Meet Our Latest MasterMinds, Kalyn Heffernan and Birdseed Collective

Meet Our Latest MasterMinds, Kalyn Heffernan and Birdseed Collective (4)
Anthony Camera

When Westword decides to put on a show, we really put on a show! Our 21st annual Westword Music Showcase — which will fill venues across the Golden Triangle on Saturday, June 20 — will include a real class act: Two of this year’s MasterMind awards, including one going to a performer who’s as inspirational off stage as she is on.

The Westword Music Showcase, our annual celebration of the local scene, was already a decade old when we decided to expand our commitment to the arts with the MasterMind Awards, which honor the creative geniuses altering the cultural landscape of this city — and reward them with cold, hard cash. We inducted our first class of MasterMinds in 2005; in the ten years since, we’ve given more than $150,000 in grants to local artists and arts organizations.

As the MasterMind program marked its tenth anniversary, we decided that these honorees are such a class act, we want to share the wealth all year long, and so we’re rolling out the awards through 2015. The first two, given to spoken-word artist LadySpeech Sankofa and designer Deedee Vicory or D’Lola Couture, were presented at Westword’s Artopia in February. You can learn more about them and all of the previous classes of MasterMinds at westword.com/arts; keep reading to learn about the two impressive artists who’ll be honored at 5 p.m. Saturday, June 20, on the Westword Music Showcase stage at City Hall.

Kalyn Heffernan/Royalty Free Haiti

Kalyn Heffernan was born with a natural sense of rhythm and a fierce rebellious streak. She puts both traits to abundant use as leader of the Denver-based hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp. The group will release its first full-length album, No Big Deal, later this year. It was produced by the legendary Ikey Owens, best known for his work as a member of the Mars Volta; Heffernan met Owens through mutual friends in the Denver scene, a scene that has helped the firebrand MC apply her skills and passions to pursuits well beyond her own band.

With other friends she made through music, Heffernan co-founded Royalty Free Haiti, which has built a bridge between musicians in Denver and Haiti. The organization started as a recording project, with Haitian artists rapping over tracks produced by Heffernan and other Denver musicians, but quickly evolved into an education program modeled after local nonprofit Youth on Record (for which Heffernan also works). Last summer, Heffernan and a few others involved in Royalty Free Haiti traveled to the island nation to deliver recording equipment and to teach local artists how to use it. Now there are two schools running the Royalty Free Haiti program — one in rural Gwo Jan and another near Port-au-Prince. Like the Youth on Record classes here in Denver, they are taught by professional musicians and open to kids in the community.

Just hours after she returned from a Wheelchair Sports Camp concert in Salt Lake City, Westword music editor Kiernan Maletsky caught up with Heffernan to talk about her work in Haiti as well as the Denver creative community.

Kiernan Maletsky: How did you get involved in Royalty Free Haiti?

Kalyn Heffernan: I got involved soon after the earthquake [in 2010]. Wheelchair Sports Camp had just started being a band, and we did a benefit show in Arvada.

A professor and musician friend of mine [Greg Cronin] went down and came back so excited to tell me how many rappers there were in the tent cities. He showed me some footage, and I was just blown away. I’m pretty snobby about rap in general, and I was like, “Man! These are nasty raps.” I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but you just knew it was good.

He said there were just rappers for days, and he wanted to bring mikes to capture some of that the next time he went down. So I sent some beats — some of mine, some from Denver producers — and that’s really how I got connected to Haiti, just collaborating with these musicians.

I started to send more and more beats from producers I’m connected to in Denver, so it became this kind of cool collaboration between Denver and Haiti. This last time [in June 2014], we decided to take it a step further. I went for the first time and got to meet a lot of these rappers. We wanted to start programs similar to Youth On Record’s music-production classes.

When you were in Haiti meeting these people, did you find that they already knew what your contributions were? What was the experience like, meeting these rappers?

Meet Our Latest MasterMinds, Kalyn Heffernan and Birdseed Collective (3)
Anthony Camera

That was the most exciting part for me. A lot of these cats I’d been talking to on Facebook and that kind of stuff. So they did know me, and it was really cool to meet them.

The first week, I did this small show in the community that we lived in. A bunch of the rappers that I’d worked with got on stage with me, and we played one of the songs that I produced. That was just awesome.

Why was the decision made to set up classes as opposed to just making songs?

Well, it was what I was doing already as a part-time job [with Youth on Record]. We had been talking about finding ways to keep this music stuff going. Basically, we already knew how much interest there was in Haiti in recording, and how it’s not that accessible.

It was also a matter of getting the youth involved. We’d been working with these older rappers, and it was a way to start getting a part-time income for these musicians that we’d networked with.

As teachers, right?

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Yes.

So who are the students, predominantly?

The students are members of the community. It’s not like here, where our students are getting credit. Education down there is all paid for. You have to pay to go to school. It’s such an impoverished country that a lot of kids don’t have access to education, so this was also a way of free education. You don’t have to pay for any of our classes.

How are the schools funded?

It’s been really grassroots. That’s where we’re at: How do we sustain this and keep it going? But it’s not a lot of overhead. What we’re paying to run the classes for a couple years is pretty doable.

Do you think there’s something about the climate in Denver that’s particularly conducive to organizations like Youth on Record and Royalty Free Haiti?

