Kalyn Heffernan is a mentor to Denver school kids by day, and an obscenity spewing, hip-hop fireball at night. Her band, Wheelchair Sports Camp, has been representing the city — loudly and proudly — across town and on the road.
In between her raps, Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp
addresses the crowd at the Lost Lake Lounge
in Denver like a proper, expletive-spouting emcee.
Returning to its home base in Denver after two Midwestern gigs, this is the third night of the band's “Wall to Wall” tour. The tour poster features a bound-and-gagged Uncle Sam, forcibly seated between two tall, barbed wire-topped walls.
Heffernan, however, will not be silenced.
Heffernan bought her first drum kit at 16. She graduated from the University of Colorado in Denver. Photo by Gregory Daurer.
“We're going to take this Denver (expletive) from Mexico to Canada!” she says, referring to her trio's upcoming show in Tijuana and then up the West Coast to Vancouver – playing its jazz-inflected, wit-filled, politically-charged hip-hop, all along the way.
Heffernan continues, “We represent Colorado – and Denver, especially. We're going to talk about Denver every, (expletive) night. I will not get onstage without reppin' Denver, I promise you.”
And who is this enthusiastic, Denver representative?
Kalyn Heffernan is a diminutive 3 feet 6 inches tall, white, wheelchair-bound, rap-world wonder woman. She emotes – and tours – hard, despite being afflicted with Brittle Bone Disease (formally Osteogeneis imperfecta). The condition has limited her physical growth, and leaves her particularly vulnerable to, for example, broken arms and legs. Due to her small size, she sometimes gets mistaken for a child.
Tonight, she's enjoying a tall pint of beer before the show. She also has an enthusiasm for cannabis, which she has rapped about, in addition to tackling a host of political issues, such as women's rights, censorship, and electronic privacy. Onstage, it's all delivered in a high-pitched vocal sound that Heffernan self-describes as “cartoony.”
Before the show, Heffernan's musical peers greet her with enthusiastic hugs, kisses, and caresses. This night, she has a moustache painted-on. (When asked why the 'stache, she replies, “Why not — there's no good answer to that.”) She's also a vocal LGBTQ advocate, who will spend her 30th birthday in Vancouver.
Heffernan makes a point of telling her audiences that Wheelchair Sports Camp calls Denver home. Photo provided by WSC.
At the Lost Lake Lounge, Heffernan and her musical compatriots belt out selections from Wheelchair Sports Camp's latest musical recording, No Big Deal, which was completed after the unexpected death of its producer. Heffernan, a teacher at the renowned Denver program Youth on Record, will also invite one of her students up onto the stage to rap during a song. Among those busting a move in the audience is her mom, wearing a tour merchandise accessory: a Wheelchair Sports Camp headband.
Apparently, Heffernan has been advised that, given the night of the week, the turn-out at the Lost Lake will be sparse. “Bull****!” she beams, pleased at the sizable gathering. “They say nobody's going to show up on a Tuesday. Come on, Denver!”
Two nights later, Wheelchair Sports Camp will be playing in Albuquerque.
Off Heffernan goes, practically up, up and away – or so, one would like to imagine.
Passing it on
When she was eight-years-old, Heffernan moved with her mother from California back to Colorado, where Kalyn was born. Her parents had been separated for as long as she can remember. Her mom worked in the travel industry and also tended bar. Her father was a union iron worker. Between the two, she says, “I always had a taste of poverty and middle-class stability.” She maintains a close relationship with both her parents.
Heffernan says of her mom, “She was always a really great advocate for me and made sure I had the same experiences in school that the other kids had.” Her mother, forceful and vocal on her behalf, withdrew Kalyn from one Denver school because the entrance for the handicapped kids, unlike for all the other children, was around the back.
“Both of my parents kind of pushed me to do things that weren't always that safe,” she adds, referring to her father as a “daredevil” of sorts.
Wheelchair Sports Camp records for Strange Famous Records. Photo by Gregory Daurer.
During her teenage years, Heffernan established a strong kinship with rap music. Her wheelchair allowed her entree to many backstage settings, she admits, so she got to meet several of her idols. She worked at Elitch Gardens amusement park, and bought a Roland drum machine at age 16, coming up with her own beats. Heffernan later graduated from the University of Colorado in Denver with a degree in “music entertainment industry studies with a tech focus.”
Around the same time, she formed Wheelchair Sports Camp and began releasing music. (The name was cheekily lifted from a program that engages disabled youth in physical fitness activities.) The musicians have changed over the years, Heffernan being the only constant. Another constant: the band tours as often as possible, sometimes playing shows, which Heffernan regrets, at clubs with limited handicap accessibility.
