For weeks, Warren “Wawa” Snipe, stood in front of his bathroom mirror replaying the same two songs and rehearsing every word.
“I would listen to the music over and over to get a feel of the music and the singing,” Snipe, a 50-year-old rapper and actor, told the The Washington Post in an interview via text messages early Monday. “This takes a lot of time and you want to make sure you’re understood, so playing with various ways to interpret a song is warranted!”
The carefully planned spectacle included pregame performances by Eric Church, Jazmine Sullivan and H.E.R., and a halftime show headlined by the Weeknd. But it was Snipe who became the breakout star, inspiring thousands of tweets and national news stories on his work. The moment for the rapper was a culmination of years of work to bring more visibility to both deaf culture and hip-hop, as well as the intersection of the two he has crafted.
“When you’ve worked so hard on your craft, giving everything you’ve got for your community and they ask you to do the Super Bowl, to me that’s an honor and some recognition of your hard work,” Snipe said.
Snipe, a Philadelphia native who describes himself as “a rapper who happens to be deaf,” graduated in 1994 from D.C.'s Gallaudet University and launched his music career in 2005. He calls his work, which is a mix of images and audio, “Dip Hop” or “Hip Hop through the deaf eyes.”
“Everyone knows hip-hop through hearing culture but what about deaf culture?” Snipe said. “So this [opens] doors for you to come inside our world and see the similarities and the [contrasts] of both worlds.”
In 2016, he released an album called “Deaf: So What?!,” which he said he aimed to show people that a perceived disadvantage can become an advantage. Snipe, who has also been acting for the past 30 years, is best known for his recurring role in the CW series “Black Lightning.”
His journey to the Super Bowl began in December when Snipe submitted videos performing both songs to the National Association of the Deaf. In January, as Snipe was working on the release of his latest album, “Wamilton,” the organization told him he had been selected to perform in Tampa.
“To rep the deaf and hard-of-hearing community on that level is an honor,” Snipe said. “Oftentimes our deaf artists are overlooked, and yet we still push on towards greatness. We hope this will wake people up that we’re capable and hire for different performances, be it TV, film, theater, music.”
Snipe had just a few weeks to translate the songs’ lyrics to ASL and to study each singer’s facial expressions to make sure he conveyed every word accurately. So, he began studying each singer as if he were studying for an acting role, he said. He watched their performances to try to “become” them in a way.
“Body movement helps a lot. Lyrics help pick their brains. And understanding what they’re trying to say in their song creates a being.” Snipe said.
When he wasn’t practicing in front of a mirror, he recorded himself to re-watch the performance later, studying which movements to keep and which needed more work. The day of the event, he spent a large part of his schedule rehearsing, he said.
For nearly three minutes, Snipe, who stood somewhere between the 10- and 20-yard lines and also appeared on the stadium’s jumbotron as he performed the national anthem, captivated the audience with his large movements — no short of energy until the end — and his wide smile.
Snipe’s work quickly went viral during the game, earning thousands of shout-outs on Twitter and Facebook.
“I don’t know about yall but Warren ‘WAWA’ Snipe stole the show!!!” tweeted sports journalist Darren M. Haynes.
“And this will be the only best part of Super Bowl today. WAWA and his talent is just incredible,” tweeted another viewer.
Snipe said he still has a bigger Super Bowl goal, though: Participating in a halftime show. This year, Martise Colston performed the Weeknd’s halftime show in ASL for DPAN.tv, the sign-language channel.
For now, Snipe said he hopes his performance makes viewers rethink what deaf and partially deaf performers are capable of.
“The point is I’m a multitalented person and CAN do many things,” he said. "[It’s] just when people find out I’m [deaf] they start to limit me. I’m asking them NOT to do that.”