Sing or sign?

At the UN I was asked ‘could I film the deaf Finnish rapper for two days and do a longer piece on him?’ I’d missed him when he’d passed through the UN in New York. The assignment was to go out to the University of Minnesota to catch the last two days of his US tour. I was keen. Not only could I (in my fevered imagination) become an MTV-style videographer for a couple of days – hanging out “back-stage” and all that (aargh – shades of This is Spinal Tap and setting the volume to 11 and all that, but still irresistible) – I also wanted to try out my new Canon 5D rig for the first time..

The rapper, called Signmark, talking to a deaf audience about his life and career – he’s the first deaf rapper to be signed by a major record label. He has a following around the world.

Signmark performs “bilingually” on stage. This means he uses sign-language for the hearing audience, while his collaborator, Brandon, an American-Finnish rapper, sings for the hearing audience. So it’s just a case of rearranging the “g’s” – signing and singing. The bilingualism is an important theme for Signmark. His argument is that being deaf is not a disability, but like being part of a linguistic minority. After all, he pointed out to me, if I knew sign-language he wouldn’t need an interpreter to communicate with me.

Here’s an extract from the 12 minute film I shot:

I was impressed by the strong support given to the deaf community at the University – a lot of interpreters are assigned to work with deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I wished I knew some sign-language myself. I think I half knew this, but I heard that most countries have their own sign-language – ie British, American, Chinese and so on – mostly completely different from each other. There is an official universal sign-language but it’s mainly used in Europe, and American Sign Language is often used as a lingua franca. Signmark himself knows five sign-languages, and can speak and lip-read in Finnish. While signing in American Sign Language he forms quite a few of the words in a whisper – so he’s a fluent linguist.

He told me he studied for a Master’s in Education and described a dialogue with an anthropologist when he was a student – the anthropologist had defined an ethnic group as having a culture, a language and so on – and Signmark, real name Marko Vuoriheimo, felt that most of the categories applied to deaf people.

Signmark’s current album (“Breaking the Rules”) is full of references to the people who wrongly thought he couldn’t make it in music -the tone is confident, sometimes mischievous. But his first album (“Signmark”) was darker. While making it he discovered that deaf couples in his home country had been legally barred from marrying between 1929 and 1969 – and that quite a few deaf women (no one knows how many) were sterilised – in the name of eugenics policies that held that the Finnish race would degenerate if deaf people were allowed to procreate.

Members of a club for the deaf in Finland in the 1930s.

I filmed a concert at the university, all the time getting into the music itself. The UN angle is that Signmark is on the working group on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. (Yes, a mouthful, and hard to get out in the narration.) I was also moved by what I learned about deaf people and the commitment of many hearing people to work with them.

Overall, I had a ball – and had a lot of fun filming and cutting the piece.

Here’s the full-length film – with subtitles for the deaf audience.

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