Deaf rappers who lay down rhymes in sign languages are changing what it means for music to be heard

by Katelyn Best, West Virginia University

This story was originally published on The Conversation.

Rapper Beautiful The Artist performs in the music video for the dip hop song ‘DEAFinitely Lit.’

In April 2023, DJ Supalee hosted Supafest Reunion 2023 to celebrate entertainers and promoters within the U.S. Deaf community.

The event included performances by R&B artist and rapper Sho’Roc, female rapper Beautiful The Artist, the group Sunshine 2.0, DJs Key-Yo and Hear No Evil, as well as ASL performer and former rapper Polar Bear, who now goes by Red Menace.

Many of these artists, activists and entrepreneurs have contributed to an ever-growing hip-hop scene within the Deaf community, which includes a subgenre of rap known as dip hop.

As hip-hop reaches its 50th anniversary, five decades of its cultural impact reverberates in mainstream and underground settings. What originated in the Bronx can now be found all over the world, taking on new forms as it has evolved in a diversity of spaces and places, from trap music and horrorcore to spaza, a subgenre that emerged in Cape Town, South Africa.

Dip hop is one of many styles of rap that have developed over the years. But it stands apart from other subgenres of hip-hop because rappers lay down rhymes in sign languages and craft music informed by their cultural experiences within the Deaf community.

The birth of a musical movement

As an ethnomusicologist, I’ve followed the development of dip hop since 2011, documenting how rappers have pioneered this art form while introducing outsiders, like myself, to Deaf culture.

In 2005, the rapper Warren “Wawa” Snipe came up with the term “DIP HOP” in ASL and English to classify a developing style of rap music within the Deaf community.

While artists of this style identify their music in different ways – some use labels like “deaf rap,” “deaf hip-hop” and “sign rap” – the designation “dip hop” goes beyond adding a qualifier to the broader musical genre of rap. Instead, it signals an independent style grounded in both hip-hop and Deaf culture. Like bounce, trap and drill, the label “dip hop” makes a greater distinction from being a variation of rap to a style that is heavily situated within Deaf culture and determined by Deaf aesthetics.

‘Feel The Beat’ by Signkid (ft. Mr. Off Key). 

In many ways, dip hop has followed a trajectory not unlike hip-hop.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Deaf DJs and entertainment entrepreneurs organized DIY parties, nightlife events and social gatherings. These venues provided opportunities for rappers, DJs, dancers and other artists to begin to develop and explore their own style of hip-hop and connect with other rappers and DJs.

Cities with Deaf schools served as cultural hubs for musical networking. Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York, have acted as significant sites of production within the U.S. by connecting deaf and hard of hearing students from all over the world.

Additionally, greater access to recording technology, video streaming sites and social media have given Deaf artists tools to create music and connect with other artists and fans.

The many forms of dip hop

While the incorporation of sign language is a fundamental element of dip hop – and remains at the forefront of defining this style – dip hop extends far beyond crafting original rap songs in sign language.

It involves musical expression that’s shaped through a Deaf cultural lens – songs that reorient mainstream notions of what can be considered music. At the same time, every artist has their own rapping style, with dip hop performances taking on a range of different forms and structures.

For example, some dip hop artists work with both oral and manual languages to make their music accessible to hearing people. There are those who perform in both languages simultaneously, and others who prerecord their vocal track, which plays in the background as they rap in sign language.

Some artists collaborate with interpreters. In “Vergiss mich nicht,” artist Deaf Kat Night raps in German sign language, while the lyrics are interpreted orally in German.

Then there are those who collaborate with hearing or deaf DJs. “Breaking Barrels,” featuring DefStar, is just one of the many collaborations between Wawa and DJ Nicar.

Performances can also involve musical instruments. Sean Forbes, for example, performs with a live band while also rapping in ASL and English, an approach seen in his music video “Calm Like a Bomb.”

Alternatively, there are rappers who create music for Deaf audiences and solely rap in sign languages. These songs, however, may still have auditory components, which often consist of artists composing their own beats or raising the volume of previously recorded songs to rap over.

Dip hop, like many styles of music, comes to life through live performance. Artists move across the stage with their hands flying through the air as audiences pulse to the rhythm of the blasting bass beat.

