ASL interpreter lends fresh perspective on Prince's music

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American Sign Language interpreter (and longtime Prince fan) Shelly Lehner describes being one of the ASL interpreters at the Prince tribute concert on Oct. 13, 2016. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
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Shelly Lehner is a longtime Prince fan. "I feel like I know almost all of his music," Lehner says, "and a lot of it had different meanings for me throughout my life."

Lehner, who lives in White Bear Lake, Minn., was just as surprised and shocked when Prince died on April 21, 2016. "I was at work," she recalls of that day, "and I wanted to go home. I couldn't function."

When Lehner is at work, it's vital that she is able to function. Leher is a certified American Sign Language interpreter. Working as a freelancer, Lehner is called on to do interpretation in many contexts: medical, educational and business, for example, but she also does a lot of theater productions and live concerts. On Oct. 13, 2016, Lehner was called on to be an ASL interpreter at the Prince Tribute Concert at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. "It meant a lot to me to be able to do that," she says. "Everybody was celebrating Prince for months after he passed away, and being able to be a part of listening to his music and being a part of a big crowd of people like that was an interesting experience.

"When you're interpreting music," Lehner says, "you want to try and convey what that [performer] is feeling or singing … you can use certain techniques to make ASL look musical." (Watch the video above to see Lehner's ASL interpretation of Prince's "When Doves Cry"; it begins at 4:15 in the video.)

Prince Tribute Concert
Mint Condition performs at the official Prince tribute concert at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 (Stephen Maturen | AFP/Getty Images)

Lehner also feels that providing ASL interpretation at the concert falls in line with Prince's values. "I think it would mean a lot to him to know that there's an equal playing field for people who can hear or people who can't hear, or people who have disabilities," Lehner says. "They have every right to be at the shows and enjoy it just as anyone else."

In 1984, Prince famously performed at Washington D.C.'s Gallaudet University, a private college for the deaf. According to the Washington Post, promoters said Prince requested to do the show for disabled students who would not otherwise be able to see or hear him perform.

Watch the captioned video above or listen to the audio to hear more about Lehner's thoughts on ASL interpretation and about her enthusiasm for Prince's music.

Hanna Bubser and Cecilia Johnson assisted with this feature.

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