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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.

Signmark on stage

Signmark on stage

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.

Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules

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:

Deaf Club members 1930s

Deaf Club members 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.

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