How sign language interpreter Holly Maniatty keeps music accessible

American Sign Language interpreter Holly Maniatty explains the art and science of 'performance interpreting' for deaf people at concerts and music festivals.
Holly Maniatty is an American Sign Language interpreter at concerts and music festivals. (Facebook/Holly Maniatty )

American Sign Language interpreter Holly Maniatty has a knack for going viral. Video clips of her interpreting the lyrics at a Snoop Dogg concert in New Orleans have been spreading quickly through Facebook recently.

But the interpreter has been in the spotlight for a few years now. Maniatty also displayed her acumen with interpreting hip-hop lyrics at a 2013 concert alongside legendary hip-hop crew Wu Tang Clan.

However, Maniatty's commitment goes beyond the quickly fading attention span afforded to viral videos.

Maniatty talks with q guest host Ali Hassan about the art and science of "performance interpreting" and gives insight into the experience and accessibility needs of deaf people at concerts and music festivals. 

Web extra: Read below for a full transcription of our interview with Holly Maniatty. 

[ALI] Holly, we just heard a bit of that Snoop Dog show. What was that like for you up onstage that day?

[HOLLY] It was pretty great. Snoop's energy was really high. He was really feeling the New Orleans crowd and we had four or five deaf patrons there and they were just loving the show. You know his show includes dancers and a mascot. And he kind of goes through many of the songs which he's highlighted on so it was a really great, high energy show and the crowd was really into it. And I was very excited to be interpreting for him and it was just it was a really great concert.

[ALI] Your excitement shines through. If somebody who goes and watches that, you will see a very excited Holly Maniatty there. You're just as excited as Snoop, if not even a little bit moreso, I would say.

[HOLLY] Well he's pretty lowkey. Some of his background music really has a lot of energy and you know, as an interpreter, you want to embody what's happening in terms of the music and the vibe and to be all of that so it becomes visually accessible to the people you're interpreting for. So, I think some of that bouncing is a lot of the bass, especially on that song.

[ALI] Yeah, you're very close to the speaker.

[HOLLY] Yes, we are very close to the speaker which is a little plug to everyone: wear earplugs at concerts if you're close to the stage!

[ALI] Right. On behalf of somebody who works with people who are hearing impaired, that is good advice. It's not even the first time that a video of yours has gone viral. There's also a video of you back in 2013 alongside legendary hip hop crew, Wu-Tang Clan, that gained a lot of attention. How does it feel to go viral again? Some people live a whole life without going viral once.

[HOLLY] It's an interesting experience because, as a professional, you're up there totally focused on making sure that the show is accessible and the deaf patrons are having as great a time as everybody else. And then you go to sleep and two days later, you wake up and it's all over the Internet. So it's kind of a surreal experience. I had no idea somebody was filming me and I was fortunate that it was a super successful moment and people were really into it. So far the feedback has been, a majority, very positive. And the fact that it's raising awareness for accessibility issues for interpreting all over the spectrum for deaf people is really the best part of this whole situation.

[ALI] Sure. And, in fact, you know on that note, there will be a lot of listeners out there who don't have much contact with people in the deaf community. And as someone who works in deaf accessibility everyday, can you explain what people with hearing disabilities get out of a gig or a music festival?

[HOLLY] Well you know the advent of music festivals kind of changed the concert industry. A music festival is, in my opinion, now an entire experience. There's art, there's music, there's community opportunities, there's camping... So a festival provides a plethora of experiences and making that accessible to a deaf patron is super important. They may want to go to sunrise yoga class and then head on over to a hip-hop shop show and then go have some food, hang out and camp, and then go to a couple of other shows at night. So they're able to kind of get several different genres of music and have this community feeling with everybody else.

[ALI] Sometimes patrons are discovering new music through having shows that are interpreted and that widens their world of music appreciation as well. There's been a handful of videos of performance ASL interpreting and the reaction in the comments section is always, you know, the interpreter is dope or she's amazing. The headline for you was that you're extremely lit. What does the reaction say to you?

[HOLLY] At first I was like, extremely lit? Okay. Yep, that's totally a good thing. I was just really happy that people were kind of opening their minds to this, this thing that should be available at every single concert. Anytime a deaf person wants to go to a music festival or a concert by a specific artist, it should be available and I was really psyched that it gets the message out there. Some people have message me on Facebook and said, 'Oh, is there an ASL class in my local area?' So I've been reaching out to local schools for the deaf wherever these people are and kind of hooking them up with opportunities to learn American Sign Language. It's just really great widening that network of people that are aware.

[ALI] You mention that it's helping people open their mind. Has there been close-mindedness? Has there been negative comments or backlash?

