Photo by Adrian Diubaldo
Kalyn Heffernan is 42 inches tall, has been diagnosed with a brittle bone disease, is confined to a wheelchair, smokes lots of weed, and won’t hesitate to publicly shame anyone who gets on her bad side with a brutal rap track. Kalyn is the emcee and driving force of Denver’s Wheelchair Sports Camp, a hip-hop group that mixes classic beats with jazz and avant-garde sound experiments. The group formed while Kalyn was in college, with just her rapping and a DJ supplying the beats, but has evolved into a shifting lineup that sometimes features drums, a saxophone, and even a sitar.
Her music deals with social inequalities relating to handicap people, as well as getting blazed as fuck and how much cops suck. On her song, “This Bitch…” Kalyn attacks problems with healthcare, and on “Party Song” she taunts, “rock, let the midget hit it/cops on my jock, make ‘em, cough/cus I’m sicker with it.” More recently, she’s started to make beats for rapping Haitians who were displaced by the 2010 earthquake, and called out Goodwill for paying handicap people less than minimum wage.
Photo by Adrian Diublado
VICE: Hello, Kalyn. What is your writing process?
Kalyn: I’m a pretty slow writer. Sometimes I write faster, but more than not I have to sit down… well, I’m always sitting down, but I just have to go at it.
You used to sneak backstage at shows and meet people like Xzibit, Ludacris, Erykah Badu, and Busta Rhymes. How did you do it?
It was pretty easy. I would play the wheelchair card and say “oh, so and so” told me to come back here. I was a pretty good scam artist back then. I think, because of my disability and because of my advantages, that I’ve been able to milk the sysem. I could get backstage to almost any concert.
Were the artists friendly?
Actually, Xzibit is a really cool guy. Erykha Badu was cool. There are few people who have been dickeads. Now I’m kind of bummed that I didn’t sit through concerts instead of being more concerned with sneaking backstage.
Photo by Robin Walker
Who were the dicks?
Busta Rhymes was a dickhead. He was just rude. Maybe he had a bad show, but that’s really been the only guy who was not a very nice person. Shit, I think even Kanye was cooler than Busta Rhymes.
So Kanye was cool?
I think I rapped for him and hoped to get signed. He was real nice and introduced me to his manger. He wasn’t a jerk by any means. Erykah Badu went out of her way to be nice—so did Cee Lo and Eminem.
How much do you want the audience to focus on the fact that you are disabled when you perform?
I think that’s up to every person. I didn’t get into hip-hop to be a disabled rapper; I got into hip-hop because it's my thing. The name "Wheelchair Sports Camp" was definitely sarcastic, but also kind of marketed on the fact that I’m totally comfortable in my wheelchair. Still, I don’t want to be like, “oh, first cripple rapper right here!” or, “best short rapper!” Hip-hop is a bigger focus for me.
Have you ever faced any adversity in the music scene because of your needs?
No, I’m pretty lucky. I have a lot of support in Denver. I have always been pretty well supported by good people. I’m not really a shy person, so I wouldn’t allow myself to be treated too differently.
Photo by Jennah Black
How did you almost get arrested in Denton, Texas?
It was our first big, out of state trip. We played a great show and had a really great time. There were actual graffiti artists traveling with us and also some wannabes, like us. A lot of us are kind of interested in graffiti, but we aren’t good. A few of us went tagging after the show and the person we were staying with, his roommate called the cops on us.
Half of the crew was in the apartment with the person who called the cops and the other half was causing a little scene. We bounced and got pulled over and went to jail. I didn’t. I got a ticket. The cops acted like, “Don’t think you won’t get arrested because you’re in a wheelchair,” and then I didn’t get arrested because I was in a wheelchair.
Why did the guy rat you out?
I don’t know. He didn’t agree with what we were doing.
How did you get involved with producing music for homeless Haitians?
A good friend of mine is a professor and a local musician. After the earthquake happened, his band and mine played a benefit show. He went to Haiti soon after to help with sustainability. He realized that the infrastructure wasn’t even ready for that and that everyone in the tent city was rapping. He brought a guitar and would play it and everyone would rap over it. He went back with recording material, some of my beats, and some stock instrumentals, and he brought back hundreds of sessions that were recorded in this tent city. I started remixing them and would just use their vocals and build the beat around them. We’ve got like ten songs done, but there are so many more. They’ll freestyle for like ten minutes straight. The energy and the cadence and the flow is just so dope. It’s been one of the most inspiring projects. I’m trying to get to Haiti so I can meet some of these rappers I’ve been producing.
You recently got into a bit of a Twitter tiff with Goodwill.
I’ve always been critical of how so many disabled people get shitty fucking jobs when they are capable. Every disabled person I know is good at something. Why does every disabled person have to be the cart attendant? I’ve always been critical of employment practices and disability wage.
Goodwill pays less than minimum wage to people with disabilities. I sent them a message. I was surprised that they responded and the way that they responded was pretty blatant. There has been some momentum going on to put pressure on Goodwill. Some of these Goodwill people are making 22 cents an hour because they are super disabled and it is so ridiculous.
There are people next to them with a stopwatch gauging their effectiveness. It’s so fucked up. I don’t think that there is any good story to it. The way that they responded was basically, Hey, we only do that to a small number of our disabled employees. Oh, like that makes it any better. Those employees must be really crippled—like deaf and blind. It’s so fucking frustrating. The more that I’ve gotten into rap, the more I’m this disabled advocate. I have to be. I feel like I’m more connected to people in the disabled community because of hip-hop, not the other way around.
Is it true that someone once wrote a dis record aimed at you called “Fuck Handicap People”?
It was something like that. It was actually the guy who started the band with me. He has pretty bad substance abuse issues. We tried to make it work for as long as we could, but it blew up because of the substance abuse issues. It was a bad breakup, like every breakup.
Did you battle back?
Of course I battled back. I took him out.