A performance by dip hop artists Wawa and Polar Bear at Gallaudet University’s 2015 DSP Bash. 

Some artists further immerse their audiences in the musical experience by using specialized instruments and equipment such as subwoofers, objects that can conduct vibrations like balloons, or new forms of haptic technology, which refers to wearables, such as vests, that channel sound vibrations.

Some artists also incorporate visuals into their performances through the use of video screens and sound-activated lights.

Breaking into the mainstream

Dip hop artists have struggled to be acknowledged as musicians in their own right – to have their artistry be the focus of attention, rather than the fact that they’re deaf or hard of hearing.

That’s starting to change.

In 2009, Finnish rapper Marko “Signmark” Vuoriheimo signed a record deal with Warner Music Finland and released “Smells Like Victory” and “Speakerbox” that same year.

This marked the first time in history a Deaf artist was signed to a major record label. The following year, Detroit-based rapper and National Technical Institute for the Deaf alumnus Sean Forbes signed a contract with WEB Entertainment and released the single “I’m Deaf,” attracting mainstream attention to this style of rap.

Man wearing sunglasses and a shirt that reads 'deaf and loud' holds his hands up to his ears.
Sean Forbes poses during the 2014 National Association for the Deaf Breakthrough Awards Gala. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

And through the support of the Deaf community, hearing allies and fans, Forbes’ EP “Little Victories” reached No. 1 in the hip-hop category on iTunes and made it to the top 200 Billboard chart in 2020.

The following year, Wawa’s single “LOUD” was a top 20 dance track on iTunes. In 2022, Forbes and Wawa made history again as the first ASL performers at a Super Bowl halftime show.

In “Sign of the Times,” Wawa raps:

  Sup beautiful people
  I’m the Godpop of dip hop
  Deaf eyes through hip hop
  With signs for your eyes 
  Blow your mind and it won’t stop. 

As dip hop evolves, it continues to push the boundaries of convention. In the spirit of hip-hop, dip hop rebels both musically and socially against cultural norms, breaking the mold and expanding possibilities for musical artistry.

Through their performances, dip hop artists not only subvert preconceived notions of music but also of Deaf culture and deafness, changing what it means for music to be heard.The Conversation

Katelyn Best, Teaching Assistant Professor of Musicology, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

“Art hurts. Art urges voyagesand it is easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready.” – Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘Chicago’s Picasso,’ 1967

This issue of OTH Bookshelf comprises some 200 academic open access titles in the areas of art and art history, focusing on books that would be of most interest and value to HSS scholars and students. 

The OTH list includes the book’s author or editor names, title and title remainder, year of publication, publisher, and open access format (PDF, EPUB, MOBI, etc.) Subject headings in the list are taken from WorldCat records or Library of Congress records, if available: if not, original cataloging of subject headings is provided in WorldCat format, for consistency. The DOI (Digital Object Identifier) of the book is given if it is available on the publisher’s website; if not, the URL is provided. The ISBNs listed are for the online version of the book if available, and if more than one online ISBN is available the ISBN for the PDF version has been preferred; if there is not an online or e-book ISBN, the ISBN featured on the publisher’s website is included. The book’s license type (Creative Commons, etc.), terms of use or copyright restrictions are included if these have been provided by the publisher.

This edition of OTH Bookshelf: Art and Art History comprises titles from nearly 60 publishers, museums and cultural bodies: if our readers are aware of any title or publishers that are not included, please feel free to submit them for consideration. To be included in OTH Bookshelf, a book must be available to read online and/or download for free and must have been assigned an ISBN. 

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by Nigel Fletcher-Jones, PhD

Canterbury, in the eastern corner of England, was a city of saints. Eighteen archbishops were canonised before the Reformation and the remains of many other holy men and women were collected from elsewhere and deposited in its monasteries and churches.

Yet of its most famous saint, Thomas Becket (archbishop 1162-1170), no trace remains—unless one believes the claims of the nearby parish church at Chilham to secretly contain his relics.

