About 40 years ago, when signed song was almost unheard of, I was working with Deaf young people who were suffering under Oralism and experiencing scorn from their hearing peers. I had a vision that we could turn this upside down by writing and performing our own songs in our own languages, celebrating our lives and highlighting our oppression. Some of the music made by hearing people – protest songs of the 60s, gospel, R’nB, soul, reggae, funk, and later hip-hop – did just this. They became popular and created social change. So why could we not do the same?
BREAKING DOWN THE WALL OF SILENCE
The hearing world knows nothing about the century-long oppression of Deaf children that has denied them their birthright – access to their own sign languages, communities, cultures and histories. We need to break down the walls of silence that hide this oppression – show society what is taking place in its name.
A BRIDGE ACROSS TWO WORLDS
We can demonstrate the beauty and power of our new artform. We can combine hearing people’s love of music with SignSongs of our own. And we can create a bridge across our two worlds, where Deaf and hearing people could meet and learn from each other. We can gain respect for our languages and cultures. And we can make visible new ways of celebrating life.
Then those Deaf kids no longer have to feel ashamed of who they are. They might even come to be seen as cool, and find their hearing peers wanting to learn to sign.
But first we needed SignSongs of our own.
WRITING DEAF SIGNSONGS
I had been writing songs for a few years, but it was not until the mid-80s that I could find a way to write about our own Deaf experiences. We then created the world’s first Deaf SignSong video in 1990, and then made a better version for the BBC’s See Hear in 1991. But the world wasn’t ready for this. And we didn’t have the contacts or sufficient experience of the hearing world to know how to approach the cut-throat music business.
I carried on creating SignSongs, but was involved in too many other Deaf liberation activities to have the time and energy to pursue the vision. So I found other ways to build bridges. Meeting American Deaf folks in 1989 who followed the Grateful Dead opened a new path. With the band’s co-operation, we created the world’s first DeafZone – providing good access and signing the songs – still going strong today. Signing at those concerts, and at Bob Dylan and other concerts taught me a lot about how to improve my own SignSongs. We also created DeafZone UK, notably at Glastonbury Festival from 2009 till now.
CREATING THE SIGN LANGUAGE MUSICAL
In 1999 I realised the theatre world would make a better bridge. Plays were being interpreted and hearing people were more open-minded than in the music business. And the success of the Deaf-themed play, Children of a Lesser God, showed it was possible to get society’s attention that way. This inspired me to write a Deaf musical, Signs Of Freedom, and I’ve been working steadily to get it performed ever since.
Recently Deaf performers of SignSongs have emerged. Some are hearing songs adapted to Deaf culture (Colin Thomson) and some are self-penned (Signmark, Sean Forbes, Signkid and more.)
The time to achieve the vision – whether through theatre or film – is getting closer…
CREATING ‘SONGS OF DEAFHOOD’
My own SignSongs keep on coming, even after I lost what was left of my hearing. But my own time is running out. So I decided to put them out in the world in these two books (the musical plus 80 SignSongs) to try and attract some positive energies, get people to come and work on the project – hearing musicians, theatre people, Deaf signers and film makers. As always, the biggest challenge is to find hearing musicians to help record them – then we can film and perform them in Sign.
SO IF YOU WANT TO HELP MAKE HISTORY, JUST CONTACT US!