Nico DiMarco stands behind a turntable on an elevated stage at RedRocks, a restaurant and music venue in D.C.'s bustling H Street neighborhood. It's a Friday night, and the dance floor is crowded. "The Wobble" by V.I.C. blares over the sound system.
DiMarco mouths the lyrics, even though he can't hear them. He is deaf — has been since birth — but that hasn't stopped him from pursuing a side career as a DJ.
"I'm a fourth generation Deaf person from a Deaf family," he told me. "Oh yeah. I'm proud to be Deaf."
When a woman comes up to the stage to request a song, he smiles, pulls out his iPhone and starts typing, then gestures for her to do the same. She types out her request then shimmies right back to the dance floor.
'Turn It On Full Blast, Mom'
Everyone in DiMarco's immediate family is deaf, but that didn't stop them from enjoying music.
He remembers piling into the family car with his older brother, Neal, and fraternal twin, Nyle, in suburban Maryland and asking their mom to put the radio on full blast. She'd move the dial until she got to one of his favorite channels — late '90s pop or hip hop — and turn the volume up as high as it would go.
DiMarco, left, with his twin brother Nyle and older brother Neal.
Courtesy of/Nico DiMarco
Courtesy of/Nico DiMarco
DiMarco couldn't hear the music, but he could feel the vibrations thumping through the car and into his body. He even started to recognize beats of popular songs. Later, when YouTube came around, he was able to search for early 2000s chart toppers and finally identify the songs he'd loved as a pre-teen.
"My family was also pretty surprised. They'd say, are you sure you don't hear?" he recalled during one of our meetings at his alma mater, Gallaudet University, a college in Northeast D.C. for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. "Deaf people aren't necessarily paying attention to music for all the same reasons."
These days, DiMarco remains very close with his family. He often posts photos to social media with his twin, Nyle, a professional model who won the reality television competition "America's Next Top Model" in 2015.
"My family's very proud of me and both of my brothers, and the success we've all seen," DiMarco signed. "The way we've shown the world that Deaf people can do anything."
DiMarco went to college a music lover and left a DJ. He started DJing parties with his trusty Macbook while a student at Gallaudet. Soon, his weekends started filling up with gigs.
Shazam, an iPhone app that debuted in 2008, changed the game even further. He could hold his phone up while a song he liked played and Shazam would identify it for him within seconds. The app also showed him the lyrics, which often left him with his mouth hanging open.
DiMarco picks out a song during his set at RedRocks.
Music has become an even bigger part of life at Gallaudet in the decade or so since he graduated. Many students wander around campus with headphones on.
"You didn't see that before, but the output levels are such that they can hear it," said Larry Medwetsky, the chair of Gallaudet's Hearing, Speech & Language Science department. "I don't know if they're hearing it, or feeling it in their ears, but they're enjoying music."
There's also a device that people can wear on their backs that helps transmit music vibrations into their body. DiMarco doesn't have one, but he did invest in some powerful subwoofers to get the music pumping in his apartment and out at clubs. "If I turn it on, you're going to feel that. Your whole body will feel that rhythm," he warned with a laugh.
He's also learned to keep spare ear plugs on hand when he DJs for mixed audiences — oftentimes, people without hearing loss aren't prepared for the level of sound that deaf and hard of hearing people need in order to feel the beat.
Medwetsky, who is hard of hearing himself, suggested that everyone should pay close attention the next time they listen to music.
"If you have your shoes off and you're feeling music, the low pitches are in the lower back and the high pitches are in the upper back," he explained. "When music goes through your body, it creates a very pleasurable experience. That's why music is universal."
DiMarco DJs a lot of weddings, festivals and other events geared toward deaf and hard of hearing people, but he also does gigs for hearing audiences.
At an event at Red Bear Brewing earlier this year, people in the crowd like Josh Baker and Kelsey Dwyer were surprised to find out that the DJ spinning Beyonce's "All The Single Ladies" and dancing along was deaf.
"It's amazing," said Baker. "It's not like any different experience from the listener perspective." "He's obviously doing an awesome job," said Dwyer.
DiMarco loves inspiring other deaf and hard of hearing people to join him on the dance floor. His Instagram is filled with videos of him dancing.
Many of the song requests he gets from deaf people are songs with set dance moves, like "The Wobble." "People will go nuts and jump on the floor to dance to that," he noted. "It's a Deaf thing."
DiMarco still works full-time as a government IT specialist, and he DJs in the evenings and on weekends. The balance works for him — he feels really happy with the life he's created here in D.C.
"I don't mind being a Deaf DJ because very often, people don't get that Deaf people can do anything," he signed. "So I just try to represent my community and do everything I can to help them visualize a future that's broad, without limits."
Editor's Note: DiMarco is among members of the deaf community who prefer the word "Deaf" to be capitalized to clarify that the person embraces deaf culture. WAMU adheres to AP Style, which does not capitalize the word. As such, we've capitalized "Deaf" in all of DiMarco's quotations but not elsewhere in the text.