Nonetheless, many tens of thousands of people still visit Canterbury cathedral each year, as they have since shortly after Becket’s murder by four of Henry II’s knights in December 1170, perhaps to contemplate the site where he was martyred or to marvel at the medieval stained glass representations of the miracles that were ascribed to him in the months and years following his death. The Martyrdom—the crime scene itself—had been substantially rebuilt between 1472 and 1487 in perpendicular style as part of a continuing struggle to accommodate pilgrims but separate them from the daily round of the monks. Nothing that can be identified certainly remains of the great shrine behind the high altar to which Becket’s remains were translated from the crypt in 1220. That was destroyed on the order of Henry VIII in 1538.

Yet we are not solely reliant on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in order to feel the presence of the pilgrims who started to arrive after the canonization of Becket in 1173 because of an extraordinary surviving building in the city’s high street – ‘Eastbridge Hospital’ or ‘the Hospital of Saint Thomas the Martyr’.

Henry VIII’s commissioners and an earlier archbishop were convinced that the hospital—meaning here ‘a place of hospitality’ rather than ‘a place of treatment’—had been built by Thomas Becket, and given the saintly history of Canterbury that remains a possibility, but the first record we have concerning the building suggests that it was founded around 1180 by Edward fitz Odbold, a wealthy merchant of nearby St. Peter’s parish, for the benefit of poor pilgrims—a social stratum well below that of Chaucer’s travellers.

It is a remarkable experience to step through the twelfth century archway from the main shopping street and down into the undercroft of the hospital where pilgrims would have slept, two to a bay, on straw or rushes strewn over the stone floor—these, hopefully, would be swept up occasionally. The River Stour flows on the west side of the undercroft so, no doubt, the floor would also have been damp or even flooded from time to time. In short, the accommodation would not have been comfortable, but it would have been better and safer than sleeping outside.


In times of plague the dangers of sleeping here would have been significantly higher as those that were in the initial stages of illness may have congregated in the hope of a miracle cure. The alarming number of ‘masters’ of the hospital in the fourteenth century seems to indicate that the senior administrators were not immune. This administrative complication was further exacerbated by the established right by the mid-14th century of those who died in Eastbridge Hospital to be buried in the south precinct of Christ Church (the current cathedral) in close proximity to Becket’s shrine.

Meals were provided for the pilgrims in the refectory above the undercroft and would have consisted of potage—oatmeal or wheat porridge–that might contain vegetables and, occasionally, fish or meat, together with bread and beer.

The 13th century mandorla in the refectory of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the four evangelists.

The refectory was completed a few years before 1200 and was originally two bays longer than at present, the remaining space having been used to construct alms-houses for female residents, or ‘in-sisters’, in the Tudor period. It is fortunate that the north end of hall survived as it is dominated by a 13th century mandorla of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the four evangelists that was discovered during renovation work in 1879. The extensive composition on this wall also included images of the murder of Becket, the public penance of Henry II (in July 1174), and the Last Supper, but all traces of these had disappeared by around 1900.

The pilgrim’s chapel.

Before leaving for Christ Church and the shrine of St. Thomas, the pilgrims would have mounted a further set of steps leading up to the chapel. Though pierced by mid-14th century windows, the chapel was originally consecrated in the 1190s.

The king’s strut roof above the chapel dating to around 1280.

The rafters are a rare survival of a king’s strut construction—the beams hang of struts hanging straight down from the apex of the roof—dating to about 1280. The second bay of the timber construction is very complex and carried an octagonal belfry through the roof until this was cut down in the early 18th century.

The chapel (reconsecrated in 1927) was used as a schoolroom from 1569 to 1880 for the education of twenty schoolboys aged between seven and sixteen, and, remarkably, from its foundation the hospital has held two annual scholarships to Corpus Christi, Cambridge that are still awarded today. It is rumoured that a young Kit Marlowe may have been a student here before going on to the King’s School within the cathedral precincts.

Several further additions were made to the current building after its foundation, including another rare survival—a chantry chapel dedicated to Our Lady built around 1363 and consecrated by Simon Sudbury (archbishop 1375-1381) in 1375. Chantry chapels were usually established for the remembrance of family members and this example was added specifically for that purpose by Bartholomew of Bourne who moved the chapel that had previously been established at Bekesbourne by his ancestor James. The chantry priest was supported by the income from twenty-four acres of farmland at Bekesbourne and was also expected to support the spiritual needs of pilgrims.

