These Sign Language Interpreters Are Working Hard to Make Live Music More Accessible to All

Southern California’s performance interpreters have been prepping for festival season for months

Twelve years ago, Tracy L’Angelle received an unexpected phone call. Coachella was going to be providing American Sign Language (ASL) services for the first time, and festival organizers were scrambling to find performance interpreters at the last minute. “Back then, we didn’t have a setup: no lighting, no audio feed, no anything,” L’Angelle remembers of her first year at the fest. “We were placed on a makeshift stage in the audience and it was, ‘Stand here; interpret what you can hear.’”

To L’Angelle’s recollection, it was chaos. The interpreters weren’t given the artists’ set lists and were forced to patch together lyrics as best they could. Oftentimes, the music was so loud it was hard to make out words at all. L’Angelle went along for the ride and came away from the weekend exhilarated. A dozen years later, L’Angelle still runs ASL coordination services for major American music festivals.

As more members of the Deaf community attend concerts and fests, ASL performance interpreting has expanded as well. ASL performance interpreting is distinct from standard ASL—the former requires the interpreter to provide a visual context for the songs, not just a word-by-word translation of the lyrics. Since ASL grammar is different from English grammar, attaching meaning and signs to song lyrics is akin to translating poetry in a different language. Performance interpreters also do character work, taking on the mannerisms of the performers and channeling the moods of their songs.

“We want to provide interpretation of words but also portray visually the aesthetic and how they’re being sung,” L’Angelle says, using Metallica as an example. “Just look at James Hetfield and his stance as a performer. Getting into this character means I stand with my feet more apart, a firm body, and shoulders back.”

Even more rigorous are the two to three months of preparation necessary to learn the backstory of an artist’s discography. An artist’s intention for each track informs how the interpreters craft their translation. Ideally, interpreters get access to artists in advance of performances, but that isn’t always possible.

Sara Groves, who began as an interpreter at Stagecoach but has since expanded her repertoire to include hip-hop music, listens to each song at least a dozen times before she takes the stage. She learns all of an artist’s lyrics by heart—that way if there’s an audio or technical issue, she’ll still be able to act as a smooth conduit between the audience members and the artist.

Hip-hop, which is rife with slang without codified signs, requires extra attention on the part of interpreters. At the Observatory’s Day N Night Fest in 2017, Princess Nokia opened with a banger that began, “Yeah ho! Kitana kitana kitana kitana;” on another stage, MadeinTYO rapped, “Shorty wanna kiss me, but she busy sucking dick/Look, Uber everywhere, pre-rolls in my VIP.” To interpret slang-rich lyrics, Groves says she relies heavily on the Deaf community, using online chat forums and Facebook groups to work out appropriate translations. “We’ll go to our Deaf peers and say, ‘What’s your sign for Uber? What’s your sign for having sex?’” Groves explains.

Kyla Wilkenfeld, who served as Kendrick Lamar’s interpreter at Coachella last year, was stumped by Lil Pump’s catchphrase, “esketit.” “Just hearing it, I had no idea what it meant,” Wilkenfeld says. One day, Wilkenfeld heard her high school students shouting, “Catch me outside, how ’bout that? Esketit.” Once Wilkenfeld realized “esketit” was the equivalent of “let’s get it,” she was able to formulate a matching sign.

Wilkenfeld will be signing her fourth Coachella this year, interpreting for SZA, Beyonce, and Cardi B. “For me, the most entertaining and humbling part is being able to sit with my daughter, boyfriend, and some of the students I work with to have them explain some rap concepts to me,” Wilkenfeld says. “Which drug is that? What is a ‘thot?’ Is it pronounced SZA as in ‘scissors’ or SZA like the initials? Is this drugs or Netflix? It’s been an adventure.”

A hot-button topic within the ASL performance interpreting community, particularly when it comes to hip-hop, is the use of the n-word. Are ASL performance interpreters, regardless of their background, obligated to sign the n-word? Or should a white ASL interpreter censor herself, even if the rapper shouts the word four times in a row? Is there a non-offensive way to go about signing it?

There is a distinction between whether it’s used with a hard “er” or an “a” at the end. For the latter, the sign is very casual, denoting “my homie” or “my friend.” Groves was uncomfortable with it at the beginning, but eventually decided her role as interpreter required her to display the sign on behalf of the artist.

“I need to remember that it’s not coming from me, it’s coming from them,” Groves says. “I’m relaying this message for you, I’m just the filter.”

Wilkenfeld agrees. “As far as interpreting is concerned, I am not me,” Wilkenfeld says. “My consumers are coming to see the performers. If we take it upon ourselves to edit what the performers are saying, it’s me telling them what they can or cannot say.” It would also make watching a YG show impossible.

Both Groves and Wilkenfeld have experienced a dizzying array of distractions while working, from dancing strippers to marijuana offerings. However crazy it may get, the interpreters must relay all the onstage action to the Deaf community’s concert-goers. Even non-lyrical music merits its own set of signs. “I’m prepping an electronic artist that doesn’t have a great deal of lyrics nor lyrics for every song,” L’Angelle says of this year’s Coachella. “So that means I still have to provide some visuals for what’s happening with the music: beats, rhythm, pacing, et cetera.”

“By having the sign language interpreters present, I feel included when others sing along, and I can sing along with my voice and sign at the same time,” says Randall Rushing, a Deaf patron who has been attending concerts since he was 14. “American Sign Language takes the English lyrics into another higher level of understanding than what the hearing fans would understand.”

ASL performance interpreting is not an easy gig to land. The work is sporadic and the field is tough to break into. “One thing that is a little of a concern, because this side of interpreting has so much more visibility, is a lot of young newbies decide that’s what they want to do and don’t realize that it’s not a straight shot to get there,” says L’Angelle.

There is no formal training to become an ASL concert interpreter—those passionate enough to devote themselves to the craft can attend workshops, research signs, and shadow more experienced mentors. For this year’s Coachella and Stagecoach festivals, L’Angelle and her team held a prep camping trip to work through particularly difficult imagery or concepts together. But mostly, performance interpreters must practice, practice, practice until they develop a feel for what the job entails.

Wilkenfeld teaches a six-week performance interpreting intensive over the summer months.“The one thing that is most fulfilling is when I get to teach the new students who aren’t learning anything about performance interpreting in their classes,” Wilkenfeld says. “I watch those interpreters take it back to their communities and our community as a whole grows and becomes that much better.”

For a region as large as Southern California, the performance interpreting community is still relatively small, but as strides are made to make experiences more accessible for differently abled people, it will be increasingly visible.

“There’s not a ton of us, but we’re a growing niche of the professional interpreting community,” L’Angelle says. “We’re in this profession to serve the Deaf community, and our heart is for providing access for the Deaf community.”

For Deaf festival-goers attending this year’s Coachella, L’Angelle’s team and Wilkenfeld will be available throughout the two weekends. The full interpreting schedule will be posted on the Coachella ADA page.

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