I think Denver does have a pretty unique community. It’s really the music that allowed me to get involved. Looking at it from an outside perspective, it was like, the Fray and 3OH!3, and I didn’t think there was much grassroots stuff. But the more I started to play in Denver and network — with the hip-hop community, especially — it just opened itself to so many ventures.

I’ve always been pretty passionate about social changes and that kind of thing. I cared about that stuff, but I wasn’t really involved until I started doing music, and then people were like, “Hey, will you play this benefit show?” or, “Hey, can you host this thing?” It gave me an in to all the things that I had wanted to be part of forever.

And I think Denver is a unique community. Musically, I think it’s unique because we’re landlocked. So we’re influenced by the coasts, but not too much. We really have scenes for everything. And the hip-hop one, especially, has just been...we’re still egotistical, but overall we’re pretty close together, close-knit. I mean, Flobots took us on our first tour. That kind of thing doesn’t seem like it would ever happen, for somebody at their level to take a hometown underdog out with them.

I do think there’s community support. But we’re in a weird time, where I can feel us all holding on tighter because we see the outside money, the outside communities coming in trying to rip apart some stuff that we’ve spent our whole lives working at building.

Kalyn Heffernan and Wheelchair Sports Camp will perform at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 20, on the City Hall Amphitheatre stage during the Westword Music Showcase — right after the presentation of the MasterMind Awards. The award for Heffernan’s work with Royalty Free Haiti is being presented by the Biennial of the Americas. "Kalyn perfectly represents the spirit of this year's Biennial theme, NOW!," says the Biennial, which stepped up to sponsor this award. "She's one of the most fresh, innovative and impactful musicians in Denver. Her work with Royalty Free Haiti demonstrates a social and cultural commitment to youth in the Americas that inspires everyone working to make change in the hemisphere."

Meet Our Latest MasterMinds, Kalyn Heffernan and Birdseed Collective (2)

Anthony Garcia Sr./Birdseed Collective

Artist and activist Anthony Garcia Sr. grew up in Globeville, a blue-collar community on Denver’s northern fringe with deep historical roots. It began as a smelting town in the late nineteenth century and is only now recovering, more than a century later, from the toxic waste left by that industrial past. Over the years, the Eastern European community that first settled here has given way to a Hispanic constituency that now struggles with encroaching change. Cut off from the rest of the city by modern highways, Globeville is a community in transition.

This is Garcia’s home and his community, and because he loves it, he sees its potential where others might not. That’s why he created the Birdseed Collective a little more than five years ago, to give kids growing up on the streets he knows so well a chance to do so in a safe and positive place. And a colorful place: Garcia’s work in Globeville is visible in the most symbolic of urban spots, with new murals gracing I-70’s underpass walls and at bus stops made less anonymous by brightly colored makeovers funded by the city’s P.S. You Are Here program.

But the rest of his work is less colorful and more grassroots. Through Birdseed, he fostered connections between Globeville youngsters and struggling local artists at the neighborhood’s now-defunct Street Kidz community center, emphasizing the difference between simply making marks on walls and making public art to better the community. (Denver Parks and Recreation nows runs the facility, renamed the Globeville Community Center.) “People need to realize that we’re a community; we’re not just individual artists,” Garcia explains. “People need to start working together; that’s how to make the Denver art scene grow. We find hungry artists who are willing to work and produce, and help them realize that it’s not just every man for himself out there.”

There’s more to Birdseed than that, though. The organization has partnered with Denver Food Rescue and the GrowHaus to implement FORAGE (Food Redistribution Around Globeville, Elyria-Swansea), a program that strives to make healthy food more accessible by bringing the food bank right into the neighborhood, where it’s most needed, every Monday. Garcia also produces a community newsletter and fundraises tirelessly to keep all of Birdseed’s concerns afloat.

Meet Our Latest MasterMinds, Kalyn Heffernan and Birdseed Collective

And he’s branched out to work with the Jefferson Park Business District and Walk Denver to create new public art in that neighborhood, including a finished street mural at West 25th Avenue and Eliot Street. Next on that agenda is a proposed sculpture a block away on Federal Boulevard. Garcia’s working with the city to bring hand-painted bus benches to Jefferson Park, as well.

What’s next for Birdseed? Garcia would like to find a permanent space for the organization and, in the best of all worlds, a space with room for children’s classes and a gallery. “What we’re trying to do right now is help find jobs for artists and show them how to put their work out there,” Garcia says. “You see so many talented people every day who don’t know how to do that.”

Learning how is an ongoing process. Birdseed’s many objectives — helping kids, helping artists, beautifying urban places — don’t always synchronize, and funding is a constant worry. “The painting is almost the easiest part,” says Garcia. “Delegating is the hard part. We don’t want to rush into something — it’s better to take time to figure out a bigger picture and do it right. We’d like to be able to build on ideas we already have. Usually with grants, they have the idea for us, and we get funded to carry that out.” Birdseed now has a grant-writer on board to help run the administrative side of its projects, while Garcia’s role as head artist continues to be increasingly proactive and hands-on.
“We think of ourselves as a grassroots, DIY organization put here to help people,” he says. “We don’t want to get grants just to help ourselves. We’re here to help artists and musicians and their communities. That’s what I’m here for. That’s my dream for Birdseed.”
— profile by Susan Froyd

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