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Katelyn Best: The sign is the song and the song is the dance

Katelyn Best

Have you ever wondered how you’d describe music to a person who is deaf? According to West Virginia University ethnomusicologist Katelyn Best, these days Deaf artists are the ones teaching everyone what music is and what it can be.

My first experience with dip-hop made me realize how much my own listening experience had been limited by my ears, what I was able to hear.

Best studies a group of deaf hip-hop visionaries – Signkid, Signmark, Beautiful and Darius “Prinz-D the First Deaf Rapper” McCall, among others – who are pioneering a radical new form of music. “Dip-hop,” to use artist and activist Wawa’s term for “music through d/Deaf eyes,” emerges from the visual patterns of rapping in sign language and from the tactile, kinesthetic rhythms of heavy, low-bass frequencies. The pace, placement, size, movement and style of the rapper’s signs are what shapes the music’s dynamics, accent and tone, punctuated by the underlying beat of the body.

A teaching assistant professor at WVU’s College of Creative Arts and a coeditor and contributor to the 2023 anthology “At the Crossroads of Music and Social Justice,” Best has been conducting dip-hop fieldwork since 2012. She has traveled the circuit of festivals and clubs, submersing herself in the diverse experiences of dip-hop, from performers who offer attendees balloons to enhance the music’s vibrations, to venues where subwoofers are connected to the floorboards. Along the way, Best has become a passionate advocate for dip-hop both as a revolutionary paradigm shift in music and as a vital space for d/Deaf creativity and achievement.

Q: You’ve written about hip-hop’s potential for registering with “Deaf experiences of sound”: its emphasis on bass beats over higher frequencies, the rhythm section over melodic elements. But you’ve also said that the relationship between Deaf music and hip-hop goes deeper, because of hip-hop’s history as a democratizing, DIY platform for amplifying marginalized voices. Can you talk about dip-hop’s origins as art form and social movement?

A: For the longest time, the way in which music has been talked about and produced, the way different institutions have worked with deaf individuals, has been about music as a hearing thing. A lot of the early emphasis was on providing access for deaf individuals, which is great, because you do need that access to hearing music. But there was less emphasis on what music is as defined by individuals from the Deaf community. 

In the late 1980s, after a history of oppression through oralism that took hold in the United States in the late 1800s where the use of sign language within deaf educational institutions was suppressed and replaced with lip-reading and speech, Gallaudet University students advocated successfully for a Deaf president. And while that wasn’t the only factor, it contributed to the momentum leading toward a huge sense of Deaf cultural pride that had been suppressed before. People like Wawa and Silent Mob’s Def Thug have talked about how when they first started to perform an early form of Deaf hip-hop in the 1990s, they were viewed by other members of the community as wanting to be like a hearing person. Their performance of music was considered a rejection of Deaf culture. It’s a very complicated history. 

Then in the mid-2000s, people started to pick up on this again and more d/Deaf people started sharing their interest in exploring music from a Deaf cultural perspective. There was an interesting period of artists initially competing against one another, wanting to be the first, to be recognized, and then realizing, “Hey, we need to come together if we're going to get something done.” That's where I really see the beginning of the movement in terms of breaking down barriers. 

Q: It’s fascinating to read your descriptions of artists like De Bastion, who use light as an instrument, or people like Adrian Mangiardi who incorporate word painting or other video arts into the music. The landscape of dip-hop is so rich and complex, and you’ve been watching it evolve over the course of a decade. What’s changed in dip-hop since you started your fieldwork?

A: What I've loved to witness throughout this whole process is the success that the artists have had, because there’s been such a long road for them. But now Sean Forbes has received Detroit Music Awards for outstanding hip-hop artist, rap composer and rap MC. Wawa is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Wawa’s World, which first began as SLYKI, his brand-building organization for deaf artists, at the DeafNation World Expo. Both performed in American Sign Language at this year’s Superbowl halftime show. It's huge in terms of breaking down barriers and it's been amazing to see. 

Q: You’re a trained vocalist as well as a musicologist, so you brought a deep relationship with music to this research. How has submerging yourself in this subculture changed that relationship? 

A: My first experience with dip-hop made me realize how much my own listening experience had been limited by my ears, what I was able to hear. There are so many places within society that encourage that. Take “The Voice,” the singing competition where the judges turn their backs to the performers. Their first judgment of quality focuses on the ears. Dip-hop turned that around and allowed me to encounter even music beyond dip-hop in new ways. There's nothing like a live dip-hop performance. It’s a space in which your preconceived notions of music are broken down, a really exciting space that allows you to be immersed within music.

Additional links: Expanding Musical Inclusivity: Representing and Re-presenting Musicking in Deaf Culture through Hip Hop

At the Crossroads of Music and Social Justice

Written by Micaela Morrissette