Singing in Sign Language: “The Hands Have Their Own Emotions”

Singing in Sign Language: “The Hands Have Their Own Emotions”

On a recent afternoon in Brooklyn, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were filming a music video, The New York Times reports.

They were recording a cover version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but the voices that filled the room weren’t theirs. The sound came from Gladys Knight and the Pips in a hit recording from the 1970s. But the two men in the studio were also singing — with their hands.

Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer; Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is also, thanks to deaf family members, a native speaker of American Sign Language. Their version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” is part of a series of American Sign Language covers of works by Black female artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an arts streaming platform.

At the video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed out of a large speaker, but a much smaller one was tucked inside Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes, so that he could “tangibly feel the music,” he said in an interview, with Kazen-Maddox interpreting. Out of camera range, an interpreter stood ready to translate any instructions from the crew, all hearing, while a laptop displayed the song lyrics.

“The hands have their own emotions,” Primeaux-O’Bryant said. “They have their own mind.”

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