Interpreter Billy Sanders, served as the point person for ASL interpreters for Roots Picnic, where he curated a group of interpreters from the DMV area to provide services for the weekend-long musical festival and cultural activations. (Courtesy photo)
Interpreter Billy Sanders, served as the point person for ASL interpreters for Roots Picnic, where he curated a group of interpreters from the DMV area to provide services for the weekend-long musical festival and cultural activations. (Courtesy photo)

The first weekend of Black music month kicked off with Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and while scores of major talents flocked to the “City of Brotherly Love” for the festival, a special group traveled from D.C. to be featured in each performance.

As the designated American Sign Language (ASL) point person for Roots Picnic, Billy Sanders, who is from Saint Paul, Minnesota, but has lived in the D.C. area for years, carefully curated a group of fellow interpreters from the DMV to provide their services June 3 and 4 at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

“A lot of artists actually do not recognize they have a huge deaf audience, who want to come,” Sanders told The Informer in a WIN-TV Live interview. “They want to sign along and at the same time, not be delayed a few bars back. And that’s the art and the work that we do.” 

With a lineup that included the likes of Usher, Lauryn Hill with a surprise appearance by The Fugees, The Isley Brothers, Ari Lennox, Eve, Busta Rhymes, Lil Uzi Vert, Backyard Band, Rare Essence and The Roots, as well as podcast stages, Roots Picnic had a lot going on, which meant the interpreters had their work cut out for them.  

“People need us to be clear. People need to be well versed in both English and American Sign Language in order to interpret the message and in real time,” Sanders said.

Preparation for the festival began months ago. 

“These interpreters are already practicing once The Roots put out on their social media the artists,” Sanders explained. “We immediately begin thinking which artists we can do or cannot… So what I try to do is ensure that we’re maximizing everybody’s potential, and matching everybody’s skillset with the artists that will bring the best out of them.”

Even for the best festival interpreters, practice is important.  Studying the artists is key as the sound could be muffled or performers could turn their microphones towards the audience and have fans showcase knowledge of the lyrics.

“It’s not just because they’re skilled, they literally put the work in practice, time and time again,” Sanders said, adding that the interpreters also use prep materials like memorizing lyrics and watching artists’ live performance footage. “Many times they put the interpreters in what we call ‘a dead space,’ which is right next to the speaker. And they don’t they don’t give us a monitor. We may have headsets but we are just in a dead space. So you really have to know the music… to the point where we know that we know nothing is going to knock us off our square. Which is why I need the best interpreters in D.C.”

Sanders is not new to the importance of interpreting. He told the Informer he’s been doing it practically since birth.

“I came out the womb and had to tell my mom that the doctor said I was a boy,” he said jokingly. “I don’t know when I started professionally, per se. I think there was a lot of volunteering going on and being voluntold going on before I transitioned into making this a full career. And now I’m just at a beautiful place where I get to build bridges for a lot of other Black interpreters.”

Increasing Diversity in Interpreting, Culturally Aware Interpreters

African Americans represent a small percentage of interpreters and Black men account for an even smaller portion. According to 2023 Zippia statistics women make up 75.9% and men 24.1% of the ASL interpreter pool. The same Zippia report reveals that African Americans represent 7% of ASL interpreters, while 53.4% are White, 22.9% are Latinx, 11.8% Asian, 4.5% unknown and .4% American Indian and Alaska Native.

“Statistically speaking, Black men represent less than 1% of the entire interpreting profession– less than 1%,” Sanders emphasized. “Black women make up about 6 to 7% of the entire profession. This team, ironically, has five Black men and one amazing Black woman. You’re usually going to find that the ratio is the other way around on larger platforms.”

Having culturally aware interpreters is integral for festivals such as Roots Picnic.

“Seeing a group of ASL interpreters that look like me, who also move and groove to the music like I would, makes me proud that our hearing-impaired family can have a similar experience as those of us who are hearing-abled,” said Tierra R., 33, a D.C. native living in Philadelphia, who attended Roots Picnic. “[Those who are deaf and hard of hearing] are not left out of the full experience of a music festival. They get to have an enhanced experience with an elevated level of artistry, complementing the talented artist they paid to see.”

For the Washingtonian living in Philly, it was a proud moment to know that the interpreters hailed from her hometown, adding that all people can appreciate witnessing their work.

“I think everyone  enjoys seeing sign language performed, and it gives awareness that our society needs to make this skill more accessible to learn in order to accommodate our … communities.”

Sanders said the District and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is leading the way in ensuring there are ASL accommodations and applauded her establishment of the Office of the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing.

“The D.C. mayor has done a wonderful job — shout out to Muriel Bowser. She has done an amazing job in ensuring accessibility and representation. She demands that we have deaf interpreters at her press conferences. That’s the first mayor I know that has done that,” adding that the mayor also has staff interpreting positions.

“I think D.C., as a whole, is leading the way in ensuring actual accessibility and representation and moreso equity of all things, so people have a voice at the table and not are spoken for or seen about. But they have you know they have a vested interest. And that’s what I see throughout the entire community,” Sanders said. “I expect to see interpreters anytime I go anywhere in public. I expect to see interpreters when I show up to a rally… and I expect to see Deaf people in the audience.” 

While the nation’s capital has been intentional about incorporating interpreters, artist Phonte of the North Carolina hip-hop group Little Brother, who performed Sunday at Roots Picnic, said ASL interpreters should always be readily available for musical events. 

“Music is vibrations. Even if you can’t hear it, you can feel it. In the case that you’re deaf and someone is signing it, you can see it. I think it’s important for festivals now– you have to meet people wherever they are,” said Phonte. “If [people are] differently abled, if they’re hearing impaired, seeing impaired, whatever, you just want to do everything you can to make sure you give everyone in your festival the ability to experience it.”

The seasoned interpreter emphasized the importance of ensuring all kinds of people and voices are represented, recognized, uplifted and empowered.

“It is imperative that all our voices are heard, whether it’s through verbal conversation or through our hands.”

WI Managing Editor Micha Green is a storyteller and actress from Washington, D.C. Micha received a Bachelor’s of Arts from Fordham University, where she majored in Theatre, and a Master’s of Journalism...

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