Last month, Chance the Rapper made headlines from his decision to bring American Sign Language interpreters on the road with him—but he’s not the first person to bring sign language and rap together. “Hip-hop has long been a favorite for the deaf community because of the beats, bass, and being hip,” Matthew Maxey, Chance’s new tour interpreter, told TrackRecord over email. Maxey is deaf, and about three years ago, he’d started making a name for himself on YouTube by uploading videos of himself signing rap songs. But it wasn’t until 2014, when he entered a freestyling competition on Instagram (hosted by Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers player who’d just won Rookie of the Year) that he realized just what he’d tapped into.
“I saw that there was a demand and interest to see a black man using sign language to hip hop,” Maxey told us. Nobody had really seen a black man rap in sign language before. One time, Lillard shared a video of Maxey rapping— using his own voice instead of sign language—and the response was overwhelming. “The fact that I was deaf and out there blew so many people’s minds.”
Maxey kept going, learning to sign more and more songs, until his brand grew big enough that he decided to start DEAFinitely Dope, an organization to bring the deaf and hearing communities together through music and sign language. The idea was “I’d represent the deaf and hip-hop culture and give them a brand to wear with pride, like Diamond Supply Co. or Supreme.”
We reached out Maxey to learn more about touring with Chance, how he prepares, and what is it about hip-hop and sign language that goes so well together.
Why the emphasis on rap and hip hop?
Hip-hop has long been a favorite for the deaf community because of the beats, bass, and being hip, but they’ve never seen anybody truly emulate how the hearing world acts, talks, and expresses themselves and it’s understandable in sign language. Bringing on DEAFinitely Dope, being the first rapper to have his own personal interpreters, just makes me extremely happy because I personally feel like our mission has been to break barriers in the community, in society, in perspectives and stereotypes, and to have an artist with the same beliefs, working with a deaf and hearing reflective of what he strives for, it’s truly a beautiful movement and social change to be a part of.
How did you hook up with Chance the Rapper?
It was unbelievable how it all happened! I was interpreting at Bonnaroo for another artist and Chance was backstage watching the show. That was my first time ever interpreting on a big stage at a festival, so I only interpreted the two songs I knew by heart, and with so many people in the crowd and the vibes and energy just being unreal, it was absolutely amazing. Well, the next day, my friend from the Access Department just casually walked up to me and said, “Chance the Rapper wants to meet you,” and waited for my response. I was just flabbergasted. He said, “He called and asked specifically for you, so we are setting up the meeting before his set tonight.” I just couldn’t believe it. We didn’t get to meet until after his set, but while backstage, I was talking with my fellow interpreters that I had brought with me, and all of a sudden he just popped up, and all I could think was, “Wow, we’ve really come this far. Nothing is impossible.” We talked for about 30 minutes, just great vibes. Chance truly is just down-to-earth and humble and extremely kind-hearted, and it got to the point where he straight-up asked what we were doing for the next two weeks and that he’d like us to meet him in Miami to test out being interpreters for him for the rest of the tour. And well... here we are now!
How has touring with him been? Is being with Chance different than being with any other acts?
The most exciting part is just seeing the joy of the deaf community being included and able to finally enjoy a concert. I never dreamt that I would go to a concert, let alone work at one—but those who have come to see DEAFinitely Dope and have expressed such joy and gratitude in finally experiencing what it is to lose themselves in the music, it truly doesn’t get much better than that. Just positive vibes everywhere, and to see the hearing community want to learn more constantly fuels our desire to do more and better. Chance is a humble and genuine guy. I really couldn’t imagine a better artist to pioneer this movement.
What are some issues that you run across?
I can’t really say some of the challenges I face as an interpreter because honestly, challenges are what you allow them to be. My persistence and drive always overcome the idea of an obstacle in my way, so anything that presents itself to be a barrier to what I hope to achieve is something that motivates me that much harder to succeed.
Can you tell us a little about the community work that you do? Specifically with your work with your children’s camp?
DEAFinitely Dope is all about breaking barriers and bringing something to the community that has been lacking for too long. This year we will be hosting our first ASL music camp for kids and hope it becomes something that spreads to other cities and states. A lot of deaf children are isolated on summer break, [when they’re] at home with family members who can’t communicate effectively with them. We want to give them a sense of community and empower them at our camp—and of course, educate them about their rights to an interpreter and to enjoy concerts like everyone else.
Is there anything else that’s in the works for DEAFinitely Dope?
Keep an eye on the website because our mission has us constantly encountering unexpected blessings. Aside from interpreting, performing, and the camps, we’ll be focusing on our nonprofit organization Breaking Barriers. With donations, we will take our kids camp to other cities and states free of charge so that future generations of Deaf children can grow up with music as a part of their childhood and adolescence like everyone else.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.