When the Austin City Limits Music Festival rolls around this October, a lot of eyes will be on headliner Chance The Rapper. But for a select few, the real star will be Matthew Maxey – Chance’s handpicked American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.
Founder of ASL hip-hop interpreting group DEAFinitely Dope, Maxey has severely profound hearing loss, but he definitely hasn’t let it stop him from sharing his love of music to all, especially to those who can’t hear it.
“Through it all, the vision was always to spread the awareness of ASL to the point where society can't help but want to learn more about the language and the deaf community that comes along with it,” Maxey told KVUE in an email interview. “I guess we are trying to change the world in a way!”
And in a way, they have. Along with his partners, master ASL interpreters Amber Galloway Gallego and Kelly Kurdi, Maxey attends music festivals and concerts across the nation where he interprets the artists' lyrics along with specialized ASL hand movements, uniting music lovers in a platform that until recently was otherwise inaccessible to those hard of hearing.
It was at one of those festivals earlier this month when Maxey got some game-changing news: Chance The Rapper, the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist who was headlining Bonnaroo, wanted to meet him backstage.
“We didn't meet until after his set, but when we did, we talked for a while throwing around ideas until he just directly asked what we were doing for the next two weeks and to meet him in Miami to see about being his interpreters for the rest of the tour,” Maxey recalled. “The fans, the band, the shows, it's surreal. Everybody has been so down to earth, easygoing, and just all around dope that I truly feel like I'm living in a dream.”
Maxey said the dream all began when he started signing to songs while attending Gallaudet University, a private university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. From there, he started posting a few videos on his YouTube channel and built up a following.
“Three years later, I was still making videos, writing lyrics, freestyling on social media and I never really knew what exactly I was doing, except that it was a passion for sign language and music and that I never felt fulfillment working with anything else,” said Maxey.
After a lot of positive feedback, he decided to build his brand with the mission to unite hearing and deaf people and improve relationships between both communities through the power of music. He dubbed it DEAFinitely Dope.
For another three years, he maintained the brand as a solo project until Reddit posted one of his videos last summer and things really took off.
“Throughout the last year, I've networked with so many great individuals and teams, partnered up with interpreters and was able to set up a team of my own with the same vision towards breaking barriers and wanting to work it together to take the mission ten steps further,” Maxey said.
Though Chance The Rapper is certainly helping him advance that mission, he said there’s still a message many other musicians need to hear.
“Sign language truly becomes poetry in motion and a motion picture while bringing your words to life in the process,” he said. “To see what is being spoken is mind blowing yet extremely fascinating and there is nothing but positivity and inclusion to gain from adding sign language … Break those barriers.”
Though Chance The Rapper, who is scheduled to perform both weekends at ACL, may have his own handpicked ASL interpreters, the festival also provides ASL services by email request. For more information on ACL’s sign language program, go here.