Wheelchair Sports Camp's Crip Life
If there were ever a moment for a queer, disabled rapper with a love for pot, jokes, and revolution to be a star, the moment is now
By Camille Dodero Wednesday, Dec 7 2011
Kalyn Heffernan is 24 years old, weighs 53 pounds, and measures three feet, six inches tall. She's light enough to carry, compact enough to hide under a winter coat, and is sometimes mistaken for a child. But Kalyn, who has the brittle-bone disability osteogenesis imperfecta, is hardly innocent, precious, or inconspicuous: The Colorado native dabbles in graffiti, cusses gloriously, and has a septum piercing. She raps, scribbles rhymes, and has been known to cover the viral YouTube video "My Vagina Ain't Handicapped." If you ask—and even if you don't—she'll eagerly lift her shirt to show off the words "CRIP LIFE" inked on her stomach, an homage to Tupac Shakur's THUG LIFE tattoo.
Kalyn is the founding member of Wheelchair Sports Camp, a fledgling jazz-hop trio cheekily named after a week-long youth-disability program she attended growing up and, by her own admission, "corrupted." The Denver-based band consists of Kalyn and two able-bodied friends from college, Abigail "Abi" McGaha Miller, a towering, talented 22-year-old saxophonist/vocalist, and Abi's Marvel Comics–nerd older brother, a 25-year-old mountain of a drummer named Isaac. Although both siblings are far more experienced musicians than Kalyn, they will comfortably concede that this project is "Kalyn's show."
On a wet Wednesday evening in October, Kalyn's show is 1,800 miles, $1,323, and one important record-label meeting away from home. All three bandmates huddle in Zuccotti Park, on the soggy outskirts of an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, with Kalyn's girlfriend of five years, 26-year-old Jennah Black, who multitasks as WSC's merch girl and surrogate roadie. In the distance, British comedy wank Russell Brand ducks into the Sanitation Tent, followed by a cameraman.
Wheelchair Sports Camp has traveled to New York City for CMJ, the annual five-day music festival that once functioned as an unofficial kingmaking ceremony but now serves predominantly as a reluctant excuse for networking, binging, blog-hating, Tweet-spying, and babysitter-finding among, for lack of a better term, music people. Kalyn and Jennah had already planned a trip to the city this week, paid flights to Syracuse University for a Saturday-afternoon panel about disability and hip-hop—“krip-hop” spelled with a “k,” so as not to be confused with the West Coast gang. Hoping to parlay the chance timing into something heftier, Kalyn applied to play CMJ.
The band was accepted, but they have no money. Kalyn is unemployed—she relies on $650 a month from the Supplemental Security Income program. Isaac offsets broadcasting classes with a telemarketing job, and Abi works at a local HoneyBaked Ham, but they both live at home. Kalyn hatched a plan to defray costs: They could stay at Occupy Wall Street! Not only did they all deeply believe in the cause—Wheelchair Sports Camp had already performed at Occupy Denver, with Isaac in a Guy Fawkes mask—but OWS also served meals, so they'd save money on food, too.
Simultaneously, in a last-ditch effort, Wheelchair Sports Camp launched a Kickstarter campaign, an increasingly common online mechanism for crowdsourcing creative-pursuit funds. Their Kickstarter pitch, paraphrased: Be a part of Wheelchair Sports Camp's first show in New York City! The underlying message: Help the Little Band That Could! The fantasy-league version: CMJ was a Big-Time audition! As Abi and Isaac's father adorably urged on Facebook, "It could be a really big opportunity for the kids finally turning them into full-time, professional musicians."
CMJ is hardly the career catapult it once (if ever) was. But for three earnest kids with no resources from the Rockies, the footnote affiliation wields influence back home. "Regardless of how well or bad the shows do, the fact that you're getting out of state? Everybody at home is like"—Kalyn gasps, by way of demonstration—"'You went to Texas! And New York!'"
