Music To My Eyes: Rihanna’s ASL interpreter and a brief history of signed music

Rihanna wasn’t the only star at the Super Bowl halftime show last night.

Justina Miles interpreted Rihanna’s performance in American Sign Language (ASL), allowing audience members who were deaf or hard of hearing to enjoy the lyrics and essence of Rihanna’s performance in their language. 

Miles, who is hard of hearing and often posts her ASL interpretations of popular music on her social media accounts, performed interpretations at the Super Bowl alongside Troy Kotsur and Colin Denny, who signed the national anthem and America the Beautiful, respectively. Performances like these — signed interpretations to live music performances — have grown increasingly commonplace in recent years, but they’ve got a history that dates back to more than a century ago.

According to Clemson University professor of ASL and deaf history Jody Cripps, the first known sign-language interpretation of a popular song was recorded in 1902 at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. The performance — an interpretation of The Star-Spangled Banner — appeared in a black-and-white silent film.

“At the time of the film’s production, those in the Deaf community did not speak and did not have hearing devices, so the release of a film with sign language in it was an exciting thing,” Cripps wrote in a 2018 paper on the ethnomusicology of signed music. 

This instance was a bit of an outlier for its time — according to Cripps, signed music wasn’t caught on film again until the 1930s. Cripps also notes that there’s a tradition of percussive songs originally written and performed in ASL and other signed languages — for example, the Bison Song, which acts as Gallaudet University’s fight song at university events. 

However, throughout the first half of the 20th century, sign language interpretations of songs originally written for a hearing audience were primarily reserved for religious services and musical events specifically geared for a deaf or hard of hearing audience. 

By the 1980s, however, sign language interpreters were slowly but surely becoming a ubiquitous presence at music festivals. In 1982, the New York City Opera began offering sign language interpretations of English-language performances. A few years later, in 1985, researchers at Gallaudet had begun conducting field research into the newly developed field of concert interpreting, interviewing ASL interpreters and deaf audience members at the Hudson Clearwater Festival.

The digital era has given rise to a whole new generation of ASL interpretations of vocal performances, much like the one Miles gave on Sunday afternoon at the Super Bowl. Today, social media platforms like Youtube and TikTok feature an abundance of sign language interpretations of pop songs from Adele’s Hello to Let it Go from the film Frozen

And the interpreters who create them are also getting booked for more and more live gigs — in an attempt to increase accessibility, high-profile music events like the Super Bowl, the Grammys, and the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy have all featured ASL interpretations of songs originally performed in spoken language.


Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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