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“I Wanted to Match Rihanna’s Power”: ASL Performer Justina Miles on Going Viral at the Super Bowl

May 10, 2023
Source: British Vogue

The effusive response to her explosive set with Rihanna wasn’t just an expression of joy, says Miles – it was a sign of positive change.

What I remember most is the energy: there were more than 60,000 pumped-up football fans in the State Farm Stadium, Arizona that day. When Rihanna came out, I felt the pop of the lights. She was behind me, so I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her. I wanted to match her power.

Since I was two, I have been partially Deaf, but I’ve always loved music. I have a big speaker in my room that goes through the whole house. When I have my headphones in or I’m in the car, I blast my music because I like to feel it. When a song comes on, I am signing the beats and the background vocals: I focus on every single element of the song.

I started recording signing videos to songs on TikTok, and went viral a few times when artists like Lil’ Kim reposted them. When I had some free time at school in Maryland, I asked an agency I knew if they needed any help with signing at festivals. They got me to do Rolling Loud and Austin City Limits, and I then went viral at shows featuring artists like Nicki Minaj, Lil Nas X, and more. The National Association of the Deaf saw a clip and said they had to have me for Rihanna. I sent a tape signing to the National Anthem and “What’s My Name?” and they booked me for the Super Bowl.

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Wow. I was so excited, but I didn’t know what it would look like. The Deaf community is so small. We all know each other – or each others’ mums, or dads, or grandparents – so for big events, everybody comes together to watch whoever is signing. Knowing the stage and spotlight was going to be shared with so many successful people, I was gunning for the recognition our community deserves. I grew up with all of Rihanna’s songs so getting ready for the Super Bowl took zero practice. When I first heard the songs all blended together, I already knew every single word. I got really excited to show people what surprises I had up my sleeve, because there are so many ways to sign something. I have so much fun with my translations, I’ll be coming up with ideas like “that’s a hard bar!” except it’s sign language rather than rap.

Before the show, I got ready alone in my trailer, doing my make-up in five minutes. Ahead of a performance, I always like to be by myself and conserve my energy. But the team and I came out for the anthem, and I felt like I was seeing the arena for the first time. We’d been rehearsing there for a week but it was only ever empty or with dancers. The energy in the stadium was just electric, everyone was so excited for the game. We walked past the Philadelphia Eagles, my favourite team, heading into their locker room. I was in full glam screaming “GO BIRDS” at the top of my lungs. The team were laughing like, “Yeah, she’s a real Philly fan!”

When halftime was approaching, I was taken to the second middle row where they had a little stage and all the cameras set up. There was a small crowd who could see me, which was nice – I felt like I was popping off for them. I had an interpreter feeding me in case I forgot the words, signing just off the camera. We were vibing; she was hyping me up. It felt so natural, like I was making a video in my room.

[Caption:] Justina Miles wears wool/cashmere blazer, Patou, at Gold-vermeil earrings, By Pariah

My phone is always dead. I am not the person to call in case of emergencies. After the Halftime Show, I got seats with the production team to watch the rest of the game. I went to get a hot dog and checked my phone. All my friends and family had flooded my messages like, “Oh my God, you killed it! You a bad bitch!” On Instagram, I saw my 19,000 followers became 30,000, then 40,000, the numbers going up and up. Lil’ Kim reached out to me and she was so happy and motivating. It felt really genuine. At the airport, people were recognising me, like “You’re the girl from the Super Bowl!” Fenty got in touch after with so much love. They sent me make-up and Savage X Fenty lingerie – Rihanna really spoiled me. She reached out to me too with really positive messages and we kiki-ed a little bit. We’re besties now or whatever.

When the public hears Deaf they think “incapable”. The questions they ask can be so ridiculous: “How do you read? How do you drive?” My hope was to pop off hard enough for people to see, “Okay, Deaf people are literally just like us!” Growing up, the Deaf people I saw on screen would always be white, and me, being my authentic Black girl self on screen, needs to be normalised. But now there’s a few Black Deaf people coming up, like Matt Maxey and Raven Sutton. Since the Super Bowl, I’ve been seeing little Deaf girls copy me. It’s so nice that this next generation of children can grow up with Black Deaf people on screen like it’s normal.

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My mum was my only role model. She was a Deaf single mum who took me everywhere and raised me the best she could. I watched her graduate college under difficult circumstances but still keep a roof over my head and food in my mouth. We’ve gone through a lot together. There’s a hurdle every single day. She helped me through a court case when I was stopped by the police, who wouldn’t believe I was Deaf because I can talk. When we got into a bad car crash, there was no one to sign, and I had to interpret for her so she could get the urgent attention she needed for her fractures, all while I was bleeding with a black eye and missing out on getting the medical attention I needed too.

That’s why I’m studying to be a travel registered nurse, so I can be there for Deaf people. My long-term goal is to open my own nursing practice at Gallaudet University, a specialist school for the Deaf and hard of hearing, so that there can be more Deaf nurses. In my childhood, I went to a Deaf school with all the accessibility. My teacher signed, the principal signed, the janitor signed – everybody signed. When I went to a hearing college, I had to fight for an interpreter in my class. Teachers spoke so low, I ended up getting way behind on my courses. That’s why Deaf people start to prefer their own comfort zone, and go to Gallaudet University, but it doesn’t have all the majors.

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Deaf culture is not widely talked about or understood. Today, there’s even a reality show on Gallaudet University with lots of drama, but not one scene shows what a Deaf teacher or classroom looks like: we sit in a circle or square so that we can see everybody. Signing is a beautiful language – you can sign so much for one thing and say so much. I love using sign language so whenever there’s a choice, I talk in ASL, my first language.

Representation would have definitely meant the world to a younger me. You’re told a lot that “you can’t do this type of job because you’re Deaf”, so many of us take the easy routes. If I had seen somebody like me at the Super Bowl, I would have decided to be a performer and set bigger dreams for myself at an earlier age. It was such an incredible opportunity. I have so many ideas for myself now.

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