PORTLAND, Maine — Holly Maniatty creates music — for the deaf.
Teaming American Sign Language with dance moves and body language, she brings musical performances alive for those who can’t hear. Her clients are a who’s who of rock, pop and hip-hop: Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Mumford and Sons, Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Marilyn Manson, U2, Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang Clan, to name a few.
Along the way, videos of her fast-motion, helter-skelter signing have become popular online. There’s the video of Springsteen jumping down from the stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and joining Maniatty and another interpreter. There, he dances and signs to “Dancing in the Dark.”
“Deaf people were commenting, ‘Oh, the Boss knows he has deaf fans. That’s awesome,’” she said. “When artists connect with their interpreters, they also connect with their deaf fans.”
In another video, rap artist Killer Mike approaches Maniatty in front of the stage after noticing her animated signing.
“I’ve never seen that before,” he says to her before challenging her to sign a profane phrase, which she does wholeheartedly as the crowd hoots and hollers.
At a Wu-Tang performance, Method Man took notice of her signing, came down from the stage and joined her.
“He said, ‘That’s dope,’ and gave me a hug and a fist pump,” she said.
This month, she signed at New England’s largest drag queen show as performers from all over sashayed down the runway and lip-synched to booming music.
Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who’s deaf, took to Twitter this year when she saw a video of Maniatty performing at the Wu-Tang show: “Wu tang interpreter is rapping in sign BIG time!!”
The 33-year-old Maniatty, who lives outside Portland, learned sign language while studying it at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She decided to make a living of it despite counselors’ advice against it.
She works for a company that connects deaf people with other people over videophones that are connected online to computers or TVs. But from mid-April to mid-September, she travels for paid gigs interpreting all types of music — hip-hop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, rap.
It’s hard work. To prepare for concerts and festivals, Maniatty studies the musicians for whom she’ll be signing. She learns their lyrics, their dialect, their every move.
Jay-Z, for instance, is open and boisterous on stage, while Eminem slouches and drops one of his shoulders.
“As much as you’re able to study those movements and incorporate them into your interpretation,” she said, “you really breathe that artist in, and it’s more authentic for people.”