Do I Know You?
“Sign language should be considered a minority language, not a disability,” says Signmark
For Signmark, music is about bringing people together and creating awareness of social issues.Julia Bushueva
Signmark was catapulted to fame as the first deaf musician to sign an international record deal. His recipe for success? Focusing on things that matter and 100 per cent commitment.
Rap artistSignmark, aka Marko Vuoriheimo, 44, is used to breaking boundaries. His musical education started with translating Christmas carols to sign language for his deaf parents to enjoy. Then came MTV’s music videos and rap music. While many doubted Signmark’s pursuit of a music career, he proved them wrong in 2009 by becoming the first deaf musician in the world to land a record deal.
Since then, Signmark has performed at more than 1 000 concerts worldwide, founded three companies and been a special representative of Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Everything he does is done with a passionate and positive approach; there are no half measures here.
Add to the list a master’s degree in educational science and the titles of lecturer and inspirational speaker, and it’s easy to see Signmark isn’t one to stay still for long. Or to shy away from taking a stand on issues that matter to him. In fact, being vocal about human rights and tolerance issues has been a core part of Signmark’s career. His key message? For real change to happen, sign language should be adopted as a minority language and not seen as a mark of disability.
We caught up with Signmark to talk about music, entrepreneurship and his most memorable performances.
You are a performing artist, lecturer and entrepreneur. It sounds to me you like to keep busy. How would you describe yourself as a person?
I’m terrible at saying no. I’m social and ambitious, and I always want to participate in anything interesting. And if I start something, I want to do it right. This applies to everything, music, business and sports.
For example, I signed up for a 70-kilometre cross-country skiing event in Ylläs. I only found out a few weeks before the event that it’s done in classic style, not in freestyle, which is the style I know. But I got a new pair of skis from Peltonen, started practising and went for it.
You’ve released three albums and an EP [extended play record]. What is the process like when you start making music?
The process has changed a lot from the early days as my knowhow has grown. I start by talking with my producer about a few themes and my vision, and we begin by making the text. Then, in the music, I focus on the bass and the vibrations. Finally, at the end, comes the sign language translation. Then it’s the producer and the featuring singer’s job to ensure the whole package works.
I want the people featuring in my songs to feel the songs are theirs as well, so I want to include them early on in the process. You can see it on the stage when they feel good about the songs they perform.
How did you initially get into music and rap?
Actually, my interest in music started in this house. This is my grandparents’ house, which I bought after they died. We spent many Christmases here. There was a kind of a man cave downstairs with a bar and a pool. One Christmas, my grandparents went downstairs to listen to Christmas carols. I followed them to see what were they doing and started asking questions. I could lip-read what my grandmother was singing and hear a bit of the bass, so I began to sing the songs in sign language to my parents. Music has a great power to connect people.
I watched music videos on MTV and translated the songs to sing language, for instance, Bon Jovi and Michael Jackson. Then came rap, the likes of MC Hammer, Run DMC and Public Enemy. I liked their style as they used a lot of gestures while performing. Also, I hated collar shirts.
I started to research rap culture and translate rap songs as well. In the end, I must have translated hundreds of songs.
How would you describe your musical style, and how has it evolved over the years?
I don’t have one distinct style, but maybe my music could be described as danceable hip hop music which has a message. The topic of the songs is the important thing for me, not so much the style of the music. At first, I focused a lot on social issues. For example, I talked in my lyrics about the time when it was forbidden for deaf people to marry.
When I got more inside the music business, I changed more to danceable music. My second album was a more commercial one, and people still ask me to perform those songs.
My third album has good songs, but maybe I tried too hard with it. It has many different styles and many different featuring artists since I wanted to show how the tone of the signs changes with the singer. I wanted to show people who can hear that if there are variations in songs, there are also variations in sign language.
Last year I published my fourth album, an EP titled Viva La Parola. I’m not trying to pretend to be thirty any more, and the issues [important to me] come first again.
You were the first sign language musician to sign a contract with an international music label. What kind of meaning does that have to you?
When I signed the contract, its impact was huge. There were no social media then and people bought CDs, which are expensive to make. The deal allowed me to get visibility and really get into the music business.
Today record deals aren’t such a massive thing as self-publishing and building your own audience is more accessible. But still, I wouldn’t recommend going at it alone as you do need to understand the industry and the business first.
You’ve performed all over the world. What have been the most memorable experiences?
Every gig is memorable in its own way. But if I have to quickly pick a few, one would be a concert in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There were about 5 000 people in a park waiting for the show to start and Finland’s foreign minister, Alexander Stubb, was going to perform with me. Then someone phoned in a bomb threat to the embassy and the whole park needed to be searched. So the start was delayed, but the concert ended up being fantastic.
Another one was in Christchurch, New Zealand. There were only a few hundred people, so it was a small but significant event. It was for the memory of my young fan, a deaf girl called Emma.
Earlier, she had emailed me that she was a fan and even flew to Madrid to see my concert. I was about to leave the venue after giving out signatures when Emma grabbed my attention and we took a picture together. A few months later, Emma’s cousin emailed me that Emma had been raped and killed by a man with a Nazi background. My song was played at her funeral.
I wanted to send one more letter to her, so I wrote a song about it, The Letter. I performed the song at the Christchurch memorial concert, which many of Emma’s friends and family attended. It was a hard but important moment.
Human rights and tolerance issues have been a big part of your career. What do you see as the biggest misconceptions people have about deaf culture?
When lecturing, I often compare the situation to the times gone by when people thought the Earth was flat. Now we know better. In the same way, people often think we are disabled when they should think of us as a language minority.
At the moment, the focus is too much on the medical side, operations, medication and so on. Talking about a disability brings up the wrong connotations, but, if people saw sign language like any other language, their approach would be different.
I have always said these things won’t change until the law changes. Unfortunately, most companies won’t have websites and services accessible for us until it is a legal requirement. I often complain to the non-discrimination ombudsman if I notice a site that isn’t accessible. Still, there won’t be any real change as long as it’s only a recommendation for companies to be inclusive.
In addition to your musical career, you are a lecturer and entrepreneur. Could you tell me a bit about the companies you’ve started?
I started my own production company Signmark Productions in 2009. Back then, I was one of the candidates to represent Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest and I wanted to produce our show myself. The company still operates. We, for example, make music videos, do translations and produce a sign language version of Pikku Kakkonen [a popular kids’ show in Finland].
In 2019, I started a company providing sign language interpretations. We now have about 20 interpreters in our network. We’ve also created a mobile app, Chabla, which allows anyone using sing language to make and receive interpreted calls with the push of a button.
You are also a dad to three kids. How do you maintain a balance between work and family life?
We have a good structure in our everyday life, but I have to admit it is hard at times. Then you just have to take deep breaths. As an entrepreneur, you have to be very flexible and it can be a juggle between family time and being available for your team and customers.
What would the perfect Sunday look like for you?
It’s the basics. Good food, exercise, something fun with the kids and, of course, sauna.
Or sometimes I might need a break from the kids and just have a night out with my friends.
You’ve collaborated with several artists on your albums. Who would still like to make music with?
There are so many people I’d like to work with. My dream for a long time has been to be on the same stage with Bono [from U2]. I feel like our passion for human rights issues connects us.
There is also one gig that still bums me that it didn’t happen. I had a chance to be part of Michael Jackson’s world tour. In the end, the tour never happened, but it would have been amazing to be part of that and have that experience.
The third person I’d have liked to perform with is Carl Malm. He founded Finland’s first school for the deaf in 1861 and created the Finnish sign language.