Meet Holly Maniatty, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Sign Language Interpreter

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June 21 2013 3:10 PM

How Do You Say Shaolin in Sign Language?

Meet the interpreter who has signed for the Wu-Tang Clan, Killer Mike, and the Beastie Boys.

Holly Maniatty signs at a Phish concert.
Holly Maniatty signs at a Phish concert.

Courtesy of Holly Maniatty

When Killer Mike took the stage last week at the Bonnaroo music festival, he spotted amid the crowd a white woman rapping along to his lyrics, shaking her body and contorting her face to the beat. The Atlanta rapper has his share of white, female fans, but he quickly realized this woman was different: Holly Maniatty wasn’t, in fact, a fan, but a sign language interpreter. Intrigued by her work, the rapper jumped down from the stage to the raised platform Maniatty shared with a colleague and started dancing with them. Curious just how far he could push his interpreter, he rapped every dirty word he could think of on the spot, picking up the speed of his flow to see if Maniatty could keep pace.

“You know—and everyone in the world knows—that's what you want to see,” Killer Mike told me over the phone. “You know when you're watching church on Sunday morning [on television] and that little lady is in the left corner of the screen signing? And you really wish you could just say something to get her to be like, ‘Woah, there is a sign for “motherfucker” ’?”

Maniatty is a self-described Vermont farm girl who holds degrees in both American Sign Language linguistics and brain science. But she said she’d also logged more than 50 hours of studying Killer Mike’s body of work before the show. She more than kept up.

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“I think [it was] a little tête-à-tête between the artist and interpreter,” Maniatty told me. “After, he told the crowd, ‘Yeahhh girl. I ain't never seen nothing like that. I've been all over the world, and all over this city, and all through these streets, I ain't never seen nothing like that.’ ”

Earlier this week, a clip of Maniatty signing at the Wu-Tang Clan's show at Bonnaroo surfaced and quickly went viral. Jimmy Kimmel showed the clip during his monologue. Like Killer Mike, many people had never seen a sign language interpreter translate hip-hop in real time. But Maniatty has been at this for 13 years, using her skills as an interpreter—and careful research of her subjects—to bring music to the deaf.

Growing up in Newport, Vt., just south of the Canadian border, Maniatty's only exposure to hip-hop was through MTV. She’d heard of Snoop Dogg, Puffy, and Biggie, but that was about the limit of her knowledge. She always had a knack for language, and on a whim, applied to the Rochester Institute of Technology's ASL program. Only one of two students who had no prior sign language experience, Maniatty graduated from the program after two years and later got her undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester. In college she was exposed to a wider range of hip-hop, hearing the Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang for the first time. She loved both.

Video of one Wu-Tang performance, courtesy of Dayna McKenzie and Corey Hughes:

Her break in the music business came when while working at an interpreting company based in Rochester, when all of her colleagues passed on a Marilyn Manson concert. “Nobody was willing to do it,” Maniatty told me over the phone Thursday afternoon, as her Wu-Tang video was going viral. “And it was quite a big sashay into concert interpreting because he's a show. He's a big show.”

The Manson job gave Maniatty a taste for concert work. A few years later, now working for an interpreting service in Portland, Maine, a colleague connected her to Everyone’s Invited, a production company that hires interpreters for festivals and events. According to company director Laura Grunfeld, the practice of including interpreters at concerts is becoming more common, though it is still something you primarily see at the larger festivals like Bonnaroo.

Maniatty soon was working the New Orleans Jazz Fest and Bonnaroo, sharing a stage with acts like Bruce Springsteen (who sang and signed “Dancing in the Dark” with her), U2, and even Bob Saget. She works an average of 60 events annually, paying her own way and usually getting a flat-rate fee.

It wasn't until 2009 when Maniatty worked her first big hip-hop show, interpreting for the Beastie Boys at the 2009 Bonnaroo, in what would prove to be their final show. She remembers telling a deaf fan from the Bronx, “Hi, I'm Holly, I'm from Maine and I'll be your interpreter.”

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