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Kalyn Heffernan: From Camper to Rapper (And Activist)
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Kalyn Heffernan: From Camper to Rapper (And Activist)

Thirty-one-years-old and a Denver native, Heffernan is a female rapper and the front person of Wheelchair Sports Camp, a band she co-founded, which has made its mark by showcasing both live and electronic instruments in a noisy, jazzy, experimental — but otherwise traditional — hip-hop group. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, Heffernan’s slight stature only amplifies her impactful presence as someone who clearly has a lot to say and isn’t afraid to deliver it straight.

Heffernan doesn’t fit into any mold and doesn’t try to. She’s lived outside the box from an early age, growing up as the only child of two “nutty” parents. “I didn’t have too much time to worry about my disability because there was so much other shit going on in my life. My parents were like, ‘It is what it is.’” She points out that being small made it easy for people to involve her. “As someone with brittle bones, you kind of have to let go.”

Heffernan embraced rap music with the same abandon as she approached life. “I have a vivid memory of finding it when I was 5, and being like, ‘Dad, this is awesome! Turn this on!’ And him being like, ‘Turn that shit off!’” Despite the complete absence of rap artists who looked or sounded like her, the art form reached her immediately. “I feel like rap was my first identity before I identified with anything. And it was like, yes, this is mine.”

She says that being young and having a disability gave her just enough distance from rap content that she could listen without anyone giving her grief. “I could listen to gangster rap, and you know, I’m probably not going to join a gang. I was 5 listening to sex rap, but I wasn’t at all sexually active. I didn’t know half the stuff they were talking about.”

Aspiring to be like the artists in her favorite band, TLC, Heffernan wrote her first rap for a sixth-grade talent show, then honed her craft through high school, working at a local amusement park to save up for a beat machine. She didn’t plan on going to college but ended up with a scholarship to the University of Colorado-Denver, where she learned the engineering aspects of recording.

It was also in college that she reconnected with an old friend from middle and high school, the future co-founder of Wheelchair Sports Camp. They chose the band name as a semi-sarcastic shout-out to an actual summer camp Heffernan had attended as a child. “I felt like a lot of the kids lived for it—that was their favorite week of the year,” she says. “I was more of a kid that was too cool for everything. I didn’t want to follow my group to the different activities, yet I still had a blast. But a lot of that was me bringing my friends and finding the rebels and saying, ‘Fuck this, let’s get out of here and smoke pot.’ Just being bad. We got in a lot of trouble.”

Heffernan feels the band name allows them to acknowledge her disability and move on to more important topics. But she admits it can also be complex. “If some people don’t know I have a disability, they may think it’s offensive, which I kind of like. I’m pretty offensive sometimes. But, it runs the risk of being a gimmick, which I hope it never is too much."

“We still play with the imagery of Wheelchair Sports Camp and identifying with my disability. But the music has always been first.”

Beyond the music, Heffernan had her own unexpected personal awakening around her disability identity. She became more active in all types of social protests and movements, attending marches and rallies like Denver’s MLK Marade (a mash-up of “march” and “parade”), Occupy Denver and the 2016 Standing Rock protest against the oil pipeline on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She started to notice that at many of the activist events, she was the only person with a visible disability. “The last few years, ‘intersectionality’ is such a hot topic and buzz word, and yet, disabled people are left out or last on the list. And they represent such a huge population, and they intersect with all these other marginalized groups.”

Feeling left out of the conversation, and aware of her inclination to blame everyone else, she instead started examining her own culpability in the problem. “I thought, what’s your connection to the disability community outside of starting shit at wheelchair sports camp? I started having to unpack my own ableism and realize that I haven’t really done my work for the disability community.”

Getting involved with longtime disability activists at Denver’s ADAPT and boning up on disability history made Heffernan more aware of the depth of the issues facing people with disabilities. “I’ve been really checking myself on how much I’ve stood up for disability,” she says. “It’s not just getting me backstage at a concert.”

Heffernan is committed to holding others in the disability community accountable and advocating for a more representative movement.

“Inclusion is something everybody loves to throw around these days, but I mean the Women’s March is so not inclusive,” she says. “There are people of color movements that really left out a lot of people with disabilities, and there’s the disability movement that’s still leaving out people of color."

“It’s just selfish. It always ends up going back to that person who can’t take a check, they can’t take hearing about their own privilege. We all have privilege.”

Yet, Heffernan doesn’t consider it an obligation for people with disabilities to be disability rights activists. “It’s not easy to advocate for yourself when you’re marginalized every day, and pitied and patronized and discriminated against, and you add all these other marginalized identities — queer, people of color, indigenous folks — it’s nonstop,” she says. “There’s so much more to deal with — just the survival of it.

“It’s not anybody’s responsibility or obligation to do anything except for themselves. But if you do survive and you are doing shit for yourself, then eventually the movement will get stronger.”

Image credit: Photo by Author

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