Amber Galloway Gallego not only interprets for rock stars, she’s one herself.
by Megan Smith
Rapper Kendrick Lamar is spitting verses like no other during his performance at Chicago’s 2013 Lollapalooza music festival. The bass is booming and the crowd is going wild. But Lamar isn’t the only one killing it on stage—Amber Galloway Gallego, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who specializes in music interpreting, is right there along with him, giving it her all to provide the festival’s deaf attendees with proper communication access so that they can have a concert experience just as fantastic as their hearing counterparts. And she’s rocking Lamar’s lyrics—expletives and all.
But little did Galloway Gallego know that an audience member recorded her performance and uploaded the video to YouTube. Four million views later, she can now say she’s the star of a viral video—one that’s been featured on numerous online outlets including Buzzfeed and Huffington Post.
A Houston transplant and a native of San Antonio, Galloway Gallego explains that she’s grown up with deaf people from the time she was five years old, when her dad dated a woman whose son was deaf. She then had a babysitter who had two deaf children, and in high school she was the trainer for the football team when a deaf player tore his ACL and needed therapy.
When Galloway Gallego started community college in San Antonio, she befriended the school’s group of deaf students, who began to teach her ASL. “I would finish classes and go hang out with the deaf community,” she says. “They taught me every day.”
Although she planned on studying physical therapy, a deaf counselor at her college encouraged her to pursue interpreting instead. “She said ‘You have a knack for this,’” Galloway Gallego says. Having a hatred for English and grammar, she originally ignored the suggestion. Finally, her counselor drove her to the interpreting program and made her give it a try. “It’s kind of like my stars were aligned,” she says. “I just didn’t really pay attention to them.” She went on to earn her master’s degree in ASL/English interpreting, and is certified on the state and national level.
Loving to surround herself with friends, Galloway Gallego explains it was at a house party that she first realized she had a talent for music interpreting. When she spontaneously got up and started interpreting a song that came on the stereo, her deaf friends looked at her curiously. She explains that they didn’t know what she was doing because they had never seen music interpreted like that before—using whole-body gestures to relay the instruments, lyrics, and feel of the music. “They really didn’t even realize that music has so many layers to it, and all the different rhythms that come about,” she says. “So many interpreters base their interpretations [solely] off the words. That’s not what moves us and evokes [an emotional response] when we listen to music.”
Galloway Gallego then got involved with the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in 2002 after watching the show’s deaf attendees during concerts. They were hardly paying attention to the performances, she says, because the interpreters looked more like they were interpreting for a city council meeting than for a concert—very stiff and word-for-word. “Just seeing words come across is boring,” Galloway Gallego says. She approached rodeo officials, showed them what she could do, and inquired about helping coordinate interpreters for their concerts. They agreed to let her take over, and for the next few years Galloway Gallego and others she helped coordinate did interpreting at each of the rodeo’s nightly concerts—including for Destiny’s Child, Galloway Gallego’s first live concert to interpret.
She first arrived on the music festival scene in 2005 after a friend brought her in to work as a volunteer for Austin City Limits—a festival that previously had little success with their interpreters. The deaf audience loved her interpreting, and she has been working with the Austin festival ever since—in addition to other festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin’s SXSW. “Right now, our culture is just inundated with music, more so than it was 20 years ago,” she says. “The younger deaf are all about music. My nephew, who is deaf, loves music. I download music to his iPod all the time. He’s profoundly deaf, but he loves to feel the vibrations and he loves being part of that culture.”
When asked what defines a good music interpretation versus a bad one, Galloway Gallego explains that most concert interpreters simply have the lyrics in front of them, signing off of printed pages. “It’s like a bad stereo system where the speakers [have a lot of] static,” she says. But Galloway Gallego spends hours researching an artist’s background, their songs, and their influences. She then memorizes all potential songs that the artist could perform, as interpreters are rarely given a set list beforehand. “I memorize all the songs, and I figure out what they’re trying to say, and I change it into ASL,” she says. “Then I bring the message and its equivalent to where [deaf audience members] experience everything on the same level as all the hearing people. That’s what interpretation is supposed to be. I see them jamming along with all their hearing counterparts, and that makes everything worth it—all the countless hours that I can’t bill for and can’t get paid for.”
