track of my voice rapping the words. Sometimes people don’t believe it’s my own voice though. I have to tell them it’s mine!
What do you hope the audience experiences at one of your shows?
Wawa: My show is very interactive and very visual. I want to provide as much access as possible and I want it to be fun! I tell all sorts of stories in my shows—some might be funny, but others might make you angry or sad, or make you think. My basic message is, “I’m Deaf, yes, but so what?” We still share the same experiences. You might see/hear a story in my songs and think “oh, that’s like a relationship I have,” or “that same thing happened to me.”
Lee: My goal for every event is always the same: to give my patrons the best party experience I possibly can. To humbly show them that despite my hearing disability, I can rock the house!
So how do you respond to the misconception that deaf people can’t work in the music industry since they can’t hear?
Wawa: For decades, there have been myths like, “Deaf people aren’t supposed to like music because they can’t hear.” But there is a wide variety of deafness. Some can hear a little, some not at all. Some focus on vibrations, some focus on the sounds, some focus on the lyrics. Everyone is different and unique in how they experience it.
Lee: The biggest misconception is that people think we can’t connect to music because we can’t hear. But to me, music is not just about the sound. It’s about the energy. Hearing people may connect to music more efficiently because they connect to the lyrics right away. But a deaf person connects to music as a form of energy and expression, even if they don’t understand all the lyrics. A slow beat will make them feel more mellow, an upbeat song will make them feel like dancing. Music affects everyone, but each person is impacted in a different way. My work as a DJ is about bringing the community together.
Deaf DJs can often get discredited because of our inability to communicate with promoters, or our inability to get on the microphone at a party. It’s sometimes hard to get appreciation from the hearing world. The deaf community responds differently though—they are inspired! And that’s what keeps us going: the hope that one day we will be appreciated by both sides equally.
Wawa: I think the industry is still confused about me. They always say, “You want to interpret music? Great!” No. I want to perform the music. But people still struggle with the concept. “A deaf rapper? No, that’s impossible!”
What would you tell someone who is D/deaf and wants to break into the music industry?
Wawa: Have high expectations for yourself, but be prepared. Success and fame are not guaranteed. You know, by my count, there are eleven deaf professional musicians in the world. Eleven. That’s it. It’s still hard for the world to recognize us. As an artist in this field, you will always be fighting to find people who will support and understand—but it’s worth it. I see this work as being about sharing your gifts and making an impact.
Lee: Hard work and dedication will not be enough. You have to have a deep passion for your craft and a thick skin. People may not accept you at first, but if you are persistent, then you will be respected and you will be successful.
What would you tell someone within the music industry who wants to support D/deaf talent? What’s the first step?
Lee: Our talent is real. I dare you to help bring something different for the world to see and experience.
Wawa: Share our work. Promote us if you can. Let us work with you. That’s all we ask, to be a part of the experience. We can show you a world you never thought was possible. And we’re ready.
Meet Wawa and DJ SupaLee as they lead a conversation and demonstration of their work on June 16 at 4 p.m. at the Apple Carnegie Library. The presentation is co-produced by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the Apple StoryMakers Festival.
Diane Nutting is the accessibility coordinator for the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and currently works as a consultant with a wide range of cultural arts institutions at the intersections of arts, disability, and education. Over the years, she has worked with D/deaf artists of all ages in a variety of settings including the Model Secondary School for the Deaf Performing Arts Program, The National Theatre of the Deaf, and the Deaf Way II International Conference and Arts Festival.
In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.