Deaf Rave 2019

On May 27, Deaf Rave had its first outdoor festival in Tower Hamlets’ beautiful Victoria Park. It was organised by ‘DJ Chinaman’ Troi Lee, who I had previously interviewed

I have been writing about the Deaf Community for more than a decade and yet I hardly ever meet Deaf people. Seeing them rather than just reading about them was so emotional.

What struck me was how isolated I felt, a non-signer in a sea of signers. I thought this is how being Deaf in a Hearing population must feel.

 Picture of Troi Lee aka 'DJ Chinaman'
Troi Lee aka ‘DJ Chinaman’

What comforted me was all the Deaf teenagers walking towards the festival signing to their friends on their phone screens.

Another thing that struck me was that while most people at gigs stand in rows, Deaf people stand in small circles watching each other sign, plus they tap each other on the shoulders more.

Some people were wearing Subpacs, electronic backpacks that vibrates with the bass music (they didn’t react to the lyrics).

On either side of the stage were huge screens so the performers could be seen from a distance. On the stage was another screen showing a giant pair of hands fingerspelling:

“Once Experienced, Never Forgotten: Deaf Rave.”

Francesca Osci is a volunteer who lost her hearing at 15 from measles. She noticed how lost I looked and translated some of the performers’ signs. She couldn’t wait to tell me about Deaf Rave:

“It’s amazing, it’s great having a Deaf-accessible event because Deaf people are usually left out from a lot of events so to have our corner in this mainstream festival is wonderful… When you become Deaf, isolation is something that unfortunately will affect you at some point so things like this where you can go and meet someone you know and you don’t feel excluded because you can access everything is amazing, it really improves Deaf people’s needs. Usually you’re the only Deaf person and you’re left out of conversations, being left out is something Deaf people live with, it really improves our lives to not be left out.”

I asked her if more people were expected, she laughed and said:

“Don’t worry, they won’t be here yet, it’s a Deaf thing. Ask us to come at 11 and we’ll be there at 1.”

Picture of a SubPac
SubPacs are electronic backpacks that vibrates in time with the bass in music

At the music stall there was a group of men showing children and journalists how to use the Subpacs and feel the speakers. One of them was DJ Ceri Hannant. He was bursting with enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to talk to anyone who showed an interest in his work:

“I’ve been with Deaf Rave for 13 years, I’ve been learning how to pick up vibrations, it’s not good enough getting it from the walls and floors, last year I tried the Subpac and thought: ‘Wow, this is a special gift.’ 

I put it on and it made the beats much better 1, 2, 4 and the sub-bass was hitting my back and you can feel it. It helps you massively improve and my dream is to be on the big stage you know like Glastonbury, festivals. I got the Mark I Subpac four years ago, I still have it. The new one, the Mark II came out last year, it’s even better, they’ve got Wifi. Before the Subpac I’d find other ways to feel the vibration: Reggae, House, R+B. I’d feel the vibrations with my feet. I was born Deaf, I couldn’t speak properly till I was 16, every word I finished I’d get a biscuit. 

I remember I was a little boy and I loved Reggae and Bob Marley I was about 10 years old, I had a big speaker, didn’t have no hearing aid, I put my ear right next to the speakers and I could just feel it, I like it and now when I’m DJing I play Bob Marley’s music and it’s incredible, a good vibe. You can feel it in your feet, in your body, I went to Glastonbury in 2010 when Snoop Dog was playing and if you hold a balloon you can feel the vibrations on it. It’s incredible. I want to be a professional Deaf DJ, I’ve been doing it for 13 years.”

One of the performers was MC Geezer. He has been working with Deaf Rave for 15 years. His song ‘We are one’ summed up the whole point of the festival:

“We’re making life easier for the Deaf community to come together for one day to socialise, just to feel like a normal human would at a festival. This festival is for the Hearing, Deaf and Disabled communities. We are one. No different from anybody else. We’re here to unite everybody as one.”

I asked him if I was right about the internet and front facing cameras making Deaf socialising easier:

“Yes, because you can Sign on Facetime, spread the news, we can do a Sign vlog, we can spread information about this festival. Chinaman has been wonderful it’s been a dream come true. We wanted to take the level from rave to festival. And this is the first step to the future generation, we’re going to continue making festivals for years to come.”

I asked him if Britain was Deaf-friendly yet:

“That’s a difficult question. It’s getting there, it’s getting there.”

He also mentioned the technology they use and some barriers they faced:

Picture of SignKid
SignKid

“The Mark II Subpac is thinner and stronger, more vibrations. Standing up on the stage is amazing, showing all the Deaf people that we can do it, no different from Hearing people, we can do music. I’m hoping to pass on my knowledge in schools and motivate young Deaf people to perform like us. 

We didn’t have the licence to perform really loud music, our job is to overcome barriers like that.”

Another performer was SignKid who I interviewed with the help of a very kind interpreter (I later found out that he does speak, in a very quiet Italian accent).

His songs included ‘Summer vibes’ (which he got the audience to sign to) and ‘Listen with your eyes’. The latter summed up the Deaf experience:

“When you discover singsong you realise it’s beautiful, it’s visual.
When you discover signsong it’s just so beautiful visual.
That sound you take for granted is sound denied to me.
So it’s signsong, it’s signsong. It’s what I use you see.

Listen with your eyes, listen with your eyes – no lies.”

He explained people’s reaction when they find out he’s a Deaf musician:

“Lots of people tell me ‘Oh wow, you’re Deaf, how do you make the music?’ Others say ‘No, it’s rubbish you can’t, you’re lying.’ Then I say look at my hearing aids, I’m Deaf. I try to explain to them again and again and again and there’s too many difficulties for that. We need the social environment to really blast that news. Look at my body, feel the vibrations, experience the music like I do, then you can go back home, read and check about it. You can feel the bass so it takes over the words, we need to spread the word again and again.”

I asked him also about front facing cameras:

“Phones like this make life a lot easier, it makes me feel confident, it makes it easier to communicate with a lot of people. It improves my signing because I can practice more with facial expressions and body language and it’s good practice for the stage.”

He then told me how he got into music:

“First time I really started was on live TV, I was watching with my family and I saw the video of Michael Jackson and he did the moonwalk, it sent chills over me. I got so emotional watching it, I felt blessed. Then a few years later as the internet became more popular I started to research the linguistics of it. It really wasn’t accessible, no subtitles. I was trying to understand and research lyrics, I started writing them for me.

Deaf Rave to me means full into the Deaf community, we all become one group. New faces that you meet, old faces you can get acquainted to again. I can become a role model to children and influence them for the future. 

I became Deaf about three, I got meningitis. I’m happy to be Deaf, I’m happy to carry on being Deaf, I can do everything I want, I have equal opportunities as Hearing people and that’s life.

When I was about 28 there wasn’t enough accessibility for subtitling and interpreting so I was trying to understand how I could interact with it. There wasn’t a great deal of understanding but later it became more popular on YouTube to include captions. Life has its difficulties but I want Deaf people to overcome those difficulties. People can write lyrics and spread Deaf culture.”

If you want to help out with Deaf Rave, email Troi on deafrave@gmail.com

Deaf Rave will be performing at Latitude 7pm, July 19.

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Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.

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