Insights October 20, 2023

Making the music scene accessible – with sign language interpretation

By Living Word

Rihanna went viral with her Super Bowl half-time performance back in February of 2023, for reasons quite different to the media narratives typically surrounding her. Or, to be specific and more correct, it was in fact another stage performer who ended up clocking up millions of views on YouTube and TikTok after the event – namely Rihanna’s sign language interpreter, Justina Miles.

Sign language interpretation of live gigs may be far from standard still, but it wasn’t the fact alone that Rihanna’s show was interpreted to American Sign Language (ASL) that attracted attention. Instead, Miles earned the attention all by herself, thanks to an exceptionally energetic, creative performance.

“I have so much fun with my translations,” Miles told Vogue, explaining that “I got really excited to show people what surprises I had up my sleeve, because there are so many ways to sign something.”

For her, that enthusiasm for live sign language interpretation was nothing new. With TikTok making the perfect platform for showcasing her skills, she already has hundreds of thousands of fans who love to watch her ASL interpretations of big hits.

Going viral and writing history

With her awe-inspiring performance alongside Rihanna, Miles wrote history as she became the first ever Black, deaf woman to perform ASL at the Super Bowl pre-game and half-time shows. The first ASL gig interpreter to go viral, however, she was not. Back in 2013, for instance, another ASL interpreter went viral with a Kendrick Lamar show at the Lollapalooza festival. The star in question – Amber Galloway-Gallego – has done live music interpretation for 23 years, including for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

For Galloway-Gallego, part of both the charm and the challenge of live sign language interpretation is in staying perfectly true to the original lyrics and never ever resorting to censoring – even if a song is about, say, a man’s package. Bold, sometimes very literal interpretations of such lyrics can go down particularly well and send crowds into a frenzy, in her experience.

Making concerts more inclusive

As lovers of all things language and translation, we love to see these wonderfully creative performers get the attention they deserve. What’s more, isn’t it incredible to see the music scene as a whole take steps towards becoming more inclusive? ASL interpretation of concerts and festivals can really make a difference and make these events more accessible for those who are hard of hearing. As one enthusiastic interpreter puts it, it’s the equivalent of adding wheelchair ramps.