[HOLLY] Yeah, I think with any kind of highly-visible video that goes viral, there can always be the other side of the story and some people can be critical of everything from you. From what you were wearing that day to perhaps a particular sign choice. So all of that comes hand-in-hand. I mean, we've all heard of Internet trolling and stuff, but I think the most important thing is that, like I said, people are now more aware that there is accessibility for deaf people at concerts. And maybe they'll go and look at my page and see a reference to Sean Forbes, for example, who is a rapper and maybe that'll bring them into the world of deaf performers which is really my hope. That people get interested in the deaf community and therefore into deaf performers.

[ALI] And how did you get into this world?

[HOLLY] I went to school to be an interpreter at the Rochester Institute of Technology. And then I went into the interpreting fields and had been interpreting for a while and got certified, et cetera. And then somebody wanted an interpreter for a Marilyn Manson concert and they couldn't find an interpreter so I was like, okay I'll do it. And it was just a really interesting process of getting ready for that and going through all those lyrics.

[ALI] What are the details of that process?

[HOLLY] Well let's use hip hop as an example. There's a lot of cultural references references to the person who's writing the song their life and their experiences. So, I do a lot of research about if they're talking about a specific kind of car or an event. For example, when I was getting ready for the Wu-Tang show, they talk about riots in the street. And at that time, the Ferguson riots were just kind of finishing up so of course your mind would jump there because that's a current event but you kind of have to take a moment. go see when that song was written and see that they're probably talking about the L.A. riots. And then think about something that's more iconic about the L.A. riots in terms of visual accessibility and kind of build your interpretation that way to make it as as authentic and close to the meaning of the person who wrote it. You just want to make sure that you're providing the most authentic interpretation you can.

[ALI] So how long does a prep take? Do you know the setlist ahead of time?

[HOLLY] We usually get it about 10 minutes before the show. So that requires us doing a lot of research, like in the last three or four months of their performances what songs they regularly perform. And then we kind of pick other things, if they have a song for example about New Orleans and they're in New Orleans, they may play that one so we'll prep that one. We work in teams of two. Amy Adkins was on my team for the Snoop show and she killed it. She did such a great job. So what we do is, we kind of split up the list of maybe 30 to 40 songs that we think that the person may play and we we kind of tag team off of that.

[ALI] I'm enjoying this interview because I'm developing a respect for you, Holly, on a number of different levels. Your knowledge of music, your preparation... I'm thinking about your stamina as you're out there. You know, your arm strength, there's a lot that's going on against you as you interpret. Are there any musical acts or genres you won't do or are you just not interested in?

[HOLLY] No, it's not that I wouldn't do them. I think as a professional interpreter, when you are offered an assignment or asked to do a specific music group, you have to use your discretion. And if there's a specific group that I know somebody else is better at, I will definitely refer them to that interpreter and vice versa.

[ALI] Some of the stuff, especially in hip hop, there will be some words that are probably offensive and derogatory. Do you sign everything?

[HOLLY] The process of interpretation is highly dependent on the intended meaning of the speaker but also the truth of the matter is that I didn't write that song. So if Method Man wants to use a derogatory term for whatever reason, that's his prerogative as an artist. And my assumption is that if someone bought a ticket to their show, they identify with it. They want to see him say what he has to say and put out there his experience so as an interpreter, I would never ever take the stance of filtering or censoring an artist because that's not really that's not what music is about at all.

[ALI] Sure. Well, it's very interesting. I'm reflecting on that awkward moment that I've been in that so many people are in, when they're in a club and a song comes on with the N-word or something and then you just sort of stop singing because you're not comfortable singing that word. And then you go back to singing immediately after. I was wondering if that has an effect. But obviously you have a little bit more freedom to interpret exactly what is coming from the acts onstage.

[HOLLY] Yeah and I think that you know every word has an intended meaning. You can use one word to mean someone I grew up with for a long time or he's my brother we've been through it or you can use that as an insult. So what's the intended meaning of that word? And also as a professional interpreter in front of you know how many thousands of people you'd have the opportunity to use a variety of signs that may mean the same exact thing that aren't as obvious.

[ALI] Got it. Just before we leave you do you have a favorite artist or a most memorable show?

[HOLLY] That's a hard one. I'd have to say at the Wu-Tang show it was one of those moments where I saw the deaf patrons like, bouncing with everybody; the beat was dropping and they were in it. They were having a great time and just that experience of them accessing it at the same time as everybody else was definitely one of my favorite moments. Everyone was really psyched for them to be there and that was pretty great. I think that you know in those moments I'm so focused on working that I'm not so much taking in everything that's going on.

[ALI] Well I look forward to seeing more viral videos with you. Holly, thanks very much.

[HOLLY] Absolutely, thank you.

— Produced by Ashley Mak