Jakarta. To Finnish rapper Signmark, music is more about an emotional response to its vibrations, than the sounds it produces.
“Music connects people. Like sports, it doesn’t need words, it doesn’t need language, but everyone can play it. That’s what I do with my music as well, I can feel it and make it in a different way,” said Marko Vuoriheimo, who took on the moniker Signmark when launching his music career in 2006.
Finland may not be the most prolific producer of rap music, but the 36-year-old has managed to capture the world’s attention by adding a unique element to his music: Signmark was born deaf and uses sign language in his performances.
He charmed Indonesia’s youth last week during a talk with students at the University of Indonesia (UI), then wowed literary fans with a live show at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Literary Festival (ALF) at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta.
“It was just great to see him [perform]. We are all inspired by his courage in defending his rights to achieve success,” said ALF attendee Qory. “We now know one or two [signs in] sign language, and are eager to learn more because it feels cool.”
Vehemently dismissing the term “disabled,” Signmark brushed off discouraging comments from friends and even family members who attempted to deter him from pursuing his childhood dreams.
“When I first announced that I wanted to be a musician, they said that I couldn’t [do it], simply because I am deaf,” Signmark recalled in a press conference held during the literary festival last week.
“It was really frustrating but then I realized that they just lack information. And once you lack information, fear takes over. Society’s definition [of what a person can or cannot do] is really crap and I got really upset,” he said.
Drawing strength from his grandparents who had inspired him to pursue music, the rapper began creating his own tracks and performing various gigs in his hometown of Helsinki in 2004.
Two years later, he released a self-titled — and self-funded — debut album. Signmark then took on the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, ultimately finishing second place with 46.5 percent of votes.
The road to worldwide acclaim, however, was riddled with rejections from music studios. He finally scored big with New York-based Warner Music, becoming the first deaf musician to get a record deal.
He released his second album “Breaking the Rules” (2010) soon thereafter. His third record, “Silent Shout” came out last year.
“I believe that music isn’t all about hearing. It’s about movement. It has to be nice for the eyes too. You have to feel it. So if you don’t do any movement, you don’t get the music,” Signmark said.
ALF program director Okky Madasari hoped Signmark’s participation in the festival worked to fan the spirit of inclusivity and encouraged freedom of expression.
“Signmark is our special guest. He is a musician, not a writer. But with his own language, he has contributed to enrich languages in the world and thus adding to the spirit of diversity in the festival,” Okky said. “This is part of our commitment in supporting human rights for people with disabilities. Everyone has the rights to express themselves, whatever the situation.”
Pirjo-Liisa Heikkila, a representative from the Finnish Embassy in Jakarta extended her government’s support of Signmark, declaring the musician Finland’s official representative for human rights and equality for the differently abled.
The rapper embraced the honor, saying he aimed to spread his message of equality through his music and hoped his performances can also inspire others like him to shatter damaging stereotypes.
“Back then, when I started to make music, my dream was to conquer the world. It seems I’ve succeeded!” he said laughing. “Another dream was to collaborate with other artists, [which I did] on my last record,” Signmark added, referring to Brazilian musician Igor Cavalera who is also a former drummer for heavy metal band Sepultura.
"Today a lot of people come to my concert. While they don’t understand sign language, they can understand what I’m doing on the stage. It brings out many things ... I bring out inspiration, human rights. I bring equality,” Signmark said.
The musician stressed the importance of self determination, strong will and hard word for anyone to achieve success, but affirmed that the differently-abled should be given the same opportunities as others.
“But the most important is a resoluteness because it all begins from within yourself,” he said.
A great deal of his creative process, he added, comes from his daily experience as a deaf musician.
“When I [write] my songs, I normally tell my story first, about my experience, everything I’ve gone through in my life — all the [injustices], all the interesting things I’ve experienced,” Signmark said.
“At the same time, my music producer and I discuss the track and create different sample [of the song]. We try different beats, tempos, rhythms. We find the perfect pitch to fit my signing.”
Not only does the use of sign language set him apart in the increasingly competitive industry, all his concerts are also bilingual. Signmark takes the stage using international sign language while his fellow Finnish musicians also sing in English.
The rapper’s flourishing career has taken him across the globe, performing in more than 40 countries, including Ethiopia, Iceland, Spain, Japan, Brazil and the United States.
He added that his preference for hip-hop music was born from the same message he has fought for most of his life.
“I chose hip-hop because [its roots stem from] a time when black people [in the United States] were demanding the same rights as white people. I think it fits me because I want equal rights for the deaf,” Signmark explained.
“Moreover, the hip-hop culture and music style [pushes beyond] the difference between people."