An Interview with Matt Maxey, Founder of DEAFinitely Dope

Deaf Culture refers to the values and beliefs, the history, traditions and overall expression of the Deaf community. IYKYK, Deaf Culture is a vibe — and everyone is talking about it.

From the film industry to the music business, the voice of the Deaf community is getting louder and the hearing world is listening.

Matt Maxey wears a black sweatshirt that has Deafinitely Dope on the front and smiles

Source: SXSW

As the outmoded systems of our country continue to be dismantled and reconfigured to be more inclusive and accessible, times are becoming more inspiring. Thanks to visionaries and entrepreneurs, like Matt Maxey, the Founder of the brand and interpreting agency, DEAFinitely Dope, the bridges between the Deaf and hearing worlds are expanding wider and growing stronger.

Bringing people together through art and entertainment is a theme we all know and love to support, but the creative fashion in which it is done is what keeps it interesting. 

In 2014, Matt took his unique situation as a Deaf Black man and leveraged his experiences and insight as a double minority. With that backdrop, he built a company that invites marginalized individuals, who are Deaf, to be part of a community and a movement — to sign and chill. His agency represents a roster of Deaf ASL interpreters, who are hired by festival producers and concert promoters to sign live events.

“The focus is to make sure the interpretation is aligned with the new generation… You can vibe with it. Now, if you can’t vibe with it, that’s your problem. But I want people who can vibe on my team.”

- Matt Maxey

With Chris Martin and Snoop Dogg making moves to ensure their shows are deemed accessible and inclusive, the trend is clearly headed in the appropriate direction. And still, the fact that every live concert, comedy show, Broadway play, TED talk, and beyond does not have live interpreters with real-time transcription reveals the memo has yet to reach everyone.

Matt sat down with Ava to discuss the inspiration behind launching DEAFinitely Dope, bringing the Deaf and hearing worlds together and his views on how we can all do better. 

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Hey, Matt! Thanks for sitting down with us. For those who don’t know, introduce yourself and tell us about your brand, DEAFinitley Dope.

My name is Matt, and you could say I’m a jack of all trades when it comes to ASL or American Sign Language. I’m involved with workshops, presentations, performance and interpreting performances. My focus is to bridge the gap between the hearing and the Deaf community through sign language and music. 

Sharing my own experiences, whether it’s with law enforcement, or the fight for inclusion or accessibility, talking about different situations often leads to progress. I’ve learned that with sharing my story, it can inspire change and necessary conversation for the betterment of the Deaf community. How can we all be more of an ally in the process?

An audience view shows a large stage has Chance the Rapper holding a microphone, rapping with lights shining out to the audience. Matt performs interpretive sign language  from a side stage for the crowd.

Source: Clayton Hauck for GQ

I run DEAFinitely Dope, which is a brand and interpreting agency. We work with music festivals, primarily, but we’re looking to expand to become one of the main agencies that provide Deaf interpreters for companies all across America.

Was there a moment that spurred the idea to create DEAFinitely Dope? 

Being a double minority as a Black man with hearing loss, I recognized there wasn’t much for people like myself. DEAFinitely Dope was a way to help people, like myself, feel more comfortable in the mainstream being who they are. Maybe that struggle is not being accepted by the Deaf community. Whatever the case, it doesn’t need to stop someone from being who they are — that was the main starting point for creating the brand.

For those who are hard-of-hearing, or learning sign language, and want to be part of the culture, but maybe feel the culture doesn't accept them. With all the different stipulations, DEAFinitely Dope was a way to have everybody unite under one label and brand, so they can feel a part of something without feeling excluded.

Source: Instagram

For anyone who wants to learn, we teach sign language on Airbnb experiences. We’ve also been hired to teach corporations, like Google, Facebook and others sign language, and how to be more inclusive and more accessible. 

In the instance when sign language is not an option, how helpful do you find live captions, or real time transcription?

It’s very helpful. It’s a pleasure to see a lot more transcriptions, especially with applications like Ava. We’re seeing a lot more things being captioned, whether it’s on social media or a Google Meet or Zoom call, having caption as an option helps make our experience better. 

I go back and forth between the hearing and Deaf world a lot, so I feel comfortable in both, but for people who don’t speak ASL or have an interpreter present, transcription is necessary. 

As an entrepreneur and a motivational speaker/signer, you inspire the community. How do you engage Deaf signers who want to do performance interpretation?

I work with and mentor quite a few. I’ve been working more behind the scenes getting people involved and on board, showcasing what they can do and what they can work with. Some will be joining us for the next Rolling Loud festival in New York, so they’ll be getting their first taste of performance interpreting. 

Matt smiles and signs "I love you" in front of a large smiling crowd at an outdoor concert.

Source: Clayton Hauck for GQ

When a music festival reaches out, I have a roster of people I call on. It just depends what kind of music is being played and what kind of environment it is. I’m not looking to subject people to a situation where I feel they are not set up for success. 

I’m primarily targeted for hip hop and rap music, which is a tough field when it comes to interpreting that genre of music. That particular roster is limited because it’s definitely a skill that not everyone can step up to the plate with. When we do other festivals and events, like the New York State Fair coming up, that’s more country music and pop, which lends itself to a bigger roster of interpreters. 

Ava shares your mission of bridging the Deaf and hearing worlds. What do you say needs to happen to further implement that goal?

I think transcription has made the connection more possible. I think working through whatever kinks or hurdles in order to get transcription to a level where it can be used anywhere would be great. 

For instance, at music festivals, transcription would make our job as Deaf interpreters much easier. There are many situations where we need transcription and it’s not available for us. 

Source: YouTube

One tricky part with live caption accompanying live music is the background noise. If there’s an interpreter plus transcription, we need to make sure they’re both accurate and in sync. Perhaps we can test out some events together?

That would be incredible, and to show it is possible. Right now, a lot of people don’t know. The more we show, the more it opens up the mind frame. We can do more, it just takes more finessing and working out the kinks.

Tell us what’s next for DEAFinitely Dope. 

September, being Deaf Awareness month, is busy. We’ll be interpreting the New York State Fair and Rolling Loud New York. We’ll also be hosting a gala for Northern California 30 Days for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing to help them with the fundraising. Then we’ll be presented at California State University East Bay to promote a documentary film that I'm an Executive Producer on. The title of that film is Sign the Show.

The movie poster for the documentary "Sign the Show" has the title and film credits with an image of a hand signing "I love you"


The documentary focuses on inclusion and accessibility for comedy shows, Broadway, music festivals and other entertainment. The movie features people such as Waka Flocka, André 3000, Nyle DiMarco, Kelly Clarkson, other famous comedians and actors offering their perspective on how inclusion and accessibility can improve. Also, showing when they do have access for their shows, how it looks, and how the audience does enjoy knowing what's going on compared to past years being left in the dark.

We’re working to promote that feature now, trying to get it placed at SXSW along with a panel to move it anywhere it can make an impact. For instance, in the school systems, so that they are exposed to how they can become better allies. We want to offer a blueprint on how they can set themselves and their Deaf students up for success.

“I think that’s where the school systems can improve. They can put more value on the human experience, and less on the numbers, papers and statistics.”

-Matt Maxey

That experience and feeling when you’re exposed to sign language for the first time is what we try to capitalize on. A lot of people do feel inspired by it, myself included. By no means do I ever want that experience to be negative in any way for anyone. Oftentimes, when you join a new community or a new culture, it can be negative if you feel you're not one of them. We need allies that love what we do to help be our voice in places where we may not have one.

Your platform promotes the importance of diversity and equal representation, especially when it comes to CDIs (Certified Deaf Interpreters). Would you say your roster focuses more on representing Black Deaf CDIs, specifically?

I would say my roster is more about being authentic — that’s the main goal. Even if they’re not Black, they come from a Deaf family and are truly part of the culture in a way that feels comfortable for someone from the outside looking in.

Source: YouTube 

The focus is to make sure the interpretation is aligned with the new generation, the new era that we live in — being able to interpret accordingly instead of being stuck in the past. I think that has been the big picture with the black Deaf interpreters accurately representing the festival or by having quality interpreters showing that we can enjoy music. It doesn’t have to be [unanimated]. You can vibe with it. Now, if you can’t vibe, that’s your problem, but I want people who can vibe on the team.

Something that's being talked about in the captioning space is how captioning is able to capture AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). Do you know about that, or want to comment?

That’s a great question. I saw a show on TV the other day, a cartoon with a black father and son communicating in sign language. And I remember thinking that the signs were correct, but the facial expressions not so much. I’m not sure if captions can show that. It’s tough to really show it, but if you know it, you know it when you see it. If you don’t know it, it’s hard to explain from the outside looking in. 

Matt stands in front of a blue painted gate with the mural of two hands fist bumping. He wears a black shirt that says "Sign and Chill", signals "I love you" in ASL and smiles.

Source: CNN

When you’re watching a horror movie, captions may include leaves crumbling, or the door creaking, and it helps you paint the picture. But when it comes to cultural linguistics or speaking, it’s hard to put that into words. You can break it down and explain it, but then you’re adding more text to the captions, and for those reading, it’s like you’re constantly playing catch up. 

I understand the struggles with caption. I understand the goals and the frustration with trying to achieve the goals. I’m not a technology person, I don’t know the backend, or the process, but I do know when I see something that works. I can vouch for and verify when something will have an impact on someone like myself. 

It’s helpful that technology has been able to bring conversations to life. The fact that Ava is something I can bring to a business meeting is impactful. When people ask what I’m using, I explain that this is something to help me understand what people are saying in the room in real time. We get that understanding through technology sparking the discussion.

Source: Instagram

You mention wanting to bring Deaf awareness to educational spaces. Where do you think the education system needs to improve for Deaf students?

I think the education system needs to understand the system that has been set up for us has not really been for us. It’s been for them and ADA compliance and convenience. I think the more we become accepting and the more we become aware, the more we become a part of the Deaf experience. 

I’m not blind, but the more I learn about the blind experience, it helps me become more conscious about how I approach them. What do I say? How do I help? Do I do everything for them? No, they value their independence. So, how do I support?

In a classroom, Matt stands on stage teaching in sign language to an attentive audience of students.

Source: Anya Ball

I don’t think those kinds of questions have 100% hit the educational system yet. It’s more of the mindset that things must be working if we haven’t gotten any complaints, so we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. When a lot of the products of those systems end up being youth lost in life, depressed, anxious, unsure of their identity, all things that are hard to document on paper as it may not be deemed relevant to school. 

The school may say we had a 100% graduate success rate, but they don’t mention that after graduation these students had to go on antidepressants because they don’t feel like part of the program. I think that’s where the school systems can improve. They can put more value on the human experience, and less on the numbers, papers and statistics.  

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September marks Deaf Awareness month as Ava celebrates more agents of change and forward thinkers in the Deaf community. DEAFinitely Dope has grabbed the attention of educational institutions, media outlets, artists, including Chance the Rapper, and festivals across the country. 

Matt Maxey turned personal struggle into opportunity for himself and for others — a lesson to emulate. He makes a point to keep the human experience at the center of his mission, and encourages the system to do the same. 

As Deaf awareness for inclusivity and equality increases, creative thinking combined with inventive technology continues to aid access and keep progress in motion. Visual means of communication, such as ASL and live caption options whenever there is audio present is not only about access, it’s about human connection. 

Weezie Melançon
Post by Weezie Melançon
September 9, 2022