Billy Sanders, in front of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, where he interpreted a protest earlier this summer.
At a protest in early August, Billy Sanders stood on a small podium in front of a sweaty crowd of a few thousand people in the hot, unrelenting D.C. sun. Volunteers passed out water and registered attendees to vote, while next to Sanders, self-proclaimed "liberation music maker" OnRaé Lateal chanted something that set the crowd in motion. "We don't need no cops, we don't, we don't need no cops."
Sanders, an ASL interpreter, signed the lyrics to Lateal's chants while bouncing and swaying on beat, his face becoming more animated with each hand motion. After the performance, Lateal posted a video of Sanders with the caption, "Bruh. When the ASL interpreter turns into the hype man!"
But Sanders' interpretation wasn't about his own connection with the music — in fact, not everything that happened during the performance was his personal taste in protesting.
At one point during the demonstration, Lateal led the crowd in the "Ella Baker Bounce," asking the crowd to twerk in front of the stage while citing the famed civil rights activist. Sanders was taken aback — were she still alive, Ella Baker would never have twerked, he thought.
But he knew that he had to interpret it all with zeal nonetheless.
"I don't have to agree with everything I hear or am a part of. But I still have to interpret it with integrity in the way that it was intended to be," Sanders says.
Sanders is used to this kind of internal conflict. At a recent virtual social justice conference, for example, the group broke out into a cultural engagement session. "I thought we were gonna play, like, 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,'" Sanders says, referring to the widely recognized "Black national anthem." Nope.
The DJ started spinning Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's raunchy, chart-topping single "WAP."
"In a social justice construct, they want me to interpret 'WAP.' And I have to focus because I really don't know all the lyrics," he says.
After two decades as a professional interpreter, Sanders has found himself in a perfect position to provide language access at demonstrations across the region — even ones where he's unfamiliar with the music. He learned ASL out of necessity as a CODA (an acronym used for "Children of Deaf Adults"), but then used it as a tool to get his life on track, and later, to celebrate Black culture and contribute to the movement for racial justice in D.C. and beyond.
Billy Sanders, to the right of Rev. Al Sharpton, was the main interpreter at the 2020 March on Washington.
Originally from the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, once the Twin Cities' thriving epicenter of Black culture, Sanders, 41, says he didn't grow up wanting to be a professional interpreter.
He learned how to "interpret to a beat" from his mother, who is deaf. She's a dancer ("on top of many other hats that she wears"), and used to nag Sanders if he misinterpreted a song or left out a verse. It's the same commitment to authenticity that drives him professionally.
"I want my mom, ultimately, to understand what is being said every day," he says. "If there's a concert, I want your favorite part of the song to be her favorite part of the song. If I'm interpreting Al Sharpton and he starts to inflect in ways to get a call-and-response out of people, then I want my mom to be there in real time and be able to say an 'amen' in real time."
He wasn't just interpreting music for his mom; as a boy, he helped her communicate during appointments at social security offices. ASL interpretation wasn't always provided at government offices until the Americans with Disabilities Act made it a legal requirement in 1990, so Sanders often quips that his first interpreting job was working for his mother in the 1980s.
"Jokingly, I say among other interpreters that I'm one of the original government interpreters," he says.
Sanders attended Florida A&M University to study business administration. As a side gig, he taught sign language to people in Tallahassee who had difficulty communicating with deaf family members, developing his curriculum from books he found at the library.
But in 1999, Sanders says he got into a serious physical altercation with a housemate and had to drop out of FAMU after the student filed a restraining order against him. He had a number of run-ins with the law that left him lost and questioning his purpose in life. It was while working at McDonald's that he bet a coworker he could use his ASL experience and become a bonafide teacher, "Professor Billy," he joked at the time.
His experience came in handy — at 20 years old, he convinced administrators at Florida State University to let him develop and teach ASL courses for the school. The courses he taught at FSU helped him land a teaching job back at FAMU, where he later returned to finish his degree in 2006. He not only won that bet against his friend at McDonald's, but had also discovered a passion for interpreting at civil rights demonstrations.
The start of his new life path didn't come without some speed bumps, though.
In early 2000, Sanders bombed his first major event, a rally in front of some 8,000 protestors in Tallahassee, where civil rights leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III spoke out against then-governor Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative to end affirmative action.
"All these folks are on stage, and I'm freezing ... freezing as in I did not know how to produce the right sign for what they were saying," he says. "Thankfully, YouTube was not a thing back then. But I would have been the YouTube sensation for being the 'incorrect interpreter.'"
