Wheelchair Sports Camp: "If a Wall Is Built, We're Fucking Climbing Over It"

Wheelchair Sports Camp's Kalyn Heffernan was panicked. The underground rapper, whose first album came out in 2016, speedily booked the 2017 Wall to Wall Tour, which started with a two-show Midwestern jaunt March 3 and 4 and continues with a hometown show in Denver tonight (Tuesday, March 7) at Lost Lake Lounge. The tour then picks up with a giant West Coast loop that includes stops in Tijuana and Vancouver before heading back home via the Treefort Music Fest in Boise.

Westword caught up with Heffernan last week, in advance of the Midwestern leg of the tour. She was still gluing CD covers together to peddle along the way and fretting about how some of the shows she booked aren't accessible to people in power wheelchairs. She was also concerned about the violent attacks she says both queer and disabled people and communities of color are facing nationwide.

The rapper, who will turn thirty on tour, is a powerhouse in Denver hip-hop and social-justice movements. She's as likely to be spitting out lyrics at a Denver Homeless Out Loud demonstration as she is to be headlining a club. And as her fan base grows, so do her ethical quandaries about how to book a tour and handle DIY spaces that are not accessible to all people.

Westword: How are things going for the tour?

Kalyn Heffernan: I'm in panic mode. It's Kalyn's style. Always waiting till the last fucking day to do everything. Always.

You're starting in Kansas City day after tomorrow [Friday, March 3]?


Awesome. Have you played there before?

Yeah. We played Kansas City once on the way home from a Flobots tour. But we have not played Daytrotter. There were a couple times where we had meant to do Daytrotter, and it didn't happen. We get to play their festival, which only happens once a year. But we're also going to do a recording session, which we've been wanting to for a long time. That's really why we're going a little early-ish — for the Daytrotter thing.

So you're going to head through Kansas City, head up to do Daytrotter, then zoom back here?

Zoom back here, play the home show, then we head out on the real stretch.

Just a little Midwest jaunt on your West Coast tour?

Exactly [laughs].

That's hilarious. And you're playing Tijuana, which is awesome.

We're playing Tijuana and Vancouver for the first time.

It's an international tour!

International tour!

So how long have you been planning it?

Oh, fuck. It's last-minute. I should have started about three months ago, but I didn't start it until about...maybe two months, or a little over a month. Less than three, for sure.

It's impressive that you were able to book the tour.

This is the biggest tour I've booked for us as headliners. We did play Tijuana on our last trip, but that was only like a week. This is the biggest trip and the most international trip I've booked for us. We've done loops around Canada and loops around Mexico, but never both at the same time.

That's so cool. That will be fun.

I'm excited...well, I'm not excited yet, but I will be when I get into the car.

This is your first tour since the new administration has come in, is that right?

Wheelchair Sports Camp at Daytrotter. - MATTHEW TERRY
Wheelchair Sports Camp at Daytrotter.
Matthew Terry
I'm curious what's on your mind as you head out, and if it's different from previous tours for you?

Whoo. I guess it's probably not a ton different, because the last tour we were going on, this was all looming anyway. Even before, I feel like a lot of the car conversations had to do with what kind of environment we're in and sustainability — how to sustain ourselves as musicians. How to sustain our community.

I guess there are a lot of differences, as far as immigration. We already are likely to be profiled, because we've got [Joshua] Trinidad with us, and Wesley Watkins is coming with us this time. So there's some racial profiling anyway, but there is also the wheelchair card that seems to [have gotten] us out of a lot of trouble in the past.

I haven't been thinking about a ton other than getting these shows locked down and announced. It was very intentional. When we went to Mexico this last time around, it was pretty evident that the administration was probably going to win — and even if they didn't win, they already won by spawning all this new extremism again and bringing a lot of shit to the surface.

When we were in Tijuana last time, it was really important for us to go and say our country — that [Donald Trump] doesn't represent so many of us, and we want you to know that if there is ever a wall being built, we're fucking climbing that or we're crawling under it. So much of what Denver is built on is so much Mexican culture. I speak for myself, but I could actually speak for the band, too. [Tijuana] was by far the best out-of-state, out-of-country show ever. And we've played some really cool shows out of the state and out of the country. They were so hyped about us. There were over 200 people. We played with a really rad band from Mexico City and a really rad band from Chile and a really rad band from Tijuana, and networked with them and made friends with them and made friends with a lot of the people in the crowd.

We didn't go on until hella late. I was kinda nervous everyone was going to leave, but everybody stayed, and they gave us crazy encores. They just wanted us to play the set over again. They were so pumped on it. And it was totally genuine. We never plan to play an encore. It's very rare we get a real, real encore, and we did. They just wanted to keep partying, and we did. We stayed in Tijuana until four in the morning.

Tijuana is also a place that I grew up around, cause I lived in L.A. as a kid. My mom would take me to Tijuana to go get cheap drugs and party. I was familiar with the vibe. It's also labeled a dangerous place. Shit, we had such a blast and broke down all of those stereotypes. I wasn't surprised about it. That's what's so important [about] touring for us.

