Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp on rockin' the mike and making people think twice
Adrian Diubaldo / Photo Roadies
The most immediately noticeable thing about Kalyn Heffernan is that she's in a wheelchair. What takes a little more time to absorb and appreciate is that the petite Irish woman in the Timbaland boots and paint-covered electric chair (she's also a sometime graffiti artist) fashions herself as the real deal on the microphone and is revolutionizing the image of the female rapper.
The frontwoman for hip-hop outfit Wheelchair Sports Camp (along with DJ Whitelabel, Isaac on live drums and Abi, who plays the Saxophone), Heffernan does not come from a typical hip-hop background. Diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) as an infant, Heffernan has been in a wheelchair her whole life.
A Kalyn Heffernan original, one of her first paintings
Undeterred, however, she has led her life with a feisty spirit for just as long. She has "crip life" tattooed on her stomach, which is as much a throw to Tupac Shakur's "Thug Life" tat as it is to her existence in the handicap community. Heffernan makes no excuses and pulls no punches. She is, at the core, a rapper first and foremost. She uses her rhymes and affliction together in a way that challenges the status quo.
The Wheelchair Sports Camp album The Mainstream Cannot Spearhead Change is not all full of warm stories about overcoming trials and tribulations; rather, Heffernan uses humor to offer thoughtful accounts of her experiences. We caught up with Heffernan recently and chopped it up with her over breakfast about everything from her life as a "crip," as she puts it, to her determination to make things happen on her terms.
Westword: So, who is Kalyn Heffernan?
Kalyn Heffernan: Well, you know, I'm a crip. I was born a crip.
Really? Like a gang member?
[laughs] No, I mean a cripple, but I do have "crip life" tatted on my stomach. It's kind of one of those uncomfortable things that took me a while to embrace. It wasn't probably until middle school when I became really comfortable with myself and would crack a midget joke or a handicap joke at myself. Before that, I was really affected by anyone who said "midget" instead of "little person." There's not enough time to be mad at everyone, so I figure it's easier to laugh at everyone.
To be specific, what is your affliction?
Osteogenesis Imperfecta. I was born with it. Neither of my parents have it. It's never shown anywhere in my family. I have brittle bones. I'm not as brittle as I used to be. As a baby, I'd break in my crib. My mom didn't know that I had this disability when I was born, so she had a natural birth. By the time I was six months old, she took me to the hospital because we were at breakfast and I moved my arm, and she heard a snap, and I started crying. She took me to the hospital, and we did X-rays, and sure enough, there were 25 fractures. I was in the hospital for eighteen hours, and they finally diagnosed me. That's basically it: I have brittle bones.
And that's why you're in a wheelchair?
Yeah, there are people who are different sizes with OI that can walk and are regular size, and there are people who are half my size, if not smaller, and are also super-brittle. I think I have it pretty good. It helps if I don't get drunk and fall out of my chair.
How old are you?
I'm 23. Through OI, I have scoliosis as well. It's something that's very common with this disability. My teeth are brittle, but I've met kids who eat a piece of toast and their teeth crumble.
So do you have one of those "hip-hop saved my life" stories?
Yes and no. My parents always listened to the Grateful Dead and that kind of stuff, and one morning me and my dad were driving down the freeway in California, where I grew up -- I moved back here when I was nine -- and I ran into Power 106, and I started hearing hip-hop and wanting to hear this station. It was like some bad song, and he said, "Turn that shit off."
Ever since then, I've been like addicted to hip-hop. I really got into TLC, too. They are the "hip-hop saved my life" example. They were just these three awesome women. Left Eye always had the dopest rhymes, plus they had catchy hooks and condoms all over the place. I was like five or seven listening to "Oooh on the TLC Tip" and singing about safe sex, not knowing what it was. I also got into Salt-n-Pepa a lot.
So I see the paint on your arms and all over your wheelchair -- you're a painter, too?
My senior year of college, I had to take an art class, and it was drawing. At the end of the semester, we learned how to paint and stretch canvases, so I painted a police shirt. I painted in the N.W.A. sign so that it said "Fuck the police." It's good.
What did you do with it?
It was actually the shirt I was wearing when I fell outta my chair and broke my head. I was bleeding outta my ears and they had to cut it off of me, so I was like, "Oh man, I love this shirt!" That's what I decided to do with it.