Overcoming all odds for the love of music
December 28, 2011 | 11:14 am
(Updated: January 17, 2013 | 3:03 pm)
By Josiah M. Hesse
Being a crippled, lesbian rapper is hard. But not in the way you think.
“I could bank off that fact and just be … not that good,” said Kalyn Heffernan, the pint-sized 24-year-old emcee of Wheelchair Sports Camp. “But I’m just all about being better. I like good bands, and I want to be one.”
Most any band – good or not – typically has the opportunity to be first judged by its musical abilities, and not on a socio-political issue. But unless it’s through her album, Heffernan is rarely afforded that opportunity. Born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, she is confined to a wheelchair and has grown only to the size of a small child.
I must admit when I first saw Heffernan roll onto the stage of the Hi-Dive, I cynically dismissed the whole thing as a PC gimmick.
Something people were afraid not to like, and applauded dutifully and without thought. But 10 minutes into the set of Wheelchair Sports Camp, I (and presumably everyone in attendance) had the snarky grins wiped off our faces. Fronting a band of top-shelf musicians, Kalyn Heffernan has the sly charm of a seasoned stage performer, all while she rhymes from her wheelchair with a flow and punch to rival any big-name emcee.
Growing up in Denver, Heffernan was surrounded with positive encouragement from family and friends. “I never really encountered any setbacks because of my disability or sexuality,” she said. Being a devoted fan of early ’90s hip-hop, Heffernan rapped at a talent show at the age of 12. “It was me beat-boxing onto a tape, and then rhyming over it,” she explained. From there Heffernan’s musical vocabulary became more sophisticated, moving from drum machines in high school to studying recording techniques at the University of Colorado, Denver.
It was there she met the brother-sister musical duo Abi and Isaac McGaha Miller. “Abi is just a natural born musician,” Heffernan raved, “she could play almost anything.” From this encounter grew Wheelchair Sports Camp, and since Heffernan was studying audio recording at the time, the band could devote their school hours to laying down tracks in the university studio.
Sometime later WSC released Mixed Tapes, an eclectic, inventive hip-hop album that expertly samples tracks from The Beatles and Stevie Wonder to Nirvana and Radiohead.
Along with meeting her bandmates, college introduced Heffernan to Jenna Black, who would become her girlfriend, now of five years. “We had to hide it for a while,” Black said, describing the difficulties of a homophobic dorm room and religious conservative parents.
Kalyn Heffernan recognizes that, considering her sexuality and her disability, she was raised in a relatively positive environment that some (including her girlfriend) were not privileged with.
“I’ve always grown up around gay people. And you’re not a part of the gay community without knowing how hard it can be.”
Though several WSC songs are playful and celebratory, many of the lyrics comment on social injustices. “I’ve rapped about Prop 8 and homophobia. Just because I’ve had it so good, doesn’t mean I don’t have a consciousness about these things.”
Heffernan went on to discuss the variety of anti-gay undertones in culture from the indie-rock world to the hip-hop scene. For the most part, though, she observes this from a distance. “Maybe because I’m disabled, people can’t be too mean,” she said with a laugh.
Kalyn Heffernan seems to view her disability as a comical footnote, not as the crux of her personality. She’s a politically conscious voice who has a setback to reasonably complain about, yet makes music not as an after-school-special message of hope and inspiration, but for the pure love of creativity. “I’m not a rapper because I want people to hear my story,” she said with complete sincerity, “I’m a rapper because I want to be.”
On the Web at http://wheelchairsportscamp.bandcamp.com