Growing up in South Bronx, rapper James L. Taylor III was a fan of the Notorious B.I.G. The only problem? Taylor couldn’t hear the music.
“I’m no different from them,” said Taylor, who has been rapping for more than 20 years and now goes by the name Def Thug. “Just deaf.”
As a child, he attended St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf, where he took music classes and sang in the gospel choir. He didn’t learn American Sign Language (ASL) right away, but gradually developed the language as he grew older. He met the members of his group, Silent Mob, growing up.
While hearing rappers use microphones onstage, deaf rappers either wear hearing aids or pump the bass so they can feel the beat. Their hands move wildly, not always in time with the music, their movements spelling out meaning for those who speak in signs.
Taylor signs in ASL. But he uses a combination of slang and street talk, and breaks the ASL rules “a lil bit.”
Silent Mob isn’t the only deaf rap group out there. Others — among them, The Helix Boyz, Def Row, Ghetto Hands Boyz, Def Familia and SignMark — are popular in the Deaf community. But as far as the group members know, they are the only group that performs ASL hip hop, which most people, hearing or deaf, have never seen.
“They will soon,” Taylor said. “And it’s going to change my life.”
Taylor’s story touches on just one facet of a vibrant American Sign Language community. From ASL schools to the struggle to have it recognized as an official language, it is a community with unique stories.