Canada, on the other hand, has been so good to Wheelchair Sports Camp. We've played Canada; we played Toronto and Thunder Bay, and they've treated us so well, and they're so nice. I've spent a lot of time in Canada using their hospitals. Just two countries that are really important and really being talked about right now. And they're important to our development and our evolution, and have supported us a great deal. Eventually, we're going to figure out how to tour both countries better — like the whole country. I'd like to tour more of Mexico and more of Canada. But this was the way to do it.

If we're going to be "international," the easiest way we could do that is go to the places that are right here, and hit North America and eventually South America. We've been lucky enough to go across the sea, but it feels important to connect to the land that we're already on and that we already occupy and that we've colonized, and just try and build better relationships and break some of that down — as much as we can.

Every time I'm covering some social-justice action, you are there. You've had such a vocal presence in this city. Talk about the way you're seeing the political moment we're in right now — not just nationally, but also in terms of Denver. How do you see your role in that?

I think that's where touring is really important for us, too, is as representatives of Denver — and this album. We finally put out our first album, and this album is so much Denver. It's the most Denver thing we've ever done. It's a pop-up house that's foreclosed on.

Everybody wants to talk shit about Denver. Denver is the most popular city in the country. I think it's important to be like, "Hey, I'm sure you've heard about us and all we do that's good, and weed, but before that, there were people here."

We were already a really fucking cool city, and now everybody knows about it, and it's getting hard for us to live there. But it's an easy conversation, because touring makes us very aware that this is happening everywhere. Not just nationally, but internationally, even in Canada. Even in Toronto. That being said, Denver is probably one of the worst, and it feels the worst, because it affects us the most at heart, because this is where we grew up.

It's just a talking point, and I think it's just important for us as Denver locals, all of us who were born and raised here, it's important for us to have that conversation and not just be the spokesperson for the legalization of weed — but talk about what effect that has on our communities and on our cost of living. Personally, I'm super-impacted by it now, because I teach with Youth on Record. I'm every day with teenagers who are even more affected that me. They're at such a crucial time. I just watch so many of my students and their families have to figure shit out — and artists.

Going on tour is not financially stable, yet. It's getting there. But I don't know. It's something that we've been able to do more and more often and more and more sustainably. We're not just breaking even, but we're able to pay ourselves, and we're able to make these connections. We always end up crashing at new people's places. We're not the bougie type that's trying to get a hotel every time, unless someone wants to pay for that — of course we'll take it. But it's a big trip for us for networking and making friends and making connections and having conversations.

The conversation about the political climate or the climate in general, we're already there, and I'm sure it will be even more. As a disabled queer woman, this administration violently opposes you and affects all of those factors. I think it's also a pretty important time for me, personally, to be out vocalizing and doing what I do, and doing what I did before all of this shit, but now doing a little bit more.

What else is on your mind as you go out on tour? What's exciting? What else is scary?

’Cause I'm such a procrastinator, right now, it's like my checklist and everything I have to do to get in the car. Any kind of traveling, whether it's touring or traveling, I have a hard time thinking about shit until I get in the car. Everybody's like, "Oh, you must be so excited." Not until I get into the car. Once I'm in the car or on the plane or en route to wherever I'm going is when I'm able to exhale and absorb everything.

I guess, as the one planning it and that planned it all and booked it all, my one concern is getting the word out so that people come. Unfortunately, nobody that likes us on Facebook will even see our shit unless I pay for it now. So it's trying to get better and more creative about promoting — which shouldn't be our job, but it is. That's one of the biggest things that I'm thinking about: How can I make sure that everybody in that town knows about it as best as I can?

And merch; I have so much merch to get together. We did this pop-up CD, and this is the first legitimate CD we put out. I'm like, I used to make all the merch. I handmade every CD — like 3,000 copies — and gave them out for free. I'd fold them and tape them, and I have this really stupid method of making everything on my own. My girlfriend and I would sew patches on headbands before we had real headbands. We're finally in a position of financially stability, where the band can start to pay for merch and we're not having to do as much.

But here I have this crazy idea for this pop-up house, and now I'm back to gluing every fucking CD on my own. We leave in two days, and I don't have CDs glued. So I'll probably take this weekend in the car to glue a bunch of CDs. Those are the things I'm thinking about before leaving: Who's going to watch my place? My cats? I haven't figured that out. How do I get the word out? Who do I need to see in every city? That's another really cool thing about touring. You get to go to these cities and hopefully see a couple people that you love while you're there. It's a lot. It's a lot to think about. The administration is not one of them right now. But I'm sure once we get in the car....

We have this conversation about this TV show that we're pitching: Is there any chill left? Probably not. Even when we're chilling, even when we're just hanging out, this conversation about what's going on is unavoidable, if you're talking to anybody. If you're not having that conversation, you're probably not with the real person or a person that has any friends that are affected by anything. So, it's something that's just everywhere.
It's hard not to think about it.

It's impossible. And especially the more marginalized a community you are. It's not even a fucking choice at all. It's a violent attack on a lot of communities right now. Just this week, two trans women of color were shot and killed. It's not even March yet. It's nuts. And disabled people are getting killed by cops still, every other fucking day, and we're all about to lose our health care which didn't even cover us in the first place. Yeah. It's a fucking mess, for sure.

