The first time I went to see David Sedaris read some of his hilarious essays live, I ended up laughing much more than I expected. By luck of seating, I found myself at the right of the stage, facing his sign language interpreter. She didn’t just quickly parse what he said. No, she also became a sort of double act with the author, throwing her whole body and facial expressions into making Sedaris’ prose sing. Especially when he came to some sexual idiom or turn of phrase, we all became aware of the audience’s gaze shifting rightward to see what his signer would do. (The wondrous Internet has not revealed her name–possibly one of our readers knows.)
That’s a preamble to say that the latest YouTube sensation above, Shelby Mitchusson, who signs her way through Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” should come as no surprise to those who have encountered such lively interpretation, turning language for the deaf into a performance art. Mitchusson admits she’s still a beginner, but her 3 million views says she has made fans of the deaf and hearing alike. (And for once the YouTube comments don’t make you sad for humanity.)
But Mitchusson’s “hit” leads to a whole world of American Sign Language (ASL) stars once you jump down the YouTube rabbit hole. Just over a year ago, Jimmy Kimmel had on three ASL interpreters to compete in a rap battle to Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” which you can see below.
One of them, the pink-haired Amber Galloway Gallego, had her own time in the viral video limelight back in 2013. Her spirited versions of Snoop Lion, Kendrick Lamar, and others during Lollapalooza earned her many Internet views, no doubt for her lascivious performance of rap and r’n’b’s smuttiest lyrics. She even received coverage in Rolling Stone, where the San Antonio, TX native tells stories of signing “Baby Got Back” at a barbecue at the beginning of her career. Her YouTube channel features her own versions of all the current pop hits (Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen) and classics (The Human League, Celine Dion).
The history of sign language is long and deep, with a rough guess at 137 recognized versions around the globe, according to Ethnologue. (But as deaf communities often develop their own dialects, it’s hard to tell.)
And the Internet, specifically YouTube–along with the beat-heavy genre of hip hop–has brought a subculture into the mainstream, something that years of advocacy by deaf groups couldn’t quite manage to do. Thanks again, Internet!
You can find some online ASL lessons here, or in our meta collection of Free Language Lessons.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
You might also want to remember Kimberly Rae Schaefer, who famously signed a special rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Given to Fly” live in St. Louis in 2000 and became the highlight of both Youtube and the “Touring Band” DVD, where you can see Eddie Vedder bringing her onstage and sharing a nice little moment with her. Sadly, she passed away this March, and was fondly tributed and remembered by the Pearl Jam community. Watch her do her magic here: