Meet the Jay Z of Hip-Hop Sign Language
Interpreting for Kendrick Lamar made Amber Galloway Gallego a humping, tongue-wagging, viral sensation, delighting a world that knew nothing about her sign language craft and dividing one that has tried to control it
WORDS: Hunter Atkins
Amber Galloway Gallego was just doing her job. She did not expect to become famous for it. She never imagined the 4 million YouTube hits that made her a viral sensation, the glowing appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that exposed her to the nation’s late night demo or the popular acclaim in the last two years that has made her the most recognizable sign language interpreter in the country. And to think, it all got kickstarted when she pantomimed an enormous flailing penis.
Galloway Gallego raised lewd performance art to a new level at Lollapalooza in 2013. On the main stage, Kendrick Lamar, rocking a black L.A. Dodgers cap and a shirt emblazoned with “Smallpox” above a palm full of pills, shouted A$AP Rocky’s swaggy hit “Fuckin’ Problems.” He jolted the Grant Park crowd of nearly 100,000 people, but in the aftermath, a voluptuous, pink-haired, 37-year-old mother of four upstaged him. Footage shows about 90 seconds of Galloway Gallego interpreting music with her best—if not downright dirtiest—sign language skills: She curses, spews racial epithets, wiggles her butt, wags her tongue and humps the air. Then she takes the obscene display to a higher level with that graphic, phallic maneuver, as if attempting to punch the at-home viewer through the computer screen: She clenches her fist and forearm in front of her groin and shakes her arm up and down as if it were her very own massive member. She puts an exclamation on, looking like she climaxes, with an aggressive, cheek-rattling O-face.
“I’ve been doing this for so long,” she says. She has been a certified American Sign Language interpreter for more than 15 years and an interpreter at concerts for a decade. “And then they catch this clip of me going, ‘Girl, you know you want this dick!’”
Internet clamor may have anointed her the queen of dirty sign language (an appearance on FXX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell helped too), but her résumé boasts a career of interpreting for legendary artists across all genres: Eminem, Lady Gaga, the Black Keys (nine times, she says), Cher, Madonna, the Rolling Stones and Snoop Dogg. She is a given at most popular acts rolling through Texas, where she works as an independent contractor, and a veteran at annual concerts like Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and SXSW.
Deaf or not, audience members can appreciate her ability to express the complexities of music, like metaphors, tone and overall message. She sways. She snarls. She grimaces. She puffs her lips, smacks her hips and licks her fingertips. One night she captures the soulfulness of Elton John, and the next, she channels the boiling rage of Marshall Mathers. “They see the spirit of the artist that they’re going to see,” she says of her endeavor. Apparently for Lamar that spirit was a phantom phallus. “The fact that I showed a big schlong just made it even more visual.”
Processing music through eyesight may sound odd to anyone who normally relies on ear buds and Spotify, but a visual is the best way to consume music for the approximate 17 percent of American adults who suffer some degree of hearing loss. Galloway Gallego says she was destined to work with the deaf: Her father dated a woman with a deaf child, her babysitter had two deaf children, during a hospital stay she shared a room with a deaf patient and her ex-husband is deaf.
As for her connection to music, she fell in love with R&B and rap, like Guy’s 1990 R&B slow jam “Let’s Chill” (“I wanted it to be my wedding song!”), Eazy E, Geto Boys, Kid n Play—as well as “the ladies who rule the world,” as she put it—Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Lady of Rage. While growing up in an impoverished part of northeast San Antonio called The Villages, where she says there were only a “handful” of white families, she identified with the black and Mexican kids from the surrounding broken homes. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler and her mother kicked her out at 16. “My mom was a big partier,” she says. “A really wild, druggie person. My mode was to escape my house as much as possible, so I escaped to a different culture.”
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