Another thing that I think about before going on tour — that I have to think about — is the accessibility of our shows. That's something that I'm getting more and more aware and guilty of — playing shows that aren't accessible. I'm able to get up and down stairs pretty easily, because I'm tiny, and I travel with a small chair, and I have dudes that are able to lift me. That's been my whole life is that privilege of just going wherever the fuck I want. And now, after this DIY witch hunt and all this DIY stuff — safe places that Wheelchair Sports Camp was born out of and that Wheelchair Sports Camp depends on to book these tours — I'm looking back and reminiscing on all of the years we've played these amazing places, and a lot of them are not accessible. It really kind of fucked me up this year.

Like Low End Theory. I've been dying to play Low End Theory since Wheelchair Sports Camp started. And we're finally playing Low End Theory, and I have a lot of fucking guilt about the fact that disabled people — if they're in a wheelchair — can't come. They don't have access to that.

That's the coolest: If you're into any kind of music that I'm into, Low End Theory is the spot. There's just this huge population that doesn't have access to these artistic spaces, and I've been lucky to have access to all of them. But it fucks me up now. It's like, I have access to them, but a lot of people don't. Then it's like, do I not play these places? Is it more of an impact if I boycott every unaccessible place? Or is it a bigger impact if I play up a shit-ton of stairs and talk shit on stage. "Like, hey, by the way, how do you think I got here?" I don't know. I feel like either way, I'm not really winning.

That's something I'm starting to think about more and more. And because I'm still such a last-minute procrastinator, I don't have the details on every single venue yet. But I'm working on that, and at least that's the places where I know there are disabled people coming — like in Berkeley or the Bay Area, I know there are disabled people coming — so I've got to call ahead of time and make sure the space is accessible, and if it's not, can I book an accessible show?

With this L.A. one, I tried really hard to book a daytime show or a show on our day off that was accessible, but it's L.A., and it wasn't as easy as I hoped. And there have been times in the past that we've just played on the sidewalk. So if a disabled person hits me up about playing Low End Theory in L.A., we'll be damned sure to play and perform somewhere and post up somewhere for them.

People just don't have access to so many of these safe spaces and so many of these inclusive places. Even in the movement, you see me at all these actions, you know, but everybody's fucking marching over medians and inaccessible spots and not thinking about me. Once I was on a march of twenty people, and they fucking marched right up a flight of stairs. It's like, "I know you see me." So that's something that I'm really starting to think about before going on tour. Just because I have access to these spaces doesn't mean that everybody does. And how do you navigate that?

This is the first time ever that I've felt real guilt. I've just been drooling to play [Low End Theory], but that entire night, that entire collective has excluded a big population that might want to fucking go. If I took a road trip to L.A. to go to Low End Theory to see Flying Lotus, which I'm crazy and impulsive and might do something like that, and I showed up in my power chair, I'd be pissed. I really would be.

Have you talked to the folks there about accessibility already?


It's one of those things where if you stir the water — I probably will with this interview — but I respect the hell out of that community, and I think by them including us on a showcase is already going to bring some awareness. And I hope to have that conversation when we're there. I've been to Low End Theory as an audience member before. That's the other thing, too, is that it puts me in this spot where I have to be the one to call out everybody else, and then I'm going to be looked at as a bigger bitch than I already am because I'm calling everybody out. Then I'm not going to have access to play at all these places. It puts me in a really weird situation.

Because me as an artist and me as a DIY artist and trying to get our name out there to more people — I think that overall, I still believe that by us playing upstairs is making a bigger impact than us not playing. They've now seen a rapper in a wheelchair upstairs at Low End Theory.

Yeah. I haven't talked about it with them. I really thought that I had a daytime show, so I was leaning on that to be like, hey, here's our accessible show. But nothing has come through. The other thing is that we're playing Long Beach, which is accessible, and it's not that much farther away. I did have a disabled kid hit me up to come into Low End Theory. I was like, hit me up when you get there. We'll make sure we get all the help we can. But that's a safety risk.

In that Oakland fire, guess who was the first to go? If I was carried down those stairs, I'm the first to go. It's like I've paid the rent on a DIY space. Unit E was where Wheelchair Sports Camp started. And that was up a gnarly flight of stairs, and I helped pay the rent. It's weird. It's weird. It puts me in a weird position, for sure, but it's cool. It's exciting. It sucks. Now I have guilt, a little bit, but I think by having the conversation, it's something I'm really excited to be able to do.

It's tough to figure out what the right approach is. It really is.

Yeah. It's like, do you play all all-ages shows? Of course, I want to. But I'm not afforded that option at all times. You know how hard it is booking a tour — especially late in the game. I'm like, I'm just happy to have a fucking date.

Wheelchair Sports Camp plays tonight, Tuesday, March 7, at Lost Lake Lounge, 3602 East Colfax Avenue. For more information go to the Lost Lake Lounge and Wheelchair Sports Camp websites.