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ASL interpreter Matt Maxey went from viral video sensation to working with Chance the Rapper

Founder of DEAFinitely Dope is working to unite hearing and deaf communities through music

DEAFinitely Dope founder Matt Maxey never expected his everyday communication skills to be viewed as extraordinary. And he definitely never expected to catch the eye of Grammy-winning artist Chance the Rapper, who hired Maxey’s team of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for the remainder of his Be Encouraged Tour, which runs through October.

Yet, the 29-year-old Atlanta native and social media sensation has given the deaf and hard-of-hearing community an opportunity to share a full music experience at concerts around the country.

“The deaf community has dealt with so much ignorance and all they’ve ever wanted was inclusion and to be accepted and treated equally while being able to enjoy life on an equal level as their hearing peers,” Maxey said via email.

Maxey, who is hard of hearing, gravitated toward interpreting hip-hop and R&B because of its rhythmic beats and the often powerful stories in the songs’ lyrics.

“Hip-hop has long been a favorite for the deaf community because of the beats, bass, and being hip, but they’ve never seen anybody truly emulate how the hearing world acts, talks, and expresses themselves and it’s understandable in sign language,” he wrote. “[Chance the Rapper] bringing on DEAFinitely Dope and being the first rapper to have his own personal interpreters, just makes me extremely happy because I personally feel like our mission has been to break barriers in the community, in society, in perspectives and stereotypes. To have an artist with the same beliefs, working with a deaf and hearing-impaired reflective of what he strives for, it’s truly a beautiful movement and social change to be a part of.”

Although the lines can be complex, there is a method Maxey uses to make interpreting fun and easier for the deaf community to follow along to their favorite tunes. For starters, Maxey studies the lyrics to ensure he understands the messages being relayed by artists. The lyrics, he said, are then portrayed in a way that people who know sign language will see how the stories are interpreted and connect it to their own life experiences.

“Hip-hop is purely visual with all the metaphors, wordplay and different moods that tracks may depict, so I must learn the words first, then I understand the song,” Maxey said. “I start signing the English words to the song to get my hands used to the song speed and mood, and lastly I picture it from the perspective of the artists and add the ASL twist to it by showing what the artist is talking about so that the message becomes clearer.”

That is exactly what Maxey did last month at the 2017 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee — the first big-stage festival he’s interpreted for. Maxey signed two songs he knew by heart while using the crowd’s positive vibes and energy to get him through the set. Unbeknownst to Maxey, Chance the Rapper had been watching him work the entire time.

“The next day, my friend Freddie casually walked up to me and said, ‘Chance the Rapper wants to meet you. He called and asked specifically for you, so we are setting up the meeting before his set tonight,’ ” Maxey explained. “I just couldn’t believe it. We didn’t get to meet until after his set, but while backstage, I was talking with my fellow interpreters that I had brought with me and all of a sudden, he just popped up. All I could think was wow, we’ve really come this far to get to this point. Nothing is impossible.”

Life hasn’t always been filled with success for Maxey, who founded DEAFinitely Dope in 2014 to “unite the hearing and deaf community through music and sign language.” Early on, his struggle to fit in with both the hearing and deaf communities made him question his place in society.

“I always felt like I was too deaf for the hearing world, yet too hearing for the deaf world,” Maxey said. “I think my situation is especially different with growing up in a hearing world, yet always working 10 times harder to hear with hearing aids and trying to lip-read what everyone is saying, knowing I can’t hear everything yet pretending that I could. If it was a group environment, forget about it.”

Maxey, who grew up in Atlanta before relocating to Houston, used hearing aids and was always surrounded by friends and family members to help him when necessary.

“My mother and my family never let me feel like I was a lesser person because of my disability and never lowered the standard for me,” Maxey said. “I was always slapped with the label of being gifted in the classroom, a pleasure to be around, and so many positive labels despite my disability that I never felt like I couldn’t do anything. The real question was, would I be accepted by everybody?”

After enrolling at Gallaudet University, a private institution for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., then Florida State College at Jacksonville, Maxey’s journey to fit in became arduous. Maxey had no formal ASL training until taking classes at Gallaudet, and he struggled to find his footing among his deaf peers. Unable to fully conform, he took on odd, unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet. In the process, he relied heavily on drinking and partying as coping mechanisms for his “destroyed feeling of self-worth.”

Maxey soon realized the lifestyle he was leading was neither productive nor conducive to a viable career. Instead, he distracted himself by beginning a YouTube channel where he uploaded videos signing rap lyrics. Immediately, Maxey noticed the skyrocketing number of views his videos began receiving and how invested the audience was in the rare sight of a black man using sign language to rap lyrics.

From there, Maxey began sharing his videos on other social media platforms before getting involved in #4BarFriday, an Instagram freestyle competition created by Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard to allow users to share their rap battles. Maxey’s first entry was completely in sign language, with written lyrics posted in the description.

“I’ve been taking speech therapy for 18 years, [people] made fun of for my speech my whole life, and [I’m] extremely self-conscious of how I talked, which was why I found so much comfort in taking on the voice of an artist through sign language,” Maxey said. “The positive feedback was overwhelming from the community with the majority of the people commenting that they’ve never seen a deaf person rap before. I posted another one seven weeks later using my voice, and Damian Lillard posted it on his Instagram. The support, praise and inspiration was tremendous.”

His viral videos and accounts, which have amassed more than 45,000 combined followers, prompted Maxey to want to do more for the deaf and hard of hearing. In 2014, DEAFinitely Dope was born. As it gains steam, Maxey often reflects on the beginning of his journey while encouraging others to find what makes them happy in life.

“Find your passion, find your purpose, and fulfill it by any means necessary,” Maxey said. “I’ve truly lived life in a way to where nothing and nobody could come between my music and I, and with so many people witnessing the journey from 100 likes to 25K likes on Facebook, I just hope they feel inspired to the point that no, your deafness does not prevent you from being an inspiration to do more and do better. With spreading nothing but positivity, I hope people leave feeling better about themselves, encouraged, hopeful, ambitious. We need more of that instead of tearing each other down, negativity, and being content with being stagnant in life. Life is what you make it, so make it where the generation after you will enjoy and learn from the life you have lived.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.