Today, Heffernan imparts some of her hard-earned wisdom to Denver public school students via Youth on Record
, where she teaches an “Intro to Music Production” class.
Heffernan says, “I feel so lucky to have a job, at home [in Denver], that pays me to do what I love and to connect with the community and to empower young girls, young boys. It’s really easy to get past a certain age and lose touch with the youth and what's happening. To connect with that generation is such a gift for me. Like most good teachers, I'm learning more than I'm teaching, for sure.”
Youth on Record's Executive Director Jami Duffy notes, "Kalyn isn't just a cultural icon in our city, she's a teaching icon in our classrooms. She brings the same grit, rawness, authenticity, charm, and talent into Youth on Record's classroom as she does to the stage. And that's why she's so effective – as an artist, as an educator, and as an activist. She's Kalyn. What's not to love?"
When one of her students took note of Wheelchair Sports Camp's popularity, the student asked Heffernan to “put me on tour with you.”
“It doesn't work like that,” Heffernan bristled. “Nobody ever did that for me. It took six plus years to get to this level. It didn't come overnight, it didn't come because somebody put me on.”
The day before the Lost Lake show, the student showed her creation to an ultimately-impressed Heffernan: “She showed me her rap and I'm like, 'OK, how about tomorrow night?'” Onstage the girl went at Lost Lake, performing a quick musical number.
“That's what excites me,” says Heffernan, “because I hate so (expletive) much the way women are represented, underrepresented. And not just with the music — politics. And I hate all these things. They feel so far out of my reach. Until I get in the classroom. I'm directly working at changing that every day. And I get paid to do it.”
It’s hard out there
“No matter where I go, all eyes are on me...” raps Heffernan.
In the video for the song “Hard Out Here for a Gimp,” Heffernan is shown on an operating table in a hospital, and then being wheeled on a gurney throughout Denver, joining a parade of disabled people.
Heffernan has taken some hard knocks – literally. Some people might be able to walk off a painful fall; Heffernan winds up in the hospital if that happens. Part of her video was actually filmed after she had a 10-hour surgical procedure on her arm. In another segment, her leg is in a cast, the result of her “being an idiot,” she says, and “falling out of her chair.” She's broken another leg since.
Wheelchair Sports Camp has toured throughout the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Photo by Gregory Daurer.
Throughout the Pacific Northwest tour, Heffernan was greeted by numerous fans in wheelchairs. “Portland was packed,” she says. “A lot of disabled people.” Unfortunately, in Portland, the group's vehicle also slipped out of neutral gear and smashed into a pole. More pain as a result.
Those gawkers within the lyrics of her “Gimp” song tend to ask impertinent questions of her. They “want to know my life expectancy” she raps. “Like it doesn't get to me.”
Ultimately, it's hard to predict how long anyone's going to live. While in the process of making No Big Deal
, album producer Isaiah “Ikey” Owens – who was also a noted keyboardist with the band, The Mars Volta – died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Completing the project became not only a personal milestone for Heffernan, but also a tribute to a fallen comrade: “We were able to do it, I think, exactly the way [“Ikey”] wanted it to be mixed and mastered.”
On the recording, Heffernan is joined by a crew of talented musicians. Trumpeter Joshua Trinidad adds jazzy runs, sometimes utilizing effect pedals or boxes. Drummer Gregg Ziemba (of Rubedo) masterfully lays down heavy beats. After the Denver tour date, Heffernan was joined on the road with Ziemba by trumpeter Wesley Watkins (of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats,
The Other Black), who Heffernan credits with improving her vocal skills.
Wheelchair Sports Camp has always incorporated talented locals with whom Heffernan hangs out: “We set the bar pretty high in Denver – our crew of people.”
That Denver-inspired, Wheelchair sound impressed Sage Francis, the rapper, spoken-word artist, and head of the Providence-based label Strange Famous Records
, which released No Big Deal under its imprint.
Sage Francis says, “[Kalyn] represents Strange Famous so hard, as does the whole WSC crew.”
“My first exposure to her music was the live show, which totally drew me in. You get taken to a whole new world the way they do it,” he said. “I like how she plays a lot with words, and the style kind of harkens back to early to mid-90's rap where the emcees were having more fun with language.
He immediately saw potential in the band.“There's also an X-factor kind of thing that's not easy to describe, which determines whether I'm willing to work with an artist or not. Sometimes I get it wrong, but not with WSC.”
Heffernan says, “We're not really trying to ride off of anybody's else's sound. We're borrowing a lot of things, but we're not trying to imitate anything. I think it comes across.”
Which begs the question: Who can imitate a Denver original like Kalyn Heffernan?