When Lollapalooza blasts into Chicago this week (with an admittedly divided lineup), there’s one unique act you’ll have to be in the first row to fully enjoy—Amber Galloway Gallego, whose lively American Sign Language performances have made her a star in her own right.
Galloway Gallego, whose interpretation of A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” at Lollapalooza 2013 (above) went viral, says she’s been surrounded by members of the deaf community her entire life. “I hosted a lot of gatherings at my house for my deaf friends and started to sign to the music playing, and they were all like, ‘Whoa—we like how you’re doing that,’” she says. “We all sat down and started talking about what they wanted to see in a music interpreter.”
The 39-year-old, who lives in Houston, spent the past 15 years combining her passions for music and sign language to realize that vision, as an interpreter and teacher promoting awareness for the deaf community, LGBTQ sign language, and ethics in the field. Galloway Gallego may not be center stage as part of the eight-person Lollapalooza ASL Access Program this weekend, but it’s hard to miss her—she puts on shows via facial expressions and dance moves that are so fun to watch, they often rival those of the actual artist (this year she’ll be upstaging the likes of J.Cole, Future, and headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers).
We caught up with her in pre-Lolla prep mode to chat about why every stage needs high-quality sign, the importance of body language, and the rap song that she’ll fight for forever.
When did you know for sure you wanted to become a music interpreter?
I would go to concerts with my deaf friends and watch the interpreters, and it was just really unsuccessful. These interpreters weren’t respecting the experience of the music performance or the amount of preparation that needs to go into it. What’s worse is that they weren’t engaging at all with the deaf individuals there. When I saw that I was like, “there’s something missing here.” I made it my goal to ensure something changed.
You mentioned these interpreters were unsuccessful—how so?
A lot of times you will just see people signing the sign for music. For example, a sign for “trumpet” if there’s a trumpet playing. And it’s like, “OK, I know there’s a trumpet, I see a trumpet, but what does a trumpet sound like?” So I started thinking about how I could make those sounds come to life, and how I could put that music into language.
How do you do so with, say, the sounds of a trumpet?
One of the parameters of ASL is called non-manual signals, which is a part of mouth morphemes. When I hear a deep bass, I make a puffed-cheek face and go “bow wow wow wow” with my mouth to showcase those deep notes. I can point at a guitarist all day long, but a deaf audience will feel only one vibration coming from the speaker. They won’t feel the different riffs or sounds that come about just by looking at an instrument, but they can see it in the language. If an artist is screaming in a high note, my sign goes up high above my head and my face scrunches up really tight to show height in the sound. If I’m interpreting for big guitar solos all day, my jaw starts to kill me. [See more of her ASL videos on her YouTube channel.]
It sounds like it requires a lot of work—along with heaps of preparation. How much?
I research the artist before and find out who they are, what they’re about, and what their goal or intention is for their music. Every artist has a specific emotion that they’re trying to get the audience to connect with, and I want to ensure I can showcase those emotions. I also research the band fan sites. The artist has a goal and a way they’re going to write and produce music, but the fans also listen and interpret the music in their own ways. It’s important to have both perspectives included in my interpretation. Next, my team and I will divide and conquer the set lists. We’ll fight over songs and figure out who will take which ones, then we’ll start working on them. I’ll print the lyrics and listen to the song a million times before show time.
What song will you always fight for?
Because I went viral on it, I have to do A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” every single time, no matter what. My favorite genre is rap and R&B because I love that whole soul aspect. A$AP Rocky will perform it, and so will Drake and Kendrick Lamar. Now every time that song comes up in a set list, my team is like, “that one is all Amber.”
Who else do you love interpreting for?
Alabama Shakes. It is so fun to be able to interpret Brittany [Howard] and the soul that pours out of her voice. It’s interesting when I see myself in videos during performances because I can actually see her on my face. I don’t know what or how it happens, but it just takes over me. The energy that comes off the artist channels through me to the point where I’ll have the artist come up and tap me or try to get my attention, and I won’t even see them because I’m so into doing my part. At that point, it’s no longer about me — it’s about the deaf person’s experience and the artist’s experience and what they’re giving their crowd.
What is your biggest goal when you’re on stage?
Dynamic equivalence—meaning that the deaf individual can feel the artist so strongly that it’s like I’m not even there. That the energy of the music comes through my hands so efficiently, it’s as though the artist is the one doing the signing.
Whose stages can we catch you on this weekend at Lollapalooza?
Future, Red Hot Chili Peppers, J. Cole, G-Eazy, Bastille, Bloc Party, X Ambassadors, and Silversun Pickups are some of the artists I’ll be interpreting for.
Beyond a few venues and music festivals like Lollapalooza, there seems to be a major lack of music interpreters in this industry, which feeds into the misconception that the deaf community does not or cannot enjoy music. What would you say to that?
For many years there were a lot of people who would say, “Music is a hearing thing, it’s not a deaf thing,” and I was like, “Absolutely not. Music is such a huge part of humanity as a whole.” Deaf individuals have all different kinds of hearing loss, and we shouldn’t just discount them because they happen to have hearing aids and they use sign as their first mode of communication. There are deaf musicians, deaf rappers, and so many people out there who are a big part of the music scene.
A lot of times us in the hearing community make the decisions for the deaf community, and I call that being “hearing privileged.” We think for ourselves only. Deaf people fight for access to their basic communication every single day of their lives, and when they want to break away from the trials and tribulations of life, just like the rest of us, they’re not always able to because most places don’t want to provide interpreters. And if they do provide them, those interpreters often don’t take the time to learn what the deaf community wants in their music experience.
You’ve made some big changes for the better for the entire concert-going community. What still needs to change, in your opinion?
I think we have to shatter the idea that just because somebody is different than ourselves, it doesn’t mean they’re any lesser. I think we will see those changes when we begin to provide access, no matter what. It’s about putting ourselves in that person’s shoes for a day and going, “if I didn’t have this access, how would I feel?”
What is a particularly special moment you’ve experienced while doing this?
One time we were signing to One Direction for a group of deaf children. When I would play an instrument and look down at them, they would be copying me and my signs. It just does something to your heart and mind when that happens. Afterward, they were all jumping up and down, thanking us, and saying how much they loved it. That moment will be with me forever.