Besides, even from the most cynical perspective, all an act needs to jockey forward in this moment is one trigger: one substantiative interaction, one show, one song, one viral video. Never mind that as an emcee, Kalyn sounds like grime-shorty Lady Sovereign sucking helium, spitting vocabulary strings with the cadence of somersaults, or Animaniacs' character Dot rhyming "disagree" with "suck a titty." Sure, the live band could use a little practice, but add a compelling human-interest narrative, hook up with the right mentor or coach, and you might just have a future. Or at least, a bed on tour.
Ten days before their CMJ show, Wheelchair Sports Camp not only met their $1,200 financial goal, but also surpassed it. And that's how a shambling outfit of exuberant underdogs with no revenue stream, no out-of-state fan base, no publicist, no critical adoration, no technical preparation, and no connections quietly became the de facto Mighty Ducks of CMJ: All it took was stubborn idealism, fearlessness, and a quixotic little leader with a willingness to curl up in the rain.
Wheelchair Sports Camp didn't sleep at Occupy Wall Street. Isaac and Abi chickened out. "Kalyn's like, 'Do we reaaaalllllllly need to get a hotel room?'" Isaac recounts. "We're like, 'Yeahhhh.' I'm not gonna try to huddle up with my gear in a sleeping bag."
Abi laughs. "Right? Tie my saxophone to myself and hope no one steals it while I'm sleeping?" Instead, they're staying 45 minutes away and commuting with a rental car—a motel in Whippany, New Jersey, offered the cheapest locked room they could find on short notice.
You can understand why Abi and Isaac were hesitant to pursue Kalyn's reckless road schemes: The last time they did, the brother and sister ended up with their mugshots on the Internet. Driving through Texas to this year's South by Southwest, Wheelchair Sports Camp jumped onto a last-minute show in Denton, a hugely successful opening slot for activist rapper B. Dolan that closed with the crowd chanting in unison. Back then, there'd been a fourth member, Chris Behm-Meyer, a turntablist who adopted the persona DJ B*Money—he recently just stopped returning calls, as DJs sometimes do. Kalyn and B*Money decided to celebrate their tremendous reception by spray-painting "crappy tags" (Kalyn's words) right outside the venue, in the middle of the town.
Kalyn had planned to defray WSC’s travel costs by occupying Wall Street.
"I have a really bad idea of consequences," Kalyn admits. "I don't really think of it a lot because I'm in a wheelchair, and I get off so often?" Kalyn has a medical marijuana card in Colorado; the Texas cops found weed on the crew. Kalyn and B*Money got off. Taking a vandalism rap when she hadn't been painting at all, Jennah spent two nights in jail.
But Jennah is used to Kalyn's antics. Once in 2009, the night Abi first joined Wheelchair Sports Camp live, Kalyn called for a ride from Boulder: She'd had some drinks, fallen off a curb in her wheelchair ("I never wear my seat belt as much as I should"), puked on Scribble Jam founder Mr. Dibbs, and broken her face. "I loved it!" Kalyn squeaks. "When I break an arm and a leg, I'm out for six to eight weeks. So when I break my face and my head, it's only gonna put me out for a couple days." (Her disability causes her bones to break so easily that a former friend once foolishly tried to touch Kalyn's toe to her face and shattered her femur.)
Kalyn has always exhibited a mischievous streak—that's what made her love rap music in the first place. "When I realized how rebellious it was and that my parents hated it, I stuck with it," she says. She was five or six. Her first time rhyming in public was at age 12, at a school talent show, where she rattled off stanzas about the Denver Broncos she'd written with friends. Her first job was in the Looney Tunes store at a Rocky Mountain amusement park; she saved all her earnings to buy a beat machine. For her high school senior portrait, Kalyn posed with a microphone.
Music was such a big deal that her Make-a-Wish Foundation request was to meet all-female R&B trio TLC. The organization flew Kalyn to Atlanta, where she rode around in a Bentley with singer Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins. "My doctor even lied to them and told them I was dying so that I could do that—which I wasn't aware of at the time," Kalyn snickers. "I milk my disability." Like at venues, where her wheelchair became an all-access pass. "Once I found out how to take advantage of it, I wouldn't even watch concerts, honestly. I'd go to all these shows and wait backstage to meet all these people." Performers like Xzibit, Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx, Erykah Badu, and Eminem. "I was such an Eminem kid."