My love affair with music began in a Seventh-Day Adventist church where the choir sang hymns like there was no tomorrow. I remember standing on my church pew, trying to catch a glimpse of the choir’s facial expressions so that I could follow along with my genetically deaf ears. I was only five years old at that time but I knew almost immediately that I had to keep music close to my heart.
I remember begging my mom to sign me up for guitar or piano lessons and seeing her eyes wrestle with whether she should. See, she’s deaf and so were my dad and older brother. In fact, I fall in the fourth generational line of deaf families, and my firstborn bears the fifth. My mom was hesitating because she didn't want me to deny my deaf identity and to entertain the notion that I was more capable of hearing than I was. All she wanted for me was to be proud of my deaf identity and my native language (American Sign Language). Most importantly, she wanted me to forge through the hearing-centric world as an Advocacy Warrior.
Nonetheless, guitar and piano lessons ensued and speech lessons have been taken as one of my failed attempts to be the next Whitney Houston. I remember spending hours glued on our tiny black and white television whenever VH1/MTV music videos would come on. Those videos would rotate on a repeat throughout the day thus affording me time to memorize every famous singer’s nuances and musicality. I was completely obsessed.
Most importantly, she wanted me to forge through the hearing-centric world as an Advocacy Warrior.
When it was time to play sports, I tried out cheerleading because I saw that cheerleaders would play popular music (especially Michael Jackson's Just Another Part of Me) as a part of their halftime dance routine. Learning how to dance took me to a whole new level and brought me closer to music than I could before. I started shifting away from straining to listen to music to expressing musicality through my body. As expected, dance lessons ensued and my mother’s eyes continued to offer a pinch of worry.
College came. I was 17 years old, super naive, and fresh out of high school in the midwest; I remember wandering around Gallaudet University campus when I spotted a dance studio that was wrapped with a glass window. A tall chocolate-skinned deaf dancer (Wawa) was maneuvering across the wooden dance floor, completely soaked in sweat. It was clear to me that he was in his own world, dancing his heart out as if nobody was watching him. I remember being completely transfixed by how he was able to communicate musicality through his moves. With my nose pressed on the glass window, a realization struck me like lighting - I wanted to be like him - a passionate deaf artist committed to exploring creative ways to express music. I decided to approach him about joining his dance troupe however, he kindly informed me that I couldn’t because it was for men only. I remember feeling disappointed and inspired at the same time.
Fast forward to my being freshly employed as Young Artists' Studio Instructor at Indiana School for the Deaf ( a made-up job title for a position never created before) at age 18. I was tasked to teach rhythm and movement to deaf toddlers from ages 1-5. Since nobody had taught that kind of class before, I had a total creative license to explore different ways for my deaf babies to connect with music. Boy, it was an eye-opener experience and oh, so liberating.
With my nose pressed on the glass window, a realization struck me
like lighting - I wanted to be like him
With newfound knowledge and tools, I knew I had to keep creating new spaces for discovery and dialogue about musicality through the deaf lens. To do that, I created my one-woman show, produced multiple music videos, founded Deaf Music Camp, and developed ASL Musicality courses. Every day, I continue to be filled with inspiration and hope that one day, our deaf community would embrace music as our own.
With Love, Rosa Lee