When Queens of the Stone Age named their third album Songs for the Deaf, we’re pretty sure they were just kidding. But Signmark is dead serious. Yes, Virginia, this is hip-hop for deaf people, created by a deaf “rapper” named Marko Vuoriheimo. And he’s from Finland, no less. We thought it was all just metal bands and this guy up there.
Marko was born deaf to two deaf parents, but he discovered hip-hop from watching MTV and decided he wanted in on the action. Predictably, everyone told him he was crazy, but Marko persevered. He began translating popular hip-hop songs into sign language and sort of half-dancing, half-signing them out at clubs. (Like most—all?—deaf people, Marko can feel beats and heavy bass, so he could recognize songs with a distinctive bass pattern.) That led to writing his own lyrics and eventually creating his own music with the help of various producers and a rapper named Brandon Bauer, who raps in both Finnish and English on Signmark’s two albums.
Yes, Signmark has released two albums: a self-titled joint in 2006 that’s mostly in Finnish and a 2010 sophomore set in English called Breaking the Rules. The self-titled effort was apparently mostly a labor of love, but Breaking the Rules was actually released through Warner Music, making Vuoriheimo the first deaf recording artist signed to an international record deal.
Now you’re probably asking: How can a guy who can’t hear, sing or even speak get a record deal? Well, the answer is that both albums were actually released as CD/DVD packages, with videos accompanying each song, so you can see Marko signing them out. I admit, I was skeptical myself at first, but watching Marko do his thing does definitely add an extra dimension to the music. And the songs, by turns defiant and inspirational, all tell his story, even if he’s not the one actually speaking the words out loud.
Signmark is a big deal in the international deaf community and a very big deal in Finland, where he even narrowly missed representing his nation in the annual Eurovision Song Contest in 2009. (He lost out to this. Way to blow it, Finland.) But he seems to remain a well-kept secret just about everywhere else. Let’s help change that right now, shall we?
P.S. The white dude with the John Legend pipes is named Osmo Ikonen and yeah, he’s from Finland, too. Who knew Finnish people could be so funky?
P.P.S. Is it just me, or does Marko look like a little like Andy Samberg’s long lost Finnish brother?
P.P.P.S. The audio on that video is a little crunchy—whoever encoded it had the volume cranked up too high. It’s almost as though they were having trouble hearing it! Ha! Am I right, people? (Damn. Nearly made it through the entire post without one politically incorrect deaf joke. So close!)