While the hearing population can simply purchase a ticket and attend a concert, it’s not so simple for the deaf community. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that businesses—in this case concert venues—provide deaf customers with interpreters if requested. However, deaf concertgoers typically have to request an interpreter two to four weeks out, Galloway Gallego says, and then fight for the particular interpreter that they want. Venues will often hire the cheapest interpreter available without checking their credentials to see if they’re qualified, she says. “When a deaf community member says ‘I want this interpreter,’ it’s [a request] based on their language need,” she says. “It’s just like if you had to think about who was going to be your voice, and you had 20 people to pick from. You would know who would be the best voice for you. I just think the hearing community doesn’t get it. They think they have to fill a gap and they’re filling it with a body. And that’s unfortunate because they’re taking away that life experience from a deaf person every time they make that decision.”
But Galloway Gallego knows she can’t change the way concerts and other performances are interpreted all by herself. That’s why she founded her own company, Amber G Productions, which she calls a network of music interpreters—both hearing and deaf—that “know how to rock it.” “It’s just like any other specialty,” she says. “If you had a nose problem, you wouldn’t go to your regular doctor, you would go to an ENT. It’s the same thing with us—we are a specialty.”
When asked about her viral video, Galloway Gallego laughs. “They got me from the worst angle!” She says she couldn’t care less about celebrity status, but is grateful the attention has given her the opportunity to share her work and advocacy for the deaf community with more people. “We’re not just getting up there and flailing our arms,” she says. “There’s a whole process behind what we’re doing, and this is my profession. I’ve received nothing but love from the deaf community because they’ve supported me 100 percent and have been behind everything that I’ve done. They know that my heart and my intentions are all about bringing the deaf community into light so there will be access for them.”
Galloway Gallego even got to share her work with Jimmy Kimmel, who had her—along with ASL interpreter Holly Maniatty and deaf performer/interpreter JoRose Benfield (who does contract work with Amber G Productions)—on his show for a “Sign Language Rap Battle” last April. The three women took turns interpreting for rapper Wiz Khalifa as he sang his song “Black & Yellow” live. “Wiz Khalifa was phenomenal,” Galloway Gallego says. “He’s really one of the sweetest people I’ve met. And his whole crew was just so kind to us. It was a lot of fun to be able to do that.”
Rap isn’t the only kind of music Galloway Gallego likes to interpret, either. “If you ask anyone, they’ll tell you, ‘Any song is Amber’s favorite,’” she says. She loves interpreting Tegan and Sara, The Indigo Girls, Eminem, and Amanda Palmer, just to name a few.
Interpreting also led Galloway Gallego, who identifies as a lesbian, to the love of her life. After moving to Houston in 2005, she started teaching interpreting classes and interpreting for other college courses. She later reconnected with Ilija Gallego, whose psychology class she had interpreted for, at a friend’s barbecue. “We hit it off and became best friends,” Galloway Gallego says. “And it just accidentally happened that we fell in love.” Ilija, who identifies as a transman, transitioned in 2009 and the two married legally in 2011. “So we definitely don’t fit any of the stereotypical norms of who I’m supposed to be with,” Galloway Gallego says. “But that’s just kind of the nature of who I am.”
Galloway Gallego notes that she also does an LGBT workshop for the signing world, teaching appropriate sign and word choices to interpreters to ensure the deaf LGBT community is represented properly. And she works closely with Houston-based trans advocate Lou Weaver to provide interpreting services at many trans community events. “If you imagine the LGBT community and how underserved it is, now think about the LGBT deaf community,” she says. “There is a large group of deaf that attend the [Houston] Pride parade, and Pride [organizers] never provide sign language interpreters. This is something that the community could make sure to do.
“Deaf people have to fight daily for their own basic human rights—for communication,” she adds. “It’s unbelievable to me that in 2014, they’re still having to fight like this. That’s what I’m trying to change.”
Amber Galloway Gallego will be interpreting at the Austin City Limits music festival on October 3–5 and 10–12. For more information on Amber G Productions, visit ambergproductions.com.