I hold open the door at Illegal Pete’s for Kalyn Heffernan as she rolls her electric wheelchair inside. At least a dozen people are eating in small groups, and everyone almost instinctively takes a turn to give Heffernan the same stare. It’s a quick glance that retreats into a complete lack of eye contact, a one-two combo of interest and avoidance.
Under the loud music and bar chatter, the employees can barely hear her order steak tacos. They lean over the counter and ask three times for her choice of salsa. Heffernan’s small voice strains to project from where she sits far below the counter.
Then the eyes of the cashier behind the register pop wide open, and her voice explodes.
“Oh my god! You’re from Wheelchair Sports Camp!” she screams. The flow of the burrito line grinds to a halt. “I haven’t had the chance to see you live … but I did buy your CD at Independent [Records and Video in Denver]!” “Really?” Heffernan pauses. “I think only two people bought it — you must be one of them!” Heffernan gives the cashier a guest list spot at her next show; the burrito is on the house.
The 3-foot-6-inch Heffernan looks up at me. “You want a margarita? Dinner was free tonight!” Such is the dichotomy of interactions between Heffernan and the rest of the world. To most, she looks like she’s struggling against daily life; to others, she is a hero who is completely kicking life’s ass.
There’s a lot about her that goes beyond appearances, way more to the 24-year-old MC beyond the tidbits that she’s female, homosexual, disabled and a rising hip-hop talent. We post up at a table and spend our first 20 minutes debating the merits of dubstep, then move on to gangbanging, graffiti, classical guitar, her thoughts on Timmy from South Park, and all the times she’s been kicked out of sports camp for smoking weed and causing trouble.
Growing up right outside of Los Angeles, Heffernan was born with with osteogenesis imperfecta. Her mom first realized something was wrong when Kalyn accidentally broke her arm while eating breakfast, a small movement that caused 25 fractures.
She is able to walk very small distances, and although her walking range would increase with regular practice, Heffernan admits she’s accustomed to getting everywhere without any effort.
“I’m pretty lazy,” she concedes. “I could use more exercise. But so could everyone.”
Every year, she’s still invited back to the wheel chair sports camp, and she decided to name her hip-hop group after it without a hint of irony. Not only has the Denver group been featured in SPIN magazine, Wheelchair Sports Camp made a splash at South By Southwest, landing spots on the lists for top 25 hip-hop acts to catch and almost won the title for Most Offensive Band Name.
However — no pun intended — that’s how she rolls. She wants spinners on her wheelchair. Her lyrics are razor-sharp and take ownership of reality, always filled with a sense of humor and observance. Sage Francis wore a WSC shirt during his SXSW performance, and he remarked, in reference to the group getting busted in Texas with marijuana and graffiti paraphernalia, “I hope they don’t get into more trouble.”
Sometimes, disadvantages can be someone’s greatest asset. On top of an indestructible sense of lightness, Heffernan has no illusions about the advantageous role her disability has played in her career.
Heffernan says she now embraces her disability, a disadvantage she turned to her favor. She went backstage for the first time at Summer Jam as a preteen, somehow getting a hook-up from Ludacris. Since then, she has met her choice of rap stars, spitting a rhyme for Kanye, pining over Eminem and T-Boz, who is in one of her most admired groups, TLC.
“I was a born scam artist,” Heffernan admits. “They didn’t really question me because I was in a wheelchair.”
I prep to ask her an uncomfortable question, and she urges me to spit it out — is she worried that patronization is what attracted the spotlight more than talent or hard work?
“We’ve only been on one tour, and on that tour we went to three out-of-state cities,” she says, like the answer is obvious. “Do you think a group like that deserves to be in SPIN?” She apologizes before pointing out it’s the media that makes the biggest deal around her disability. Heffernan doesn’t know if she’d still be in SPIN with bad raps.
“That might be true, but that’s not enough for me,” she says. “I’m OK with being the best female MC, or the best lesbian MC or the best disabled MC, but I know personally, I can hang as the best MC. Period.”
She’s breaking the mold with an exciting band that includes live drums and saxophones as well as DMC regional finalist DJ B*Money. She shows her sense of humor in the lively, jazzy beat of “Party Song” with rhymes like, “I’m with Stephen and we’re hawking out here / We’re in the middle of the break circle rocking our chairs.” But most importantly, she’s got the attitude and confidence that are prerequisites for effective MCs.
“If you’re an MC, what are you gonna rap about other than yourself?” she asks.
Since Heffernan couldn’t fight with her body, she fought twice as hard with her words.
“I wasn’t able to beat people up, but I could beat people up with my mouth,” she says. “My mom had quite a pottymouth, so that was how I grew up. I was probably the first 6-year-old to say ‘fuck’ at my preschool.”
“I loved rapping ‘motherfucker.’ I loved saying that, like ‘Fuck you cops!’” Heffernan says, lifting her middle finger and cracking a smile. “Had I not been born into my disability, I’d probably be a lot more worse off, like hanging out in the wrong groups and being on the wrong path. Hip-hop was my way to still feel like a badass and still feel part of it.”
[ On the Bill Wheelchair Sports Camp plays the Rock N Soul Cafe on Saturday, Aug. 13. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Wandering Monks open. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door. 5290 Arapahoe Ave., Suite 1, Boulder, 303-443-5108. ]