The ones who sing with their hands

Move aside Rihanna, a new star is here: your ASL interpreter, Justina Miles.

While many of us couldn’t decide if we loved or hated Rihanna’s halftime show (those dancing marshmallows sure were something though), her ASL interpreter stole the show, and promptly went viral on TikTok.

Miles’ set was filled with the perfect amount of energy and confidence, conveying not only Rihanna’s performance but the vibe of her songs. It’s no wonder that her interpretation of Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” remix during the halftime performance gained so many views.

ASL interpreters are becoming more commonplace at concerts, providing deaf and hard of hearing audiences with a more complete experience. Andrea Marks of Vice explains that due to the wide range of hearing ability among deaf people and increases in technology like hearing aids and cochlear implants, “it's increasingly rare for someone to not be able to hear anything, especially at live concerts, where the speakers can blast sound at over 100 decibels.”

But being able to hear part of a setlist isn’t the same as having an accessible concert experience, hence the use of ASL interpreters to convey the lyrics and more nuanced instrumental sounds.

Marks notes that since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, concerts have to provide interpreters upon request. But this requirement has blossomed into a whole new aspect of performance, as interpreters make their own stylistic choices to make a song their own. Marks adds that ASL isn’t just its own language with different grammar and syntax from English, but it is also more idea-based than an exact translation and often relies more on visual elements like facial expressions and use of space. This gives interpreters freedom to translate songs in different ways, sometimes using direct fingerspelling, other times miming actions or using other motions to convey emotions and meanings from the music itself.

Even for a hearing audience, watching these interpreters perform is an art form itself. John Bell, the lead singer of Widespread Panic, said that “the first time he saw his music performed in ASL was like the first time he heard his music on the radio.” Many clips of ASL interpreters performing at concerts have gone viral, garnering them attention from both deaf and hearing populations.

So that brings us back to Justina Miles. In a Billboard article by Hannah Dailey, Miles reveals that she received the setlist for the Super Bowl only five days in advance, and focused her interpretation on both conveying the lyrics and moving to the beat, so that viewers could see rather than hear it.

Beyond Miles’ performance, there are countless others who have risen to internet stardom. At Lollapalooza last year, the interpreter of Cardi B and Megan the Stallion’s "WAP" stole the show with her interpretation of the iconic (and hard to translate) second verse. Amber Gallego, an ASL interpreter with a penchant for rap, went viral for keeping up with Twista, who is among the fastest rappers, when he performed a song not originally in his setlist. And countless other interpreters have received recognition for their performances, especially when interpreting in the genres of rap or heavy metal.

I, and many people here at The Tartan, are music lovers at our core. Seeing our favorite tracks performed in new ways makes us appreciate them more, and we recognize the hard work these interpreters do to make music accessible for all.