The "elder" interpreter at the event tapped him on the shoulder and told him to leave the stage. In that moment, Sanders decided to take interpreting more seriously and get trained through workshops, conferences, library books, and instructional videos. He earned his National Interpreter Certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf in 2010.
By 2009, Sanders had moved to D.C. — a hub of deaf culture due to the presence of Gallaudet University, the preeminent university for students who are deaf and hard of hearing — to chase his dreams and expand his professional network. He moved to a neighborhood in Congress Heights that reminded him of home, "past anywhere where there's gentrification."
He worked for Birnbaum Interpreting Services in Silver Spring for two years before going independent, creating his own interpreting company in 2011 and "never looking back," he says.
These days, he keeps his calendar full, mostly interpreting for patients at hospitals and medical offices, working press conferences for the D.C. government, and interpreting Black Lives Matter D.C. events and trainings.
He sees a "language justice" movement growing nationally, but also on the local level. Just last month, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to establish an official office for Washingtonians who are deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing. It's part of a yearslong effort led by local advocates to pressure the D.C. government to more intentionally provide professional, educational, and cultural resources for the city's deaf residents, from an early age.
"I see people who are not a part of the system using their power to empower those who are deaf and hard of hearing and people who speak other languages," Sanders says.
Sanders says he bombed the interpretation for his first major event 20 years ago. But that event motivated him to hone his craft.
In late August, Sanders took one of his biggest stages yet at the March on Washington, where he interpreted for Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, and families affected by police brutality. It was a difficult experience. During the event, bystanders surrounded Sanders on all sides as they fought for a front-row spot, wanting to be seen by the masses. Some held up signs in front of his face, or even pushed him out of their way to get a better spot near the podium, he says.
"It's always an honor to be a part of historic events, that is an honor that I don't take for granted," Sanders reflects. "However, being there on the stage was no joyful experience in the least bit."
Frustrating as it was, the experience didn't discourage him from lending his skills to local protests.
Sanders charges about $65 per hour for most events and says that in the D.C. area, interpreters can cost anywhere from $50 to $125 per hour, depending on their credentials and what agency they work for. But Sanders provides his services for free at many demonstrations. According to Bethelehem Yirga, who organized the Demand DC march where OnRaé Lateal performed her liberation beats, Sanders donated his fee back to the organization and interpreted their subsequent protests for free.
It's one of the ways "[I'm] fighting oppression through my profession," he says.
Back in St. Paul, where he wore dreadlocks, Sanders was known by friends and family as "Billy X," a nod to the radical, fight-the-man outlook he maintained while organizing protests in the Twin Cities. This past summer, between interpreting engagements, he flew back and forth from home to check on family members and friends who've been involved in the ongoing protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Sanders thinks back to being 10 years old at a "Free Nelson Mandela" rally. The organizers, who were in their 40s, told him and his friends to turn off their boomboxes, which blasted Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." It was too radical for the time, Sanders recalls.
"Now, fast-forward to 2020, I'm 41, and I think twerking is too radical for an expression of social justice," Sanders says of the "Ella Baker Bounce" he witnessed this summer.
"So at that moment, I felt old. I had to grow up in that moment to know that there's a newer generation redefining what service is going to be, what social justice is going to be, what your expression towards the movement is going to be. And I have to accept and respect that it's always changing."
At all his events, Sanders wears his signature white-rimmed glasses, pinky ring, and a suit while interpreting, even on scorching summer days, so that people who've never witnessed an interpreter at work will respect his profession. Much like his rhythmic interpreting, Sanders' commitment to style goes back to his childhood in St. Paul.
"We grew up on welfare and government cheese," he says. "But even then, my mom made sure that we looked nothing like our circumstances or our environment and that she was going to put us in our Sunday's best every day."
Ultimately, what drives him is a desire to help people like his mother, like he did when he was just six years old, signing to her what was being said during appointments in municipal offices. If he was lazy in his interpretation, she would pop him upside the head, and he would roll his eyes.
"I guess she was hitting me, not because I was acting up, but because she couldn't understand what was being said to her in the way it was meant to be, and I didn't understand that back then," Sanders says. "So, to this day, I don't worry about being the next YouTube sensation. I worry about getting popped upside my head by my mom."
I ask if that's the voice he has in the back of his head.
"That's actually the signs I've got in the back of my head," he corrects me, politely. "Not the voice."