The chantry chapel, consecrated in 1375.

A 1547 Act of Edward VI abolished all chantry chapels and seized their assets for the crown. Somewhat ironically, that this particular chapel has survived mostly intact may be because it was poorly built of chalk and flint nodules that were not worth the effort of reusing for other construction. In the 1920s the chapel was still in use as a wine store before being reconsecrated in 1969.

Soon after the translation of St. Thomas to the new shrine behind the high altar, the hospital began to accept a small number of lifelong dwellers, known as ‘corrodians’, who had given money or land in support of its charitable mission. Eventually this required further construction in and around the main body of the building, including, around 1405, a substantial timber extension across the River Stour that was subsequently modified several times to include rooms for recipients of alms (known as ‘in-dwellers’) and, on the third floor, to house the school master.

If mention of these modifications suggest that the financial foundations of Eastbridge Hospital changed greatly over time, the impression is correct. After only a few years of operation it became clear that the original endowment of Edward fitz Odbold was insufficient for the hospital’s needs. Archbishop Hubert Walter (in office 1193-1205) made a further endowment in 1203, during the reign of King John, giving the tithes associated with several mills in and around Canterbury. At the same time, the nearby Cokyn’s Hospital was combined with Eastbridge and the former was closed creating for a brief period a single Hospital of St. Nicholas, St. Catherine, and Saint Thomas the Martyr.

Several major benefactors associated with the village of Blean to the northwest of Canterbury came to its aid in the early 13th century. The Norman lord, Hamo de Crevequer, gave land and the church of Blean to the hospital by a number of undated charters and several of his tenants did likewise with regard to land. In the succeeding centuries other landholders in Blean followed suit.

The timber-built, brick-faced extension over the River Stour begun around 1405.

Yet by 1342 the hospital was in a parlous state and Archbishop John de Stratford (1333-1348) essentially refounded the institution and laid down rules for its future management: healthy pilgrims might stay one night; sick pilgrims (excluding lepers) might stay until recovered; the right to burial in the south precinct of Christ Church was established for those who died at Eastbridge; pilgrims would be under the care of a woman over forty who would receive four pence a day to cover expenses; there would be twelve beds available (eight for men and four for women); and poor women in childbirth could be taken in.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the golden age of pilgrimage had passed and such journeys to Canterbury ceased altogether with the destruction of Becket’s shrine in 1538 leaving Eastbridge Hospital with no obvious purpose. Fortunately, Archbishop Mathew Parker (in office 1559-1575) converted into a hospital for poor travellers and soldiers and added the school.

The rear of Eastbridge Hospital showing the building across the River Stour and, to the right, the Tudor cottages used as almshouses.

For reasons not quite understood, Elizabeth I gave over the hospital to a private individual, John Farneham in 1576, but Archbishop John Whitgift (1583-1604) purchased and refounded it in 1584 as an almshouse—adding two cottages to the rear of the building—in which status it has continued to the present with, currently, eight apartments for in-sisters and in-brothers.

Today, as one climbs up to exit the hospital through its gothic entrance arch and steps back into the glare of the High Street with its plastic, glass, and concrete shop fronts, it is heart-warming to look back and remember that at Eastbridge Hospital we still also have a frontage that has survived that, more or less, would have been familiar to Chaucer himself on his way long ago from London.

In this edition of Industry News, an interview with the president of the Mellon Foundation, a Nobel Laureate’s novel becomes a puppet play, a surprising philanthropic fundraiser, improving your museum’s presence on YouTube, a new open access monograph collaboration is up and running, the inaugural Art Mumbai will have a unique locale, and a stunning exhibition of African photography at the Tate Modern.


