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.

By Lisa M. Ruch

Environmental topics such as climate change and pollution garner widespread attention every April, but increasingly are the focus of more and more people year-round. These crises are not recent, but much of the focus on them has come from scientific disciplines and practitioners. When faced with the unsettling and at times alarming predictions of science, many in the general public shut down, either from fear or from a lack of emotional response to hard scientific data. Musician and composer Geoffrey Hudson, co-founder of Hybrid Vigor Music, Inc., considered the dilemma of how to engage the wider public into deeper thought about the topic to inspire change and realized that music, with its power to evoke emotion, could be the perfect means. His choral oratorio A Passion for the Planet is the result.


The piece, which runs to an hour in performance time, is written for adult and children’s choirs, two soloists, and orchestra. Rather than write lyrics for the entire piece, Hudson spent months reading scientific studies, looking for passages to integrate into the work. Books such as David Orr’s Dangerous Years1, Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded2, and Bill McKibben’s Eaarth3 provided ample disturbing and stark images, while the now-famous “hockey stick” graph (Mann, et al.) made an ideal nexus point to aurally depict the extremity of crisis.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to sing in the premiere of A Passion for the Planet and went into the rehearsals curious about how this scientific prose and information would resonate in song. It was a novel experience to sing words and phrases such as “chemical sludge,” “primeval goo,” “cancer and cell mutations,” and “pollution and environmental damage.” Other singers seemed to have the same ambivalence at first, but as we became familiar with the texts and the music, acceptance and engagement came quickly. I found myself thinking more deeply about the topics, and fellow singers told me they did as well.

After an introduction that celebrates the Earth’s gifts and humanity’s place within it, the oratorio transitions to the grim depictions of pollution, abuse of natural resources, and overpopulation, rising to a literal crescendo in the seventh movement. Here Hudson composed a musical depiction of the hockey stick graph, with the planet’s average temperature over centuries represented by pitch, extinction rates represented by the number of notes per measure, and the rise in human population represented by dynamics. Over almost six minutes, the sound, steady and droning at first, builds to a cacophony in which the singers repeat phrases and deconstructed words of lament. As Hudson explained, “I didn’t need words for that—the data were enough” (Voth). The movement concludes abruptly and chillingly with a percussive crash followed by an ominous silence; it is emotional to sing and audience members reported that it was eerie and impactful to hear.

It is this ‘deer in the headlights’ fear and paralysis that prevents many people from delving deeper into these ecological issues; considering these crises in depth is frightening, and the problems seem huge and insurmountable. It is at this point in A Passion for the Planet that Hudson leverages a powerful cathartic emotional response by bringing in the children’s choir to sing, “What have you done / with what was given you, / what have you done with / the blue, beautiful world?” (Hudson, Movement VIII). This plaintive query, sung in the pure, innocent tones that only a children’s choir has, leaves listeners shaken and teary. The adult choir then joins the children, adding further details of the distressing impacts of humankind’s unchecked exploitation of natural resources.

Listeners are not left in limbo, however. A shift in tone, akin to the turn in a sonnet, opens the final portion of the oratorio, where Hudson wanted to give the audience hope and encouragement. David Orr’s trope that “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” (Hudson. Movement IX) invokes purposeful action, action carried out not by individuals working piecemeal, but by people working together. The choirs and soloists combine to represent this shared effort as they sing, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love; therefore we are saved by faith; therefore we shall be saved by hope” (Hudson, Movement X).

To involve the audience in this communal endeavor, Hudson chose to conclude the oratorio in the time-honored fashion with a chorale to be sung by the listeners along with the choirs. For the premiere performance, the audience was taught the chorale before the oratorio began so it was familiar to them. As they rose to sing it in the final movement, the atmosphere was electric. One audience member related afterward that singing it “was one of the most moving concert experiences of my life. When it came time for the audience to join in, I found it hard to sing, I was so overwhelmed—and looking around I realized that many audience members were in the same boat” (“Passion for the Planet”), while the conductor recalled, “It was such a thrill and emotionally overwhelming when the audience joined in during the performance. Many were in tears” (Thornton).


Learn More about A Passion for the Planet


This coming together as one group is symbolic of the potential power of people joining to address the ecological crises facing the planet and is the goal of A Passion for the Planet. Hybrid Vigor Music’s intention is to facilitate performances nationwide to encourage public involvement with climate and pollution issues and their remedies. The Covid-19 pandemic sidelined performances planned for 2020 and 2021, but in the interim the piece and its aims have been publicized by Hudson and climate scientists such as Bill McKibben and Michael Mann in webinars supported by the National Museum of Natural History, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other organizations.

Such interdisciplinary collaboration is the theme of A Passion for the Planet, showcasing both the powerful impact the humanities can have when leveraged in concert with the sciences—in this case, both literally and figuratively—and the myriad ways the humanities can benefit the public. After all, our planet’s systems are inextricably interconnected; our human endeavors must be as well.



  1. Orr, David W. Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward. Yale University Press, 2016.
  2. Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How it Can Renew America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
  3. McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010.


Works Cited

Hudson, Geoffrey. A Passion for the Planet, 2019.

Mann, Michael E., Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes. “Global-Scale Temperature Patterns and Climate Forcing over the Past Six Centuries.” Nature, vol. 392, 23 April 1998, pp. 779-787.

“A Passion for the Planet.” Hybrid Vigor Music, Accessed 11 April 2021.

Thornton, Tony. “A Passion for the Planet.” Choral Planet, Accessed 11 April 2021.

Voth, Ellen Gilson. Music in Response – 3. Farmington Valley Chorale. 21 February 2021. Webinar.

About the author:

Lisa M. Ruch is Professor of English and Communications and Assistant Dean of Liberal Studies at Bay Path University. She also sits on the Board of Directors of Hybrid Vigor Music, Inc. Her training in comparative literature has instilled in her a deep regard for interdisciplinary studies and the public value of the humanities.