On Tuesday, The National Student Speech Language and Hearing Association (NSSLHA) paired with the Saint Mary’s Student Diversity Board’s Diversity and Leadership Conference to present the story behind prominent sign language interpreter Matthew Maxey’s group, DEAFinitely Dope.
Hard-of-hearing and outfitted with hearing aids at the age of two, Maxey grew up in Atlanta, Georgia without ever truly being exposed to the deaf community.
“I knew nothing about it … I never knew about the deaf community, I never knew about sign language, I never knew that I was different,” Maxey said. “I noticed that nobody else had to use hearing aids, but at the same time, it never really ran through my head that — hey, there are other people like me. I just kind of got used to it.”
In fact, Maxey didn’t learn sign language until he was eighteen, while attending Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. — the world’s only university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Living and learning among other deaf students opened a door to a new community, culture and personal experience, Maxey said. In order to catch up with the sign language skills exercised by his peers and professors, Maxey began to practice signing some of his favorite music. He soon found that combining the English of rap and hip hop with American Sign Language (ASL) allowed for a deeper, much more genuine form of communication.
“Going to Gallaudet gave me a way to express things in an artistic, creative way,” Maxey said. “Music, poetry and then sign language coming into the mix opened a new world, to the point where I was like — ok, you know what, one way or another, someone will understand me. One way or another, there will be someone I can connect with.”
Maxey said he began producing videos of himself signing to his favorite rap, hip hop and R&B, and entered freestyle competitions.
“People would say, ‘Wait a minute. You can do that with your hands, and talk at the same time, and still be rocking with it? You’re dope. You’re deaf, but you’re dope,’” Maxey said.
In 2014, DEAFinitely Dope was born. Maxey said his passion for music brought him and a friend together in creating a performance group that strives towards “changing the way deaf people experience music and entertainment,” while uniting the hearing and deaf communities and breaking down barriers in the process. DEAFinitely Dope brought Maxey to Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in 2017, where he interpreted for several artists, including D.R.A.M. Unbeknownst to Maxey, Chance the Rapper was watching him sign from backstage. This first encounter led to a partnership that took Maxey and the mission of DEAFinitely Dope to Miami and Tampa, Florida, and later, on Chance’s nationwide tour.
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I want to do, I don’t know what I hope to do. All I know is that I want to try to make a difference, one way or another,” Maxey said. “Whether it’s by providing a video with captions, providing a concert to be interpreted with sign language … if I can raise awareness, my job is done.”
While on tour, Chance started providing free tickets to deaf and hard-of-hearing fans, contributing to Maxey’s work of introducing mainstream America to sign language through music, which he considers to be a universal form of communication.
“Sign language really is everywhere, you just never really realize until you become involved,” Maxey said.
While learning ASL is a life-long process, Maxey said, it’s the key to finding the inclusion and identity he is demanding for the deaf community. As someone who understands the language barriers that accompany being hard-of-hearing, Maxey’s interpretation style emphasizes the importance of developed, heartfelt communication with the deaf community. He said that while his explosive signing style is unique, it always matches the artist’s energy, demeanor and aura. Maxey uses his dynamic interpretation to accurately portray each song, allowing for the hearing and deaf communities to come together in the same shared musical experience.
“That’s what DEAFinitely Dope is about: not feeling so alone in the world,” Maxey said.