Artistic Exchange is a Living Experience

Elizabeth Alexander, poet and president of the Mellon Foundation, discusses creativity as an agent for change, artistic collaboration, and holding more than one story at a time:

Source: Fast Company 


The Life and Times of Michael K

South African puppeteer Adrian Kohler has adapted the novel The Life and Times of Michael K by Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee into a puppet play. In the book, set in apartheid-era South Africa, the title character is born into poverty and sent to an institution. “’Michael K is very much an outsider, and that’s why having him as a puppet works so well,’ Kohler [told] the BBC.” The Life and Times of Michael K runs until August 27 at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

Source: BBC News 


Pennies From Heaven

The late Tony Bennett, who founded an arts school in his Queens, NY, neighborhood, had a long record of philanthropic campaigns—including a surprising annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that went on for almost 30 years: 

Source: Observer 


Museums and YouTube

YouTube’s popularity and utility as a search engine means that content you post there won’t be lost in an ever-scrolling algorithm-driven newsfeed, unlike some other social channels. Three tips to improve your museum’s YouTube channel:

Source: American Alliance of Museums Blog 


Big Ten Open Books

The Big Ten Open Books project, a collaboration between the university presses and libraries of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, has launched. The first 100-title collection centered on gender and sexuality studies is available #OA in digital form on the University of Michigan Press’s Fulcrum platform.

Source: Nebraska Today 


Art Fair Off to a Flying Start

The inaugural Art Mumbai (16-19 November) will take place on the Mahalaxmi Racecourse, a horse racing track in the city’s center.

Source: The Art Newspaper 


Africa in Pictures

The exhibition “A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography” runs at the Tate Modern in London until January 14 2024. Curator Osei Bonsu “selected works from artists exploring systems of power in Africa outside Western colonialism.” 

Source: Art Daily–in-regalia-and-complexity


Solo exhibitions that are also career retrospectives really call for a space sufficient to show {off) the artist’s complete body of work. Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language sprawls magnificently over seven rooms and two corridors at IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art). The largest presentation of her work in Europe to date, it had its origins in Howardena Pindell: A New Language, organized by the Fruitmarket, Edinburgh in 2021. Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language includes some new work in which one sees echoes of the artist’s concerns from the 1970s and 1980s.

American artist Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia in 1943. With a BFA degree from Boston University and an MFA from Yale, she worked at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from 1967 to 1979. (Beginning as an educator, she was MoMa’s first Black curator). By the 1970s, Pindell was experimenting with pointillism and mixed media. Room 1 in the IMMA show features her early abstract paintings that used the office supplies of her MoMA environment: stencils, hole punches, manilla folders and archive boxes. 

The moving screen was another source of inspiration. According to Bomb Magazine, the “deconstruction of structures of authority is specifically evident in her Video Drawings series’, begun in 1973, starting as acetate drawings over a television screen. Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980) was the first video acquired for iits collections by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. On display in Room 3 at IMMA, the video features Pindell talking about her own experiences of racism from her childhood onwards. She also creates a counterpoint character in whiteface, who tells the narrator that she must be paranoid and “we don’t believe in your symbols, they are not valid unless we validate them.” At the time when she made Free, White and 21 (perhaps her most famous work), Pindell was suffering from temporary amnesia after a car accident, and what she describes as “yet another run-in with racism in the art world and the white feminists. . . . I remember hearing that the feminists wished I had been “cooperative.” The white voice was the dominant voice. What the white male’s voice was to the white female’s voice, the white female’s voice was to the woman of color’s voice.”

Both Room 3 and Room 6, in which the video Rope/Fire/Water plays, are prefaced by warnings for content. Rope/Fire/Water (2020) was commissioned by The Shed in NYC. The Black Lives Matter movement spurred the artist to work that was contemplated but not completed as early as the 1970s. Pindell’s voiceover of personal anecdotes and historical data on lynchings and racist attacks in the United States is accompanied by statistics on screen and archival photos of lynchings. The paintings in Room 5, which precede this searing video, examine the connections between capitalism and its relationship to slavery, past and present. As the IMMA catalogue points out, Pindell’s “use of data sets harks back to surveys she conducted in the 1980s tracking racism in the art world, and as she says, ‘the numbers say everything’.” 

Paper works displayed in the light-filled West Corridor lead into the “cut and sewn” canvases in Room 7, where individual panels are cut and sewn together in an explosion of color. A beguiling conclusion to a career retrospective for an artist who has, according to The New York Times, “used her work to confront pain and embrace pleasure, spent decades committed to both figuration and abstraction, worked in institutions and criticized them.”

“Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language” was conceived by Annie Fletcher, curated by Seán Kissane and organized by Sara Muthi. It runs at IMMA until October 30, 2023.