To sing or sign?
By Francis Mead
It was a late call – could I go to Minnesota to film the deaf, Finnish rapper for the last two days of his US tour?
I wasn’t quite as fazed by this request as you might guess: I’d seen the poster for Signmark when he’d passed by the UN in New York – but hadn’t had time to see him perform.
I did have a few questions: what would he sound like? Did he sing?
Well, I had a few things to learn. He doesn’t sing, but he does sign. It’s just a matter or rearranging the “g”. And he also puts on a “bilingual” performance. – meaning that he signs for the deaf audience, while his collaborator Brandon sings for the hearing audience.
And the music really began to grow on me – first from listening to his latest CD, Breaking the Rules – then from watching, and filming, his concerts. It was cool – I was allowed to be a kind of MTV camera guy for a couple of days.
Why Minnesota (the university of)? Because they have a strong and proud tradition of support for the deaf community there – for example providing numerous interpreters to work with deaf students.
The serious side: Signmark, real name Marko Vuoriheimo, wants people to think carefully about how they see deaf people: are they disabled, or part of a linguistic minority? After all, he says, isn’t being deaf in the hearing world a bit like being a Brit in Finland and not knowing the local language – and then needing an interpreter to communicate?
Members of a club for deaf people in Finland in the 1930s:
When he was making his first album Signmark discovered that, in Finland, deaf couples were officially barred from marrying between 1929 and 1969 – on the basis of pseudo-scientific eugenics theories: the concern that the Finnish race would degenerate if people with disabilities were allowed to procreate.
Signmark’s own story is one of cheerful triumph – his songs make frequent references to the people who doubted him – and shoves their skepticism back in their faces. He’s not a shrinking violet.
Here’s an extract from the film:
The full documentary is below, which has been distributed to broadcasters worldwide as part of the UN’